Category: Branding

Why It's Time To Compete on What You're Thinking

[Our guest blogger is Ian Sanders. He runs an ideas consultancy where he creates and delivers ideas to solve challenges, facilitate growth, and help businesses stand out from the crowd. His new book Zoom! The Faster Way To Make Your Business Idea Happen is due out in November 2011.]

It's the holy grail for every business, whether you're a freelancer, a start-up, or an established brand. How the heck do you stand out in a crowded market? Awesome product functionality or a niche specialty may only get you so far as a differentiator. So instead of marketing your product benefits, try communicating what you're thinking: your personality, your ideas, your attitude. Communicating your thinking—thought leadership marketing—can be really effective in resonating and engaging with your target audience.

Of course this is nothing new. We've always made brand choices based on what businesses think. That's why we fly Virgin, drink Starbucks, ride a Harley. We get what a brand stands for and we either line up behind it, or we run a mile.

Here's the opportunity. There's a long tail of small businesses right down to the one-person work-at-home enterprises that spring up by the hundreds every waking hour. This is where the marketplace is at its most abundant: similarly qualified, similarly positioned, similarly priced, smart boutique businesses. Creative agencies, digital companies, copywriters, web developers. Who do you pick if there's only a cigarette paper between their offerings? You pick the woman who demonstrates her expertise via her weekly blog; the business that provides a monthly video update of industry news; even the business owner who posts a daily picture of her products on Instagram. In sharing their expertise they're also giving an insight into their personality. So let's redefine the genre here: "thought leadership marketing" doesn't just have to be about publishing academic papers or writing posts for the Harvard Business Review. It's whatever content works for you, your business, and your audience. A blog post, a tweet, a newsletter, a video sharing your business tips, even a blackboard out on the street communicating your "Thought For The Day."

Back in 2008, Tom told the audience at the Inc. 5000 conference "If you're not blogging, you're an idiot". He was right. And he'd probably say the same today about Twitter. Because together with LinkedIn, Google+, (and whatever next month's hot new platform is) we have a bunch of tools available that provide a free platform for thought leadership.

The good news is that communicating your thinking does not discriminate on size: instead of s/he with the biggest budget wins, it's who can demonstrate the original ideas or the fresh thinking. So if you're a freelancer or small business, why aren't you blogging? Why don't you put your thoughts out there, why aren't you shining a spotlight on your DNA? Don't assume it doesn't matter—customers want to deal with experts and they need to see evidence of that. There's no point making claims about how innovative your business is if you can't back it up, if you can't prove you're living and breathing it.

King Of Shaves is a shaving brand that's become a success in the UK and is now entering the US market. Founder Will King may not have Gillette's ad spend but he plays out a David vs Goliath tale, competing with the big guys via Twitter and social media. Will is doing more than selling razors and shaving foam; he's engaging with his audience 1-to-1 through storytelling and giving advice to the entrepreneurial community. That's how he—and his business—stand out.

Don't miss out on the thought leadership marketing opportunity. Remember, you don't have to be the biggest or the best to stand out; you just need to have something interesting to say.

We've Been Watching You

[Our guest blogger is Cool Friend Steve Yastrow. Find out more about Steve at]

A cover story in last Monday's New York Times describes the online advertising practice of "retargeting," also known by its euphemistic synonym, "remarketing." Retargeting is the cookie-enabled practice of showing people banner ads based on their past browsing behavior.

In one sense, retargeting is the panacea we all hoped for in the early days of the Internet boom. I remember giving speeches in the early '90s, describing how the "information superhighway" would make advertising less irritating to consumers because they would only see ads for products they want. I imagined my entire neighborhood all glued to the same TV show, but with different ads showing up on our screens during one commercial break. At the same moment a pizza delivery coupon from my favorite Italian restaurant was printing out of my TV set, a coupon for Children's Tylenol was printing out of my neighbor's because he had purchased a Robitussin formula for kids that morning at Walgreen's.

You can make a very good argument that retargeting is good for consumers because it reduces the unwanted advertising clutter thrown at them, and my interest in this topic has less to do with Internet privacy or any sort of need for government regulation of the tracking of online consumer behavior. I'm more interested in understanding where personalization crosses the line from customer convenience to customer turn-off.

Imagine if you got on an elevator and saw a slick salesman waiting for you. With a big smile and an outstretched hand, he greets you by name, comments on the hotel you stayed in last weekend, and starts talking about the relative merits of the three cameras you were considering during a shopping trip the previous day. He produces a chart showing a comparison of the three cameras, with the particular features you are interested in shaded to highlight them.

Would you be more likely to buy from this guy, because he understands your so well and knows what you've been doing, or would you be press the button of the nearest floor so you can escape quickly?

For all of the possibilities retargeting offers to benefit both customers and marketers, companies risk becoming "that sales guy" if they are not careful. I'd worry less about the ethics and more about the effectiveness.

Here's a simple rule of thumb: What would you think if a friend did it? We appreciate if our friends buy us personalized birthday presents or recommend particular books because they know us well. But even a friend can become a stalker if he starts to follow you too closely.

Little BIG Video #38
Strategy: The Story is More Powerful than the Brand

In video number 38 from The Little BIG Things Video Series, Tom describes just how powerful storytelling can be and argues that's why it's essential to turn your brand into a story.

You can find the video in the right column of the front page of or you can watch the video on YouTube. [Time: 1 minutes, 55 seconds] You can also download a PDF transcript of the video's content: Strategy: The Story is More Powerful than the Brand.

The Letter Laws


Howard-Hilton-Herb. Howard Schultz, Starbucks founder, visits 25 stores a week. Master hotelier Conrad Hilton says his only advice is "Don't forget to tuck the shower curtain into the bathtub." Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher says his only advice is "You have to treat your employees as your primary customers."

My translation, more or less "all you need to know to succeed":

Stay in touch. [Howard]
Sweat the details. [Hilton]
Put your people first. [Herb.]


K = R = P
Kindness = Repeat business = Profit


Say "Thank you."

If you can become a full-fledged "professional" listener and master the arts of appreciation and apology [accountability], you will be 75 yards down the 100-yard path to success.



"What do you think?" = Arguably the four most important words in business/leadership success.



The successful person's "top 2" key traits.



Vigorous action-relentless experimentation = [Only] effective foundation of progress, personal or organizational.



(This is RFA's necessary handmaiden.)


Return On Investment in Relationships.
Medium- to long-term: Relationships = Everything.
Hence: Purposeful investment in relationships is the most important "ROI."


Internal customers are more important than external customers when it comes to execution.

And, of course, always to be repeated in this space as my "signoff":

If not EXCELLENCE, what?
If not EXCELLENCE now, when?

Steal This!

I assume virtually all of you are familiar with Zappos—and its unusual and potent people practices. Nonetheless, I'm offering a reminder here from a great article I happened across in The Korn/Ferry Institiute mag, Q2.2010.

Zappos 10 Corporate Values

  1. Deliver "WOW!" through service.
  2. Embrace and drive change.
  3. Create fun and a little weirdness.
  4. Be adventurous, creative and open-minded.
  5. Pursue growth and learning.
  6. Build open and honest relationships with communication.
  7. Build a positive team and family spirit.
  8. Do more with less.
  9. Be passionate and determined.
  10. Be humble.

I suggest stealing intact!



I call it "Return On Investment in Relationships." It outstrips standard "ROI" by a mile in the long term—and, for that matter, the short term.

Here's a take on R.O.I.R. from Harry Markopolos, author of No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller:

"The financial industry is a business of contacts and relationships. No one ever buys a product and says, 'That product is the sexiest thing I've ever seen. I don't care who's selling it.' Generally people do business with people they trust and like, or people who are recommended by someone they trust."

This is not news.
But it always bears repeating.

So: Over the weekend, consider in detail your R.O.I.R. strategy for next week, the next month, maybe the rest of the year. This is an idea that deserves careful and continuous thought, not a catch-as-catch-can attitude. You'd work for months or years on a plan for a new bridge. Well, R.O.I.R. is your "bridge to success."

NB: Markopolos is the quintessential "quant"; i.e., this is a geek pushing relationship power, not a used car salesman.

(Above: Ice-tea season. Fresh mint.)

The KRP Factor


This, KRP, began as a 140-character Tweet:

K = R = P
(Kindness = Repeat business = Profit)


Listens well/obsessively.
On time all the time.
Apologizes with dispatch for screw-ups.
"Over"-reacts to screw-ups of any magnitude.
"Professional" in all dealings.
Understands that kindness to staff begets kindness to others.
Applies throughout the "supply chain."
Applies to 100% of customer's staff.
Explicit part of values statement.
Basis for evaluation for 100% of our staff.
Starts with the boss/bosses.


(Above, after a long Vermont winter, there's nothing boring about a Dandelion.)

Your Brand Can Only Be As Good As …

[Our guest blogger is Cool Friend Steve Yastrow. Find out more about Steve at]

No matter how good your product is, no matter how good your marketing and sales are, no matter how cool your ad agency is ...

Your external brand can never be stronger than your internal brand.

In other words, what your customers think of you can never be better than what your employees think of you. At least not for very long.

It's impossible to fake out your customers. Our world has become very transparent, and your customers can see, clearly, right into the soul of your company. If you want your customers to have clear, compelling, motivating beliefs about who you are and what you do for customers, you must ensure that your company's employees have those beliefs. Otherwise, your marketing and sales promises will not resonate with the reality of being your customer.

I often ask executives if they can name one person in their company who does have some effect on the customer experience, even if that effect is indirect. No one has ever been able to name one person. (Although someone did once mention the character in the movie Office Space who covets his stapler and is relegated to an office in the basement. 'Nuff said.) Yet few companies invest adequately in building the brand inside their company. They figure it's covered by the training budget or, more frequently, they just don't do anything about it.

There is a clear connection between what your employees believe about you and how much money you make. Are you investing enough in your internal brand?

50 Million First Dates

[Our guest blogger is Cool Friend Steve Yastrow. Find out more about Steve at]

You have shopped at a local clothing store for twenty years, visiting the store about five times each year. Today, you walk in the store again—it's your 101st visit. A sales clerk approaches you and asks, "May I help you?"

In the 2004 movie, 50 First Dates, Henry (Adam Sandler) and Lucy (Drew Barrymore) meet, have a great first date, and plan to see each other again. But the next day Lucy acts like she doesn't know Henry. Lucy has a short-term memory loss problem, so each day is a new "first date," in which Henry has to attempt to rekindle the relationship.

Most people think of 50 First Dates as a romantic comedy. Not me. I think it is a business movie.

Isn't this what it is like to do business with most companies?


Whole Foods in Unhealthy Situation

We have been thinking a lot recently about the "permanent set" of changes that will remain when the world's major economies come out of recession. If you trust the statistics, Germany, France and Japan already have. One thing that is with us for the duration is the influence of social networking sites on business.

A case in point: the firestorm that has followed Whole Foods Market founder and CEO John Mackey's recent Wall Street Journal piece on heathcare reform. Whatever you think of the merits of President Obama's proposals, or the UK's National Health Service (please, no more folks!), you can't argue with the fact that over 16,000 people (and growing) have signed up to and are actively rubbishing the Whole Foods business on Facebook as a result. Using social networking sites to respond to the actions of businesses and their leaders is a phenomenon that is here to stay.

Goodness knows what it would have done to the career of the fledgling Sir Richard Branson when he was building his Virgin Group. Some of his public outpourings and political affiliations early on might have proved fatal to Virgin if Facebook, Twitter, and the like had been around at that time. I do think it is good to get insights into the personality of the people who are running our iconic businesses. Sadly, I suspect that Mr. Mackey and his ilk will be a bit more careful with their personal opinions in future.