Cool branding at Greenbuild 2010

Greenbuild 2010I kept an eye out for branding innovation at Greenbuild 2010 as I maneuvered my way along (what felt like) miles of floor featuring over 1,000 exhibitors and 25,000 attendees.

Branding highlights:  

  • Social responsibility alignment – besides the typical association with energy saving and planet-survival, some Greenbuild companies extended their brands beyond the oh-so-obvious. Accoya, for example, had a “Sign our wall” fundraising effort with every signature translating into $10 for Haiti rebuilding. Other companies displayed Susan G. Komen for the Cure pink ribbons. Shaw asked people to respond to Twitter queries so it could donate $1 to the Make It Right Foundation, helping rebuild the Hurricane Katrina-devastated Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. Good for them, good for the world.
  • Transparency – Interface Floor won my prize for branding transparency. A massive graphic displayed above their booth featured a black and white illustration of a brain beside a barrel of oil. Their messaging platform: “Be smarter than oil.” Gradually leaving its oil industry connections behind, the company’s mantra is zero environmental impact by 2020. Clear messaging permeated the booth on laminated cards: “16 years and counting to becoming a sustainable company…” Other companies shy away, evade or obfuscate; this brand appears to be living its stated mission. 
  • Personal reinvention – David Gottfried wore shoes as he autographed free copies of his book “Greening my life.” The founder of USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) and LEED standard creator personalized his brand, sharing insight into his personal transformation from hard-charging empty life exec to green-inducing happiness. Kudos for having the guts to share lessons learned with others.
  • Promotions – not surprisingly, the top tease prize at Greenbuild 2010 was the iPad. Several companies featured iPad promotions including Dupont and NCI Group. My favorite giveaway? The cool hybrid Sanyo Eneloop bike
  • Living its mission – While 80% of Greenbuild 2010 exhibitors are indistinguishable (packing too many products, imagery and pleas into every corner of space), Dyson stood out with its "less is more" approach. Only two products were featured: hand dryers and bladeless fans. The booth was white, spacious and all messaging was tightly displayed on five panels. Copy was simple and memorable, contrasting the way it used to be with the way it is now (thanks to Dyson).   
  • Let’s have fun – Next time a company or client says “our stuff is in the weeds; we can’t do much creatively” remember Bluebeam. This company essentially has a better Adobe: a PDF based real time project collaboration file management tool. Yawn. But Bluebeam made the mundane come alive with its “Mighty Bluebeam” cartoon character, case studies galore, comic books, exhibit booth worker matching t-shirts and fun messaging like “It’s PDFin’ time!”
  • Interactive messaging – Most companies struggle with messaging. Not only trying to explain what they do, but also finding clever ways for people to “get it” and relate. Kudos to SYNLawn and SAGE for doing both. The former divided its narrow booth into three sections, allowing visitors to putt on a golf course, feel astro turf in a stadium and stand on a front lawn at home. Dynamic window maker SAGE (disclosure: client) made its “Power to change” tagline come alive several ways, including windows showing multiple exterior views and an interactive exhibit where visitors pressed a button and the glass transformed. Whenever messaging can be experienced like this, it’s a very powerful thing.
  • Green nation building standing out from a sea of corporate sameness were… countries. Scandinavia, Canada and France all sent delegations to Greenbuild 2010, positioning themselves – via products, technologies and companies - as green-inspired economies.

What makes you tick is tasty bait

People are naturally nosy. We want to know everything about each other, especially if it’s none of our business. Why else would magazines like People, Entertainment Weekly and US Magazine flourish, even though most of us claim not to read them?
This ingrained snoopiness isn’t just directed at Demi & Ashton & Britney & Miley et al. It applies to technology companies too. When someone gets seriously curious about a company, they want to know the back story. Yeah, if you’re an investor or journalist you need to read about the hot new product or service. But knowing about the people behind them makes the company’s story more textured. Where did they come from? How did they get where they are? What makes them successful? What do they do?
What makes them tick? If you’re skeptical, consider how much money the movie “The Social Network” about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg,” earned. You can mine that curiosity to build your company’s brand.
The CEO who beat cancer. The VP of engineering who dives with sharks in the Galapagos. The single mother who put herself through school and launched a successful company. Readers never get tired of personal color and anecdotes. Sick of reading about Steve Jobs’ black turtlenecks or Larry Ellison’s jet planes and Japanese mansion? Too bad. Details like that helped establish Jobs and Ellison as two of the most recognizable personalities in high tech. Their faces are on the company, love them or hate them, and are valuable tools for advancing their companies’ positions.
You don’t have to be Jobs or Ellison to use personal background to your company’s advantage. But the world wants to know who you are, where you came from, what you’ve done and what you think. Using social media channels to offer your key audiences personal nuggets helps convince them you’re more than the standard issue tech drone who was apparently born at MIT and spent every waking moment since then at Digital, HP, an Internet startup in the late nineties (yawn) … they’ve heard it all before.   

Pick up a copy of any business publication. It’s not all business. It’s shot through with tidbits about the people behind the companies. In a 2010
Guardian interview, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt wasn’t just CEO, he was “the 6’4 former college footballer.” Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz once hosted Mick Jagger for dinner at his house and takes a daily 6 a.m. bike ride with his wife. Time and again, we’ve seen clients with interesting backgrounds and hobbies (ultra marathon running, shark diving, extreme skiing), birthplaces (everywhere from Lowell, Mass. to Transylvania), fashion statements (a penchant for orange pants) and family life (father of triplets) win interviews or appear in print.

Putting a personal face on your company is as easy as talking about yourself beyond your professional pedigree. If you’re worried about coming off as an egomaniac, put your mind to rest. Talking about yourself does not, in itself, make you a braggart. Try these simple guidelines for putting a public face on your company:

  1. Open up - When you’re in an interview and a reporter asks you to tell him/her about yourself, open up a little. Go into the interview having thought about what you are going to say. Who were your earliest influences? What were some formative experiences? What do you do in your free time? How did your history influence your professional life? What was your worst job and why? How did you choose your career? What lessons did you learn along the way?
  2. Open door - If a blogger or journalist or investor or analyst comes to your company to talk to you, take them into your office. What you keep around your office – books, photos, mementoes – invite ice-breaking questions and help tell your story. (As a side note, if there’s anything you DON’T want them to see, get it in the bottom drawer before the interview.)
  3. Speak real - Don’t use colorless quotes in press releases. If your quote begins with the phrase “We are delighted …” then you’re dishing out pap. Your quotes influence the image of you that people form. Say something you’d actually want to come out of your mouth in a conversation.
  4. Share details - Spice up your biography with a few personal details – one or two sentences will do the trick. Also, be specific about your accomplishments. If you’re a technologist, don’t just say “developed Gigabit Ethernet switching solutions at HairNet Communications.” Tell the world that you designed the switching fabric, wrote the embedded code, managed the team, achieved this breakthrough … whatever.
  5. Speak simply - Don’t allow your company to sound like its competitors. This is a common trap: companies in the same space using the same buzzword-laden terminology to explain what they do without really saying what they do. Try some plain, blunt English on your website and in your marketing materials. It will set you apart from the competition.

If you’re terminally shy, or it just cuts against your grain to talk about yourself, this exercise isn’t for you. If, however, you’re comfortable talking openly about your background, then you are positioned to create value for your company by using your personal history to attract favorable coverage.


Dirty little secret: BP oil remains, media doesn't

The media decides what we’ll worry about. Today, that would be the economy, midterm elections, two wars, a tsunami, a new Bin Laden tape and a party drink dubbed “blackout in a can.”
Nothing much on BP these days, so the Gulf of Mexico oil spill must be pretty much taken care of, right?
Not according to this article in USA Today, which reports that:
·         The length of shoreline where oil is present has increased from 287 miles in early July to 320 today.
·         In Bay Jimmy, La., alone, 32,000 gallons of oil were sucked up in a recent 10-day period.
·         Oil, not surprisingly, is clinging tenaciously to marsh grass.
·         Cooler fall and winter weather will thicken the oil and make it harder to extract.
·         Cleanup worker count has dropped by nearly two-thirds, from 47,000 at the height of the spill to 16,200.
The disaster hasn’t gone away, but where’s the media? Well, kudos to USA Today for the above info, and to Frontline for kicking BP’s tail on Tuesday night. But in general, the media follows the conflict, the drama and the fancies of its paying audience to those insipid places we yearn to go. As a result, we’ve moved on from Afghanistan. We’ve moved on from Haiti. And we’ve moved on from the Gulf of Mexico.
To document this catastrophe fatigue, we searched for news stories on “Deepwater Horizon” (the name of the exploded rig and shorthand for the entire debacle) from April 2010 through Wednesday, Oct. 27 at 10:30 EST. Here’s what we found.



As you can see, the media bombards us with stories from April through July. Then the fatigue sets in. Just six months after the worst oil spill in history, the media is practically silent.

But the problems remain. That’s why Sean Penn is still in Haiti. That’s why Billy Nungesser is still in Plaquemines Parish. That’s why BP workers are still cleaning up the oil – some of them, at least.


Meanwhile, the media, drawn by our own insatiable appetite for trifling entertainment, has moved on to … well, Brett Favre’s … ankle.


Interpreting Gladwell: Why the revolution will be tweeted

Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in The New Yorker stirred a reaction.
Small change – why the revolution will not be tweeted” draws a clear distinction between weak-tie activism and strong-tie activism. The former is aligned with social media, the latter with “critical friends” and hierarchical organizational structures. He cites the American civil rights movement and Al Qaeda (before it became a loosely bound “network”) as two examples of strong-tie activism.
True activism, Gladwell says, embodies critical elements social media can never deliver: a feverish zealousness that’s “high-risk” where people are motivated to “make a real sacrifice.” By comparison, social media is “low-risk” activism where people get involved “by not asking too much of them.”
Gladwell explains, “The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.”
Some critics have cited his misunderstanding of social media. My reaction was different; I think Gladwell gets it. There is a difference between sacrificial activism and easy activism. It’s an important distinction. What I don’t agree with is minimizing the role social media plays in seeding activism. Unstructured, weak-link-ties can eventually inspire personal commitment and real sacrifice. Angus Johnson makes a case for this in his post.
American Cancer Society’s birthday movement, for example, has gone from zero to 100,000+ Facebook friends in a few months. While the vast majority of people may never become “feverish” activists, they are playing an important role in raising money, getting involved and raising consciousness. Yes, fighting cancer is different from fighting intolerance. But, it’s not an either-or scenario; the two can (and do) co-exist in driving movements forward.

The power of the ribbon

Today's blog is written by Carrie O'Neil, a senior account executive with Beaupre.

We’ve been thinking a lot about the pink ribbon lately. Like everyone else, we’re seeing it everywhere during this Breast Cancer Awareness month – on T-shirts, yogurt containers, umbrellas, golf clubs, even Monday Night Football. With the pink ribbon marketing machine in motion, however, it’s easy to lose sight of what it really means.

An estimated 192,370 women and 1,910 American men were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2009. It’s the second most common form of cancer in women. Suffice it to say, it claims too many lives.
Although the statistics are harrowing and the marketing effective, the pink ribbon is personal to us. It signifies a beloved person who is suddenly absent from our weekly staff meetings, client check-in calls, and smack-talk sessions where she loyally touts her Buffalo Bills. Her son, in his soccer gear, smiles at us from the Beaupre Buddy Board, but he’s growing so fast we’re due for some new snapshots. When she and her husband dropped in last week between physical therapy and chemo, she inspired us all with her trademark good humor. Go figure: she was making it easy for us.

The pink ribbon has a face this year. Stay strong, Darby. We are with you, and look forward to our walk in your name on Oct. 17.

6 reasons why social media didn't kill PR

There was steady chatter from 2007 through 2009 about the potential death of PR. Social media - the new game in town – might make PR irrelevant. Companies and organizations could now go direct, building their own conversations, communities and visibility.
Specialized social media experts (who were ahead of the curve in the early days) understandably trumpeted this view, leveraging the opportunity to directly or indirectly de-position PR agencies and professionals. Similarly, some journalists said PR’s traditional media relations centricity was a model for extinction.
In March 2009,Putting the Public Back in Public Relations” by Brian Solis and Deirdre Breakenridge was published, urging PR practitioners to master the art of listening, build meaningful relationships and leverage emerging social media. They educated and informed but also advocated quick, smart reinvention. They said PR practitioners should be brand/cause enthusiasts, “embedded in the communities shaping the future.” It was a needed call to action … and a wake-up for many.
Like many others, I shared my points of view along the way via blogs like Pitching is passé, What PR isn’t and Tired, faded and dead PR words.
As we enter Q4 2010, the heatedness of this debate has arguably dissipated. It’s interesting how much progress has been made. Six transformations triggered the shift:
1.       History repeated itself – remember when the www tornado caught many off guard in the mid-nineties? The communications industry was flat-footed. Web experts sprung to life - including specialized digital agency properties. For a period of time, specialists ruled – as they typically do in moments of change - to fill the knowledge vacuum.
2.       Agencies got religion –What occurred with the Web repeated itself with social media. Facing loss of relevance and revenue, many agencies, firms and communications professionals invested the time to question, listen and learn. They got smarter, broadened service offerings, aligned with experts and integrated across disciplines. Priorities and practices were re-shaped.
3.       It went from niche to mainstream – as time passed, organizations and companies also became more comfortable with social media. Ideas and initiatives that didn’t work (or make sense) were discarded; promising approaches were encouraged. As corporate and not-for-profit sectors got smarter, they ramped-up their own internal talent. Today, according to a June 2010 research study conducted by Digital Brand Expressions, 78% of companies are now using social media.
4.       Walls broke down –As the PR industry shifted from wide-eyed to eagle-eyed and as clients, companies and not-for-profits became more at ease, the early days of social media panic and pointing largely dissipated. Former adversaries let down their guards and began cooperating. This year, one of the first books on the subject “The New Rules of Marketing & PR” by David Meerman Scott was re-issued as a second edition, illustrating social media’s continuing maturation.
5.       Opportunity begat revenue – As social media transformed from emerging to embedded – and as knowledge increased - the revenue followed. An August 2010 Advertising Age article reported how social media is helping the public relations sector not just survive, but thrive.
6.       True public relations practices remained strong –the people who sounded the PR death knell were largely equating public relations with media relations. In that narrow zone, they were right. Traditional, one-way publicity is an old model that’s no longer relevant in an age of social-media-driven two-way conversations, communities and grassroots empowerment.                                        

But true public relations practice isn’t publicity. It’s much broader, taking into account every stakeholder (or “public”) with which an organization interacts: 

Strategically practiced, PR takes on a wide-ranging role, focused on earning a trusted reputation by acting in the best interests of these publics – not the organization’s own myopic agenda.

Social media is the latest expression of relationship building (a two-way model that’s far more inclusive and participative); other exciting new iterations will follow. Solis and Breakenridge were right, we’re the industry in the best position to “put the public back in public relations” and keep it there by never staying put.

The 6 mistakes companies make trying to differentiate

There aren’t many B2B companies that wouldn’t be delighted with a more differentiated brand position.
In an era where markets and technologies are zippily becoming commodities, the ability to authentically (and persuasively) spotlight a corporate difference remains a salivating need.

Why is standing out so difficult? Putting aside (major) issues like inferior products or insufficient market demand, most companies repeat the same common mistakes:

  1. They look inward, not outward – Differentiation isn’t about “making up” your company’s difference, it’s finding what objectively, authentically sets it apart. Understand what your customers/consumers want and discover how your product/service fulfills them (or not).
  2. They refuse to focus on one thing – As companies attempt to zero-in on their customer-centric benefits, they compile lists of attributes cutting across multiple vertical industries and product offerings. But they fail to whittle them down to a believable, sustainable advantage. Less is more – standing for one thing creates remembrance.
  3. Their messaging is neutral – Most B2B companies sound remarkably alike. They rely on an impersonal second-person voice; focus mainly on capabilities and product attributes; and share   too much detail. What happens? They convey a competent, but neutral, persona.
  4. They aren’t bold - This philosophy of brand neutrality pays homage to the God of Safe. Don’t challenge (Yikes!). Don’t speak colorfully (what if it turns someone off?). Never take risks (lest you offend). Don’t reveal human emotion (we’re a company!) Avoid expressing visually vs. textually (it’s so much work!) Recite facts vs. telling stories (safe!). Always be business-like, never lighthearted (they’ll think we’re not serious!).
  5. They shy away from the competition – This one always surprises me because at the C-level – and in the sales trenches – B2B companies constantly sweat the challenges of competition, winning and losing deals. But instead of acknowledging the existence of competition, most companies shy away, acting like theirs is the only candy in the shop. Facing up to the competition doesn’t mean companies have to name names – they can also successfully communicate differences indirectly.
  6. They don’t prove it – it’s one thing to convey competence; it’s another thing to offer up proof. Getting customers to talk about your company/service in first person language has a profound impact: it makes prospects and customers relate because it’s through their lens, not yours.

5 steps to instant celebrity like JetBlue's Steven Slater

It’s amazing how social media changed the power game between employees and employers. Case in point: Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who freaked out on the job.
Let’s recap.
As an employee of a major airline, he lost his cool, made a public, obscenity-laden comment to a cabin full of people, grabbed a couple beers, activated the emergency exit, slid down and ran away on the tarmac. Then he was arrested at a beachfront home in the Rockaways.
Most of us may remember a time when this kind of behavior would have triggered personal humiliation, psychological distress and a “Man, I just screwed myself” inability to ever land a new job.
Not anymore.
Now, thanks to ordinary people having a compounding butterfly-effect voice, characters like Slater are transformed from bad guys to heroes … instantly. One week after Slater’s meltdown, Hollywood publicity man Howard Bragman announced he’s representing him to “sort out the scores of offers that have come through in the past week from media, producers, brands and other interested parties.”

If you want to become a celebrity like Steven Slater, listen up and follow these five perhaps not too tongue- in-cheek rules of the new world media:

  1. Take your frustration public - If you’re fed up and can’t take it anymore, don’t sulk, don’t get depressed … don’t kidnap or shoot. Instead shout to the rafters and make your voice heard using social media. Slater tweeted, Slater Facebooked. Give birth to your own community.
  2. Don’t be afraid to tell it like it is - Be colorful, be bold. Authenticity rules! Slater said, “To the f---ing a-hole who told me to f—k off, it’s been a good 28 years. I’ve had it. That’s it.” Indirectness sucks!
  3. Tie into a grassroots theme - People latched onto Slater because he personified what many feel every day in the workplace: loss of control and power. By losing his cool, he actually restored his reputation and gained new levels of power he never had. Become a modern day folk hero.
  4. Go for the extra flair - Slater could have just grabbed the microphone, shouted his message and waited for the armed guards. But no, he added special touches that helped shape a more memorable persona. He grabbed two beers and maneuvered his own exit, sliding down an inflatable ramp. Do it in style!
  5. Become one with the peacock - After the initial dust settles, don’t let second thoughts enter your head and never regret the action you took. After the incident, Slater didn’t look fed up, angry or berserk, he looked, well, mildly freaky, but content. So flash your colors and embrace your inner peacock!    

Rules to tweet by

One of the best and worst things about social media is that anyone can make up the rules, i.e. the conventions, protocols and etiquette by which we collectively conduct ourselves. For instance, someone once made up a rule that PR people shouldn’t blog on behalf of clients. Like sheep, we all nodded and went along for a while murmuring slogans like “Must be authentic.” Someone else finally questioned “Why?” Debate ensued, logic prevailed, and blogging services (with the proper disclosure) have become a standard PR offering these days.

Social media norms tend to be self-regulating. We now all agree that censoring blog comments is bad (except for trolls and incendiary words).  Writing in upper-case sentences = SHOUTING = impolite. And our Farmville-playing Facebook friends got the hint and stopped annoying us with their barnyard updates.

Twitter, on the other hand, remains largely un-self-regulated. Despite the wealth of tools available for filtering and finding good information, Twitter’s poor noise-to-signal ratio remains the #1 obstacle to adoption cited by our clients. So in the spirit of self-regulation, I want to direct you to Mathew Inman’s witty 10 things you need to stop tweeting about from the popular The Oatmeal site, even though it may suck 80% of the oxygen out of the Twittersphere if the rules are embraced.


A million miles in 288 pages; how to get unstuck by living better stories

We hear so much about “storytelling” these days, especially in the context of PR, communications and branding.
In Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, the essence of “story” is central.
Miller is trying to get to a new place on a personal level, but he’s stuck. His breakthrough happens when he attends a famous 36-hour seminar called “Story,” taught by Robert McKee.
He learns that story “is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”
While living better stories is the essence of character transformation, the conflict part is key. Without FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt), memorable stories don’t unfold and personal progress is stymied.
For the first third of the read, it felt like a book about Miller’s personal journey. But then something happens, and it unexpectedly transforms into a story about me – my journey. I suspect the same thing may happen to you.
Instead of allowing life to unfold upon us in a haphazard way, Miller helps us discover (unassumingly and humorously, through the lens of his own experiences) how we can grab hold of our lives by shaping memorable scenes. These pivotal, scary, sometimes risky self-created life events blast us through personal roadblocks and psychologically get us to the new outcomes we desperately seek.
Miller learns that while planning is important, the magic isn’t in passively pondering – but in doing. “We have to show it,” Miller says. “A character is what he does.”
Miller discovered that once you experience a memorable scene, you get hooked and want more.
“You’ll get a taste for one story and then want another, and then another, and the stories will build until you’re living a kind of epic of risk and reward, and the whole thing will be molding you into the actual character whose roles you’ve been playing. And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time.”
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years invites us to live better stories. The cool part is we learn how to do it without the typical “10-step” sort of dogma. It’s a beguiling combination that nudges itself within your soul.
Thanks, Chris Brogan, for turning me onto it.

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