How Business Can Save the Day

If  “big business” were a problem celeb, it would make Charlie Sheen seem positively angelic. What’s needed is a big red pen to edit, re-write and reframe a new brand story.  An overhaul and reinvention of the likes that requires a top-notch brand and PR crisis management team, maybe even calling in the legendary nerves-of-steel celeb handler Cindi Berger for the fix. And we need it fast because business, notably corporate America with all it has to offer in resources, has all the potential to solve society’s biggest problems.

That was the message (well sans Charlie and highly paraphrased!) from none other than legendary Harvard professor and competitive strategy expert Michael Porter last fall at the Babson Forum on Entrepreneurship. And I’ve been thinking a lot about it, because the sentiment hits close to home.

Porter talked about how decades earlier, while riding a bus to begin studies at Harvard Business School in the 60s, he responded to a fellow passenger’s “so where you headed?” question with more than vague avoidance. Why? Because business was worse than The Man. Business, big corporate greedy capitalism, was evil empire. Not something to be proud of as one’s life work, most certainly.

And I’ve felt this pang for my career choice on more than one occasion. Earlier in my life, I wondered, “really? I’m spending my life convincing people to buy stuff?”  What a contribution, I thought, eyes rolling in sarcasm. But a friend wisely reminded me that working in sports (and later music and education), which I love and value dearly as a part of my own life, was a way to encourage people to participate. To do. To get off their (our) duffs to live it.

So, as I’ve ventured away from product categories and brands that have deep connection to my life personally to work on a wider array of businesses, I’ve found myself with that old familiar feeling creeping in on occasion. Because saying “I’m in business” is not really a feel good story, never mind one in which I want a shared narrative.

We’re all familiar with the business story of the day: profit for profit’s sake.  In my state, gas fracking profiteering makes way for concerns over water. Farms are developed as “urban residential” without care for the future. And corporate America?  Our business big brother’s behavior frequently makes Lindsey Lohan look like a poster child for Our Sisters of Angelic Virtue. I certainly don’t trust ‘em and I know I’m not alone — apparently most of us don’t in record numbers.

But the story can change – there’s a great opportunity to make business the hero.

Business – corporate America – has big resources that could be put to great use. Imagine what could happen if the spirit of social entrepreneurship met big corporate resources. Porter used a great example, citing P&G’s efforts to solve impending problems with water shortage. Their motivation: finding viable water resources, a key component of their manufacturing process, when the unlimited supply of free water ends. So P&G’s  fix could solve their problem…and ours.  And in the process make all of us who call some form of “business” believe in its value again.

Business world (and the rest of us) take note: help is on the way. Learn more about how to reinvent your business, brand or cause (supercharging your biz without selling your soul) by joining me and my friends at Get Storied for their Reinvention Summit, the world’s largest virtual conference on storytelling.  It’s happening next week April 16-20– and there’s still time to sign up and gain tips from the convenience of your own computer or mobile device. Change your story. Change the world. Check it out & sign up here.

Marketing Lessons from the Post-Advertising Summit

Shaken, not stirred. I’m not talking about James Bond’s drink preference, but the state of the advertising world.  A “seismic shift in marketing” was how Simon Kelly, COO of agency Story Worldwide and host of last week’s Post-Advertising Summit in NYC explained the state of affairs. An eclectic group of advertising creatives and marketers gathered to discuss the impact for the future where traditional advertising tactics are dead or dying. The good news: like a creative menu at a martini bar, there’s many new-fangled ways to acceptably serve up marketing with impact. Here are five takeaways from the Summit to help you consider how.

1. We’re all media companies.

Advertising Age columnist Simon Dumenco told an engaging and important story that illustrated the speed of media and publishing today. He found himself in a NYC coffee house during last year’s earthquakes. While he felt the café rumble, he didn’t realize what was happening until he simultaneously discovered that the quake was already trending on Twitter. Seismic waves were traveling from the epicenter of the quake at a rate slower than social media reporting! CNN couldn’t even respond as fast. This is just one simple example of how we’re all reporters, editors and publishers in a new media world where you can have impact.  In the process we leave a “digital vapor trail” through the little pieces of information that we post on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook.  It is our record as media company of one – representing our brand and identity in a manner available for posterity in the Library of Congress. I’d add: it’s a great example of how we’re all storytellers.

2. We’re living in the era of the underdog. 

In such an age, where speed and access via social technology has made everyone a media maven, power is with the people.  It could be argued that creativity and reaction time are the coveted marketing skills and that the wieldier systems and processes held by larger, traditional organizations and agencies can pose limitations. Today, everyone has access and opportunity to market – regardless of budgets.  “Your audience is a channel, an audience of audiences,” according to marketer, author and social media power influencer Mark Schaefer.  So, in today’s world everyone has the potential to be a marketer — all you need is an ISP and something worth talking about. A story worth telling provides power to an individual marketer that can rival the big advertising guns. And maybe even be more nimble and flexible in the approach.

3. Content is the new creative.

Presenting content that is interesting and entertaining is the new marketing formula for connection.  The concept: attract attention and engagement around a piece of information or an idea that will give people something to talk about.  And share. Consider this: everyone can create content. But take heed because content is abundant.  We’re operating in an information overload that is dizzying — creating noise that makes it hard to stand out and be heard. To have a media presence, therefore, according to Andrea Miller, Founder and CEO of  YourTango, “requires investment. It’s not sufficient to simply push content anymore. You must show personality and actively cultivate content that engages. And that takes time.”  Time to learn new skills as editors and publishers, with an eye on the overall desired brand experience. In response, many brands (notably Coca-Cola) are transitioning their marketing departments from ones built to advertising and broadcast to a new design focused on developing interesting, entertaining content and stories.

4. Opportunity abounds for brand storytelling.

“We live in an age of hyperpassivity,” according to Bluefin Labs Tom Thai, whose organization tracks social TV, where the couch potato is still sitting there but tweeting away. We’re watching TV with smartphone in hand, in a world where more people avoid spoilers and, instead, engage in real-time conversation. The result is a multi-dimensional experience where more people are (surprise!) watching media in real time. This is just one example that illustrates the opportunity to expand and communicate a brand’s narrative.  There’s a growing trend to integrate media traditionally reserved for entertainment – incorporating visuals, video and gaming – and serve up appropriate ways to give people an active role in your story.  Creating shared narrative (what I believe is a fundamental goal of branding!).  It also means, thankfully, we don’t have to broadcast the same ole basic message all the time. Instead, we can select different parts of our brand story to share at different touch points – all designed to convey a larger, coherent message.

5. Co-creation is real engagement.

The goal of great marketing content is to create something so interesting to people that they want to share it.  As part of the Summit, attendees collaborated on creating content for the sensational reality-bending news media outlet Weekly World NewsIn about an hour, we created the strategy and concept for an app that enabled everyday people to be reporters – actual participants in recording and sharing the strange and paranormal they encounter.  Think your neighbor is an alien plotting an attack of earth? Here’s a way to report it. The app provides a way for people to participate in an activity that not only conveys the core trait of the brand but enables them to actively claim a role in it. Because to the Weekly World News reader “life is stranger than fiction.”

Indeed. And the changing marketing world does not fail to disappoint either. As a marketer, we can have a field day connecting with people by creating something for every desired action and experience. A marketing world in which your imagination (and not your wallet) is the only constraint.

How will you get started?



Tupperware Lessons: Can Women Have it All?

While social media’s been buzzing over the recent article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,”  I’ve been thinking the answer can be found at a Tupperware Party. Author Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former high-powered director in the state department, argues that the women who’ve managed to be moms and have successful top-level careers “are either superhuman, rich or self-employed.” Her position has women everywhere talking about it.

I had to wonder, what were the lessons of the women before us? What would they think about this discussion today? This immediately led me to think about Brownie.

You don’t know Brownie Wise, but you should.

Neither did I, until one night last winter I flipped on my TV and discovered the story of Tupperware. The omnipresent plastic kitchen accessory of my childhood is a fascinating brand that exploded in popularity thanks to the genius of Brownie Wise, who served as Vice President during the 1950s. She intuitively tapped into the desires of women of the day, giving them a means to earn income and recognition, neither of which was widely available to them. She gave them a bigger story to play out. And her marketing genius blazed a path for new concepts in sales and marketing that are still relevant today, notably the Tupperware “party” concept that we’ve all come to know and countless of other brands still emulate.

Brownie Wise was Tupperware. She lived and breathed the business, dedicating all her energy to building it up. Undeniably one of the greatest female executives and innovators of the 20th century, her impact was tremendous, gaining celebrity-like status and adoration among women across the country.

Yet, I’ll bet you’ve never heard of her.

By 1958 she was forced out of the multi-million-dollar company she helped build without financial gain: holding no stock and receiving only a year of pay.

Brownie spent much of the rest of her life unsuccessfully attempting to recreate her earlier success with Tupperware. These final years, by most accounts, were largely absent of family and friends. Her singular obsession and focus to succeed at Tupperware provided little to no time for a relationship with her son, who bore the cost of his mother’s pursuits and eventually was estranged.

Ultimately, Tupperware’s story – Brownie’s story – left me feeling uneasy and more than a little sad for her. While her business success was incredible, it was also fleeting. I can’t help but feel she, well, missed the truly important things in life. The Lasting Things. Because, of course, Tupperware didn’t care and love her back. What company really does?

I wonder what she’d say if she could be here to reflect on her experience.

Was the temporary fame and success — while still impactful today – worth the cost of forgone relationships with family and friends?

Or, is there a lesson –a warning — that success does require drive, focus and obsession that can cost you (and perhaps even those around you) dearly? Which, leads me right back to Slaughter’s commentary: the demands of any high-powered position run the risk of consuming your life. By the way, I know I’ll likely get pinged for it – but isn’t this a real risk for men, too? I know more than a few Dads who missed their kids’ childhood in hot pursuit of career.

What’s rather discouraging is that, despite many strides for women, this dialogue is still relevant. Corporate culture still supports a performance and achievement driven “win at all costs” environment that trumps any real, sustained effort to support healthy, balanced lifestyles for executives and their families. And the viral storm of the past few weeks provides the proof.

What Leaders Can Learn from Obama’s Biggest Mistake

In an interview last week, President Obama revealed the biggest mistake of his Presidency has been “putting policy over storytelling.”  He offers lessons we learn and apply as leaders of people, whether we work from the Oval or the corner office.  Obama’s misstep reveals 3 game-changing considerations

1. Don’t Think Your Job Is About Administration

The President thought his job was about “getting the policy right” when, instead, it was only part of his task.  The other part of the equation, and perhaps a more important one, was to ”sell” people regarding the need for the policy. Failing to connect with your people is a common mistake.  “Selling” requires inspiring people with a compelling story of how the new policy will better their lives.  People don’t want to know the statistical impact of a new immigration policy; they want to know how it connects to the American dream and their own lives.

2. Keep Your Eye on the Story

During his campaign, Obama gave a hope-filled story of change that resonated and rallied people.  But once elected he failed to continue the story and focused his efforts only on implementation. How often have you – or the leaders around you — been focused only on tactical execution? Presenting only facts, figures and performance metrics. Forgetting to link the metrics to a story – your strategy and vision. Assuming people can connect the dots between your work and its impact on original promises. You can be so busy pleading your case that you forget, without a story, information and data has little meaning.  It lacks an emotional connection.

3. Include a Roadmap

Have you ever found yourself working on something and wondering, “Why am I doing this? What’s the point?” I have. In fact, I’m guilty of directing an initiative or two and forgetting my cardinal rule:  if you want me to travel down the road with you, you need to tell me where we’re headed.  The other day a friend was relaying a recipe she knew I’d love. But, after a few moments of step-by-step instructions (“cut the apple and then combine it with…”) I had to interrupt to ask, “can you first tell me what we’re making?”  I needed to know how the steps connected to the larger picture, so they made sense. Think about it: it’s the picture of digging your fork into a just-out-of-the-oven warm apple pie that makes you want to go through all the work in the first place. The apple pie concept applies when you want to effectively influence anyone.

The thing that separated the great leaders I’ve worked for from just the good, was their ability to provide a narrative that told me where we were going as an organization. The story they provided instilled in me a basic desire to play out my part and travel the journey.  If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t get there.

4. Give People an Active Role in the Narrative

Your stakeholders are the ones who make things happen. You need to do more than just rattle off a story:   it needs to be a compelling one about where you’re leading them and why. Then, as Obama put it inspire them to take a role in creating a storybook ending. When you give people a role in the change that’s impacting them, it creates purpose and meaning for them. I want to be inspired and know that what I do every day matters. Don’t you? Your internal teams represent more than passive passengers taking up seats on the bus to your destination. They want to know what’s in it for them, too.

Obama was the master of storytelling during his election campaign – giving Americans a position as co-drivers of his dreams for change. It will be fascinating to see how he attempts to make the final years in his Administration a storybook comeback.


The Secret for Selling Your Products at Higher Prices

Have you ever purchased something for a price that you knew was higher than you should have? Have you ever rationalized it as, not only OK, but also a really great buy? You’re not alone.This common experience offers important lessons to help you get premium prices for your own products.

I attended the auction of a 150-year-old general store in the mountains of North Central Pennsylvania. About 300 people crowded under a tent, on a blazing hot day, to get a chance to buy a part of history.And buy they did. Every piece of the store – where my family shopped for four generations – was dismantled and sold off at prices that made my head spin.

An old box – an empty, beat up shoebox not unlike one you’d find in your grandparent’s closet and just toss out – sold for $150 just for the non-descript “ad” on the lid. The store’s coffee tin created a bidder’s frenzy raising the price to $1800.

As I shook my head in disbelief, I saw it…item #432… a little black cast iron squirrel nutcracker. And I seriously just had to have it.

Immediately, “my two selves” sprang into action and began to duke it out over the price I was willing pay. You might recognize these characters: the practical, rational self (aka voice of reason) who was taking to task the irrational feel-good, and just-live-a-little self (aka the one who will get me into trouble). Their dialogue, played out in my head, went something like this:

What a cute little item to put on my coffee table… it will be a great conversation piece.

What? That’s totally ridiculous. When’s the last time you had to crack a nut, anyway?

But I’ll never get another one like it.  And it’s from the general store so it’s like owning a little piece of the place. I can tell guests the story when they crack open that nut as they gather around before Thanksgiving dinner, just like it was when I was a kid….

That thing isn’t even old. It’s a stupid mass-produced POS squirrel that you can get on eBay for $10. Thanksgiving dinner? You’re never home for Thanksgiving and you haven’t cooked a turkey in your life, never mind offered up a bowl of nuts….

Lesson 1: When it comes to the purchase process, we’re all from Venus

Buyers experience, at times, an internal debate over purchases because they’re led to act on emotion and then rationalize their behaviors. As sellers, you can tap into this by offering up a ready-made emotional value-add into your deals. Consider the work of Hallmark, brilliantly playing our heart strings to celebrate a “Hallmark day” or emotional “Hallmark moment.”  And they’ve cooked up lots of them (Grandparents day?).

Lesson 2: Story sells a product by feeding your emotional soul.

A great story can create an emotional connection and meaning for even the most mundane (and seemingly useless) product.  Need I say more than “squirrel nutcracker?” The nostalgic story offered up at the auction connected the product to the chance to own a little piece of the store, a piece of my own family legacy, and even the chance to bring both into the narrative of my own “new” holiday traditions.

I rationalized that bidding up to $65 for that silly little nutcracker (though worth significantly less) was not only acceptable, but a good thing!

Lesson 3:  Setting the Stage Matters

There was a lot happening to impact my auction bidding experience:

  • the crazy auctioneer’s voice and bizarre sounds that I could only half understand but that creates a buying frenzy;
  • the unrelenting heat;
  • the fact that there was a definitive time limit to act now or forever hold my peace.

And therein lies another real secret to getting a premium price for your products – the environment. Hosting the auction on the back doorstep of the store created a sense of nostalgia that couldn’t have been duplicated if you’d been in a typical auction house or convention center.  Watching items be removed from the store and walked off with new owners made it real: this store was disappearing right in front of your eyes. Get it now or never.

The right setting can transport you into the story… and right into an emotional purchase.

Retail merchandisers know this.  Car dealers know this. They create a scene to stir your emotions and call into action a story you just can’t resist.  And at premium price points that, acting alone, your rational selves would never permit.

By the way, my $65 bid limit was too low. I didn’t get the squirrel.

Learn more about how your story can advance your business, cause and career in my new book, Storyworks


How marketing materials can fail (and what to do about it)

Have you ever looked at your marketing materials and thought, “that’s not really me?”

Been there. In fact, my (thankfully last) resume comes to mind.

In recent months I’ve attended the funerals of three dear friends. As I read the obituary of the most recent – a life long family friend – I found myself contemplating how inadequate it is to try to sum up a life in just a few concise paragraphs.

And, oddly, my mind wandered a bit, thinking how most marketing materials similarly fail to tell us what’s really unique about a brand.

In fact, just the opposite happens. We end up producing yet another marketing material to live in a sea of sameness.

Because they fail to tell the story.  

Here’s 3 considerations for why we often fail to tell our best story:

  1. Trying to say it all.  There’s a natural inclination to want to say everything about our brands (accomplishments and products). As a result, real essence and meaning can get lost. Consider the parts of your story based on your intent. What’s the purpose of telling it? What do you want people to understand as a result?
  2. Focusing on achievements and credentials. Forget the “who done what” plot line and tell me what you stand for … The who you are and how you came to be that waystory that defines how you do business.  By the way, that’s why the eulogy is more telling and emotional – it gives us a glimpse into personal character and relationship. Facts comes to life. How can you make your brochure do the same?
  3. Fear of bragging. Ever read an obituary and think, “I didn’t know that?” It’s a little sad that sometimes we don’t know people that well and it’s only through their final brochure (so to speak) that we learn things about our dearly departed. What value do you deliver that’s still a best-kept-secret?

If you had the chance to write one last final brochure for your brand, what would you really say?

Dare to Play Your Own Game: 3 Lessons for Winning Brand Strategy

What would you do if you just retired as one of the most winning and accomplished athletes of all time?

I don’t know about you, but I think I might be inclined to sit back next to my pool, kick my feet up and raise a glass or two of iced tea.

If golf legend Annika Sorenstam did self-indulge, it must have been for a nanosecond. Because she’s been one busy woman – showing us how to be a winner off the course too.

In recent years,she’s artfully transitioned from full time life on the LPGA tour to successful entrepreneur by thoughtfully building the ANNIKA brand– including a wine label, apparel collection, golf academy, course design, foundation and even boutique financial group.

And, by the way, she seems to be really living it. As in, not just living but loving life.

How’d she do it?

She and her husband Mike McGee, managing director of the ANNIKA Brand, turned to Duane Knapp, branding consultant and author, to create a distinct brand promise as the thread that weaves all her various interests, charitable works and ventures together.

Here’s 3 lessons you can take from Annika to set yourself apart and nurture your own brand:

1. Build your brand on what you really love.

At every turn, the ANNIKA brand represents the personal passion of Annika herself. Cooking, skiing, family, friends, causes, and, of course, golf — the brand promise works because it’s played out by the narrative that Annika presents in her life. She’s living passionately and building businesses around those passions. It’s the very definition of authenticity. And it really shines through in everything she’s doing.

2. Play it forward.

The ANNIKA brand is a great example of how a brand story can support potential and growth. Let me explain: When I worked with the LPGA, I witnessed a champion who’s dedication to giving it her all was unparalled.  She worked harder, smarter… raising her game by uncovering every angle of how she could improve.  I have no idea if it was about breaking records and barriers, but one thing was apparent: she was not going to be satisfied with simply phoning it in. And, she seemed to really love the challenge and the game. This woman was living it: giving the experience her very best shot.  That passionate spirit really lives on in the ANNIKA brand, as her personal participation and involvement in the various extensions — winery, foundation, course design — are logical because they reflect ventures in which she’s really engaged.  Annika’s not just slapping her logo on a product and phoning it in… she’s involved.  A story that’s supported by point #3 — we see her cooking, skiing and playing out her life story with us.

3. Open Up & Share

Annika is remarkably candid and open in sharing her story, so the authenticity of her passion not only shines through… but we get to be a part of it, too. Whether it’s a winning recipe from her own kitchen, daughter Ava’s first trip to a golf course or her ideas on how to inspire healthier children, she shares it in her personal newsletter “At the Turn.”   She personally tweets and writes blog posts about her life in a way that enables us to see, despite her tremendous achievement, a little bit of ourselves in her.

She’s bravely revealed her vulnerability, too.  In 2011, Annika poignantly shared the story of her son Will’s premature birth with all of us — sharing his progress and revealing her own emotional highs and lows for us all — giving all of us the opportunity to experience life, together, withher.

I can’t wait to see how Annika’s story — and her brand — unfolds in the years to come.

It begs the question: how can you invite people into your story, too?

The Power of Co-Created Brand Stories (The Waka Waka Story)

If anyone ever told me I’d have an emotional connection to a solar-powered phone charger and light, I’d have ordered them a straight jacket right away. But the WakaWaka brand has achieved just that – and, in the process provided me with an active role in an empowering story (pun intended) to bring light to those who need it.

I’m a sponsor of the WakaWaka #LightItUp campaign on Kickstarter where supporters get the innovative WakaWaka solar-powered light and cell phone charger and, get this: two WakaWaka lights are also sent to Haiti. That’s 10,000 little bundles of uber-efficient and sustainable light for the hurricane-devastated community through the one campaign. 

It’s a great example of how a brand can establish shared narrative with people and provide them with an active role for co-creation as a means of real engagement, creating meaning for the brand and power to its mission.

Because you don’t just buy a product, you buy a story (especially when you’re in it!).

As a supporter, I get periodic updates of the little lamps en route to homeless families in Haiti who need them the most – a process managed personally by the WakaWaka staff on the ground.

And it doesn’t stop with Haiti. WakaWaka’s mission supports a goal to bring light to 1.5 billion people who live off the grid.  

It’s not too late to claim your role in the story — while the Kickstarter campaign is over, you can join WakaWaka to help people that live without electricity by being an Agent of Light. Check it out:

Branding is a Verb.

I often avoid the word “brand” altogether. Why? Because for many people – particularly the analytical and data-driven minds who control budgets – brand-building represents high-budget initiatives designed to drive “identity” and “awareness” and with little perceived impact on driving sales and the bottom line.

Unfortunately, this one-dimensional perspective on “brand” and “branding” is pervasive.  And, I think we can blame the origin of the term: when cattle were branded, it signified “ownership” – a symbol of identity. And for many people, that’s about where it all started… and stopped.Brand was a noun. A logo. A typeface and font dictated by a brand manual. A tangible representation of identity that signified where something originated and symbolically provided a shortcut for what we could expect. Think: Coca-Cola, IBM, McDonald’s. These large, dominant corporations became synonymous for the term “brand” itself because branding was a strategic pursuit that could only be afforded by those with big-time advertising and media budgets . And, boy, did they spend. But it’s oh-so-much-more.

Limiting brand to your identity is kind of like saying you are only what you wear. Because we’re all brands. Fledgling start-up, contract employee, consultant, established organization or the person looking for a job:we’re all brands that represent a promise of the value we’ll deliverWait. That’s a verb that snuck in there. Brand is a verb:  integrating “what you stand for” with “what you do.” It’s the action-packed, intentional execution of strategy, the doing: backing up what you promise and delivering on what the people who engage with you expect (and hopefully then some).  And that’s why your brand stories are so important:  they are the container of meaning for your customers, employees and all stakeholders.

Think about it for a second: both Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks serve coffee. But you know they couldn’t be more different. It’s not just the products, but the delivery of their unique brand promises — the experience –  that separate them. Their employees and customer’s stories – reflecting their personal perspective and experiences – are the real indicators of what the brand really represents.To set and firmly establish a lasting connection between your desired position and the expectation of customers, to really standing for something in the minds of people, requires consistent delivery in everything you do. The intentional, conscious act of branding – cultivating the brand stories that support the kind of position you desire -will provide you with:– A blueprint for how you operate – A reputation management system – A means to define, manage, and deliver value & meaning – The direction to create experiences that reinforce your core values – A culture and environment in which your potential can thrive Isn’t that something we all want?  How can you be more intentional in designing strategies and tactics that will reinforce where you want to go?