Recently I was in the office of a Marketing Manager I’m doing some consulting for (we’ll call her company Brand X because that makes life easy. Ok it makes my life easy. Moving on…). I was giving her a hard time because her company talks a lot about its interest in the environment, yet still uses Styrofoam cups at its outlets (obviously it is a food & beverage retail shop). How did they expect me, the consumer, to take them seriously on the environment when this was the case?

We got into a debate and then a bunch of stats were put in front of me, research that had been done showing their utilisation of Styrofoam cups actually impacted the environment less than if they used recycled paper. “What a fascinating statistic,” I said. “Why don’t you share that?”

Apparently they do, or at least have done in the past. The problem with Brand X is their management has a fairly 20th century view of marketing; we can’t sell our product online as it is part food preparation, so what is the point in marketing online? Actual quote. I needed a forklift to pick my jaw off the ground the first time I heard that, such an incredibly narrow-minded approach, you almost want them to go out of business.

Back to the Styrofoam cup though. They were attempting to convey their message in ways that just didn’t make it out there in a Marketing 2.0 world. A wholly flash-driven site, content buried within, hidden from search engines and RSS and all the things that have come along to make it easier to communicate with your audience. I suggested a few things which I won’t go into now for various reasons, but the kicker came when an example of an alternate cup was produced.

Out of a box the Marketing Manager pulled a recycled-paper cup. It had dimples all over, making it easier to hold I suppose, but she sighed and simply said “The branding isn’t as strong on this one.”

Allow me to step out of my story here people, and relay the following: If you are relying on your logo being on the side of a cup to promote your branding, you have issues. Seriously pack up and turn the lights off, theres nothing for you to see here. If a change of cup starts with “the branding isn’t as strong” and not the story behind it then you are proper fucked. Full stop.

Brand X failed (and fails) to understand three things:

  1. The story around legitimate environmental concern
  2. The way that ties into their brand
  3. The way it manifests itself at the store-front

Environmental Concern

I talked recently about CERES, an organic farm that goes out of its way to practice what it preaches. Everything about the place rang true, you didn’t think for a second that they were stretching the truth in any aspect of their operation. Made to Stick talks a lot about this; concrete ideas, simple and easy to understand, even easier to execute. The best and most successful companies have this at their core focus, and they’re able to execute on it because the CEO doesn’t need to be present to convey a 12-step program to each employee every second of the day, they can’t possibly be. What they can do is boil the vision for the company down into a single, concrete goal.

For Google, it is all about being the best in search, even BEING search (ie. do you “search” for something or do you “Google” it?. For Southwest Airlines, it’s about being THE low-cost carrier. Once an employee understands that, each decision gets a whole lot easier. I do a lot of work with Hippo Jobs right now, and we’re all about being THE job site for youth. Once a person understands that core goal, it informs every decision and makes life a whole lot easier; I couldn’t possibly tell you what was informing Brand X’s decisions; I know innovation is supposed to be a core value but that is far too vague to be in any way meaningful.

If environmental concern is genuinely a core goal, then you make your mandate the following: we will be THE most sustainable and environmentally-friendly company in our space. If that vision is communicated, then it informs every decision made and is easy to execute culturally (if not always financially).

How does this tie into the brand?

There is a serious lack of authenticity in Brand X’s voice, and this stems largely from the absence of focus in its management. It is clear from an operations point of view it is driven by financial results, not notions of altruism it makes claim to. Understand, they are working towards a number of things, I’m haranguing them on the environment because it is an easy point to make. If Styrofoam is actually a better choice for the planet then that story needs to be told, nobody is going to trust you just because you can buy space on TV or in a shopping mall.

When writing about The Black Swan, I showed the importance of telling a story vs. presenting the facts; rolling over and producing a paper cup sends the message “We’re more interested in playing to popular opinion than really doing the right thing” to me (though to the market it may suggest a genuine interest in the environment as the stereotype is Styrofoam is bad). Regardless, as soon as the tide turns again, Brand X’s convictions shatter. Which means people don’t ultimately buy in to your brand (even if they can’t quite put their finger on why). Which means people move as soon as the next guy presents something they can believe in. Hugh Macleod nailed this in his Hughtrain Manifesto when he said “the market for something to believe in is infinite”. If your product or brand doesn’t start tapping in to something fundamental about the human experience, don’t expect to stick around, and don’t be surprised when people toss you over for the next craze.

You need to be authentic.

You need to stand for what you stand for. Every. Second. Of. The. Day.

Even then you may not make it, but people will remember you for having the balls to take a stand; if you don’t get remembered for that, then you get remembered for being divisive and not, in the end, worth anything.

The Way This Manifests Itself at the Store Front

When a business’ goals are articulated clearly to everyone that works for it, things happen on their own. At CERES they decided to stop selling bottled water because of the myriad of environmental issues the plastic caused. They laminated pieces of paper (initially bad for the environment) so they didn’t have to go through endless pieces of paper (long term sustainability). These are the things at the surface level, the “branding on the cup” so to speak; they’re obvious to all who visit the place and are clearly the manifestation of core goals the organisation has.

As much as the management of Brand X would like to think it, the 16 year old employed last week has a hard time buying in to the corporate culture unless they see it ring true and inform the choices of those around them. Enthusiasm and passion are infectious, they inspire those around them to greater heights, to better truths and bigger ideas. Energy saving lightbulbs, green energy providers, flyers about sustainable initiatives and products in store, articles in the Brand X club magazine and franchisee initiatives are not only easy steps forward to take, but they write the story themselves and I bet there are a hundred more that only come to light once you know the business inside out.

People used to spend all their time trying to come up with single word associations to define their brand, but that isn’t good enough anymore. We need big ideas, we need mission statements, we need concrete goals set that every single person in an organisation works towards. When you get it right, you’re Google (or at least the Google of your space).

When you get it wrong you’re…hmmmm…

Come to think of it, I don’t remember. Do you?