From Business

The slippery slope of betrayal, Volkswagen style

I’ve been a fan of Volkswagen for many years. I embrace their quirks because the cars are fun to drive. Solid, well-built, safe. The Germans know how to engineer and build cars that inspire the driver. Even my lowly VW Golf which I had for 12 years with hardly a problem in that time was inspiring. I never even had to replace the brakes. The VW Bug smiles at you on the road. How can it not make you happy just looking at it?

But there are many detractors. Many remember the days when Audis were hopelessly unreliable. Many experience electrical problems in Volkswagens of the 90s and 00s. But the passionate fans endure the glitches because the cars are so fun. They’re not ordinary, vanilla cars. They have personality.
Imagine my disappointment when I learned that a brand I loved admitted they cheated. Not a little cheat. But a blatant, deliberate effort over years all in the name of making a buck. The cars look so innocent. I almost went for one of the TDIs. They’re really good cars. Except for now they’re not so much because they cheat. They’re liars these cars. Marketed as ‘Clean Diesels’ – great performance while being environmentally conscious – is a farce. That they asked for a green seal in the U.S. in 2011 shows their arrogance.
It takes years to build trust but a moment to shatter it. A few smart people at Volkswagen torched the brand. Yet many great people work for the company. In Wolfsburg, generations of families have built their careers and bet their futures on being a part of VW. And that is all threatened because some smart engineers who thought they knew better than anyone everyone else found a way to cover their tracks. To avoid forgoing years of investment in new engines by engineering a way to cheat on the emissions tests. Perhaps it was pressure from their bosses or fear of failure that motivated them. Betting they wouldn’t get caught. But they did.
They could have adopted – and almost did – Daimler’s Bluetec technology which likely could have avoided the ‘need’ to cheat. And now we have the nasty aftermath that could cost many innocent VW employees their jobs, upending families and damage a company town.

The dominos are falling. It’s a slippery slope.

So what now? They need dramatic change and fast to restore faith in the company. They need transparency. And they need to buy back every single car or offer to replace it with an equivalent model. Unless they can engineer a fix that retains the promised performance and fuel economy. It’s looking they’re opting for a fix which looks like it will take 10 hours per car and won’t begin until some time next year. But now 480,000 people will have to make time to drop their cars off to do so.

Was it worth it Volkswagen? I think not. And right now I think you don’t think it was either. But how many other companies are or will take such actions to sell their wares? Others make think they’re different. The slope is slippery.

We like the underdogs

Apple was the cool, quirky company who could. The one many derided as toys and for those wanting something special. And then they got big.

Starbucks was the cool third place you’d go to connect with friends and associates. Where you’d hang out and write witty prose or dream up your next adventure. And then they got big.

Apple, especially with the notion of marketing a $10,000 watch that’ll be obsolete in a year is reaching the tipping point. They clearly strike me as a greedy company that cares little for the little guy as the largest, most profitable company around. But we still love their products. There isn’t anything better. Yet.

Same with Starbucks. I now brew my own coffee at work using an Aero press. Starbucks has lost that specialness. It’s now just a commoditized transaction. In and out. Sure, they’re nice places to meet someone for a conversation. Especially for business. But it’s not somewhere I care to go in my spare time or when I want a good experience. The coffee is just not that good anymore. I can do better myself.

I’ll confess that it took me a few tries to get the process down so that it was easy, but now that I have it dialed, I love the quality of coffee via Aero Press. Bon Appetit was right when they cited it as one of the best for the road. I want Starbucks to become cool again; they’ve made huge, generally positive impact on the world. I actually think that they have a lot of people who care, but it gets really hard at scale.

When you’re everywhere – and big – and ridiculously profitable, you lose the underachiever status that makes us want to root for you. No longer do we care much about your success. We like the struggle. We like the ones who’ve not be discovered by the masses.

Once big, you’re not so cool any more.

At what point do you reach that? In business, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. You always have to reinvent yourself. Release new products and new things. Because – especially with technology – change happens and people get bored. We always want the new shiny object even when they absolutely don’t need it. We really don’t.

And if you’re not growing in size and profits, someone else will overtake you.. You’ll be replaced. It’s a conundrum. How much processing power do we really need? How many different types of Lattes, Frappucinos and Refreshers can we consume? It becomes noise.

I don’t have an answer here. Just observations. Stay fresh Keep delighting those you serve. Pay attention to the little things even when you’re big. Few companies do and that makes it unexpected. But remember that we generally root for the underdog.

The future is unknowable


This might be obvious to you. Or maybe not. We develop plans, anxiety and fret over what might be or might not. We do our best to control it. Sure, you want – and need – to plan for the future. Like saving for retirement, rainy days and life’s major events. You buy insurance to protect yourself from adversity.

I just finished Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow where he talks about the unknowable future and the many people who make their living predicting what will happen – the housing bubble, for instance. Or 9/11. Pundits proclaimed they knew the financial crisis would strike, but not exactly when. But what Daniel lays out is that it’s easy to say you knew it would happen in the rearview. With time, our minds alter the stories we tell ourselves. He shows how what we experience and what we remember differ greatly. Vacations and arduous adventures like mountain climbing are often much better after the fact.

Experience allows you to have intuitions and spot trends, but you don’t know things in advance because you can’t. It’s the future after all, and there’s no crystal ball no matter how badly you and everyone else wants one.

Knowing this should bring a little relief as you stand making New Year’s resolutions and pondering what the year will bring. How much of what you predicted for 2013 came true? What surprises hit you?

Having a plan and a framework to focus your thinking is good. That’s why I outlined my three words for this year. Just know that luck plays a role in what the year ahead will bring and be open. Happy 2014!

Enter the Database, Where IMC Benefits from Data and Automation

At its core IMC (Integrated Marketing Communications) is data driven to support a customer-centric company. Today, technology gives us access to all kinds of data – more specific, more targeted, bigger, but is it better? Please join us Sunday, February 10th at 5:00 PM Pacific / 8:00 PM Eastern on Twitter for #IMCChat as we tackle this topic via the following questions:

  • IMC is data-driven, so where do you start with orienting data to the customer?
  • How can data help bridge the marketing functions (and really the whole co)?
  • Is there a way to keep data top-of-mind
  • How do you keep data relevant (fresh)?
  • As a marketer, what’s the most important data you collect? Why is it so important?
  • What is the most important data to keep collecting and reviewing?
  • How do you keep data from collecting dust on a shelf?
  • In a customer-centric co, is there room for automation?
  • What tactics or efforts make the most sense to automate?

We might not get to all of the questions depending on the flow of the conversation during the hour we have, but these are there to stimulate thinking and dialogue.

Five books you should read now and why

I certainly don’t read as much as Julien Smith, however I find books a great way to go deeper into a subject – a nice break from the snackable chunks of information you get while grazing the interwebs. I’m also quick to quit a book that isn’t delivering on its promise as I look for things that I can put into action within my life and work. If you can’t do this, then you’re just passively consuming information and might as well read some good fiction.

Here are five books I think you should read now and why:

Content Rules by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman distill the essence of content marketing into an engaging read that arms you with the tools to implement quickly. After they present the rules, they provide examples of them in practice along with results achieved. This book is perfect for skeptics and those who are completely new to the practice. The key takeaway: if you’re not thinking like a publisher yet, it’s time to start.

The Answer to How is Yes by Peter Block. This is one of those books that bends your mind a bit in a good way. It forces you to look at situations from another perspective and ask some tough, thought-provoking questions. It’s not a book for those who don’t like to think or want everything presented in a tidy bundle on a silver platter. And that’s why I like it. Too many books regurgitate the same stuff – particularly on leadership. If you’re open to changing your approach to solving problems, you’ll find this more than worth your time. This is also a book I wouldn’t have normally picked up and credit Valeria for the recommendation.

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Technology has enabled almost anyone with an idea the tools to start a business. Spend any time perusing the myriad new startups vying for attention at SXSW or the 20,000 new products at CES and you quickly realize that path to success is and will be littered with many failures. While failure is a good way to learn, it’s best to minimize your risk in the process. That’s what this book helps you do. It shapes the path for efficient innovation and testing – to make sure you’re solving the right problem and iterating quickly through what Eric calls the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. You’ll learn to avoid waiting for your product to be perfect before testing it. It just needs to be good enough at the start.

Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom. Martin is a great storyteller who draws you in from the start. He details the many tricks marketers use to lure consumers into opening their wallets evermore. As a marketer, you may say you wouldn’t fall prey to these tactics but we do. Martin shows how our minds are hardwired to connect the dots brands want. He takes you through the way Whole Foods stacks up crates of fruit to suggest a fresh-from-the-farm delivery, to fish on ice for that ‘fresh from the sea’ feeling, showing how a trip through the store is an exercise in savvy marketing. And then there’s the power of celebrities, making of celebrities, including celebrity doctors to sell everything. It’s a great book for consumers and marketers alike to increase awareness of these tricks as a consumer (you’ll still fall for many of them), and thought provoking for how marketers can increase their effectiveness. I believe it’s a great companion to Marc Gobe’s Emotional Branding.

Minding the Store by Stanley Marcus. This is an oldie but it’s clear that most companies still have not received the memo on what makes for good customer service. You get the inside perspective of building a business from the ground up: from developing the product mix to weathering tough times, managing competing personalities and succession planning. While technology and the pace of change is obviously faster, Neiman-Marcus successfully navigated many of the themes that still affect business success today. The key is they never lost sight of the customer. Read this as well as Delivering Happiness about Zappos and you’ll understand how customer service is everyone’s job and a marketer’s best friend.

Shout Quietly

In the pursuit of qualified leads, marketers, when they’re not getting the response rates desired, are compelled to shout louder. To make bigger claims, so-called stronger offers and calls to action. Maybe inject a starburst or two. At the very least you’ll find one of these: !.


Yet still there’s no response. Why?


Because your customers are smart. They can smell your marketing – speak a a 1,000 pixels away. They see through your hollow claims and puffery. And ignore you. Because they know that once they fall for you flimsy claim, they’ll be disappointed. And even more jaded than the last time.

If it weren’t for the years they’ve been pounded with messages, you might have a chance. If it weren’t for the infinite number of channels they can go to, you might have a chance. It’s too easy to tune you out. And they know it. They have the power like never before.


When TV was born, advertising was new and shiny. The channels were few. Customers had to listen. It didn’t take long for ‘commercial’ to equate to bathroom break or time to make popcorn, but you didn’t have the clutter.


Now you have to work harder. Much harder. You have to make claims in plain, human language. Next generation, industry leading goodness doesn’t cut it.

No one wants to be sold.

The new buzzwords are join the conversation, engage and let’s have a relationship. Sounds warm and fuzzy – the right thing to do. But then again, customers don’t always want to have a relationship with you. They can’t have a relationship with every brand and service they purchase. Nor do they need one. Some are meant to be purchased and consumed.


I’m certainly not looking for a relationship with my olive oil of choice. Or my oil change service.

But a contractor? Or an accountant? Now that’s someone I want to get to know. And who I want to care about me. It’s tough to find a good one. Horror stories abound of contractors gone bad. Just ask Mike.


You still need to get the word out about what it is you do. You still need to confidently state why you’re the one people should choose. But it’s time for a much different approach. Forget SPAMMING and Screaming.


It’s time to shout quietly. What? A twist on the old show, don’t tell approach. Make every word count. Make your typography sing with  fine craftsmanship. Show that you care. As if you pasted each pixel on the page just so. Use images that not everyone else is using. How often do you see the same photos from iStockphoto used in a presentation? Or an ad? A lot. In fact, pay attention to the number of downloads on an image you’re thinking about. If it’s a lot, maybe you should find another one.


Keep it fresh. You know how a bowl of fresh fruit and fresh flowers make a room seem cleaner and shinier? Same goes with your marketing. We respond to what’s different.


When you pay attention to the craft – people notice. There’s a LOT of really GOOD stuff out there. The smallest details matter. Invest in them. Sweat them.  It’s the way you can shout quietly and still be heard. In fact you’ll be heard even more . . .


Finding your single most important point

We marketers are a funny bunch. At the beginning of each year we layout our grand plans for generating leads and growing revenue. We look at our wins and losses during the past year and project a nice increase for the new one. That’s our job, isn’t it? Always growing, always at the leading edge of our market? Last time I checked it was. We’re mostly optimistic about our prospects of hitting our targets.

So we create our media plans, craft email and direct mail campaigns and weave in a little social media to round it out and off we go. Through the internal review process making sure all stakeholders have an opportunity to weigh in. We agonize over each point. Each word. Hoping for the best, we launch then wait, measure, rinse and repeat.

And when we don’t get quite the results we’re looking for, we come back stronger, shouting louder and louder. Like a classroom of 28 Third-graders hopped on sugar at their Valentine’s Day party all talking at once.

It’s a cycle that plays out in companies around the world year after year. Each year it gets harder because our customers are getting smarter. And they have the tools to tune out everything we say on a whim. At best we’ve got a couple of seconds to grab their attention.

Part of the problem is that there’s simply too much of everything. Products, services, information – you name it. None of us really needs any more stuff. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show an estimated 20,000 new products were introduced. TWENTY THOUSAND!!! And that’s just the new products. Nevermind the line extensions and new versions of the old. Talk about competition.

I’d argue though that your toughest competition is time. You don’t have enough time to do everything you want. To read and learn everything you could to get ahead. Neither do your customers.

So what’s a marketer to do? Get clear on what it is you want to accomplish and now. Get tough on what you communicate in each of your initiatives. Take time to get to know the customer that means the most to you. And I mean really get to know them. Their aches, pains and why they get up in the morning. Only then will you know what you need to say to them to get their attention and have a fighting chance to win them over.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? Getting down to one single but oh so important point. It’s not fancy nor requires any secret formulas. But it requires a strong, steady hand at the wheel to convince your internal stakeholders exactly what that point is. Everyone will have a different one. But someone – and that someone is you – needs to take all these internal inputs, compare against the external inputs and choose. And when you choose you put your reputation on the line. You’re taking a risk. If you’re right, you’re a hero. If you’re wrong, you have an even tougher job the next time.

It’s because few can do this well that there’s so much clutter and mediocrity in our messages and products. It’s why products are crammed with features we’ll never use.

What will it take for you to get to your single most important point?

Funding Unsuccessful: Failure or reality check?

Last summer after a year of thinking about it, I began photographing the Twenty Bridges Project. Choosing film over digital for the slower pace it forced. The preciousness in that it’s not cheap so you must think about each frame. The trips to the lab. The waiting and anticipation. The hope that the images I created reflected what I saw in my mind. Film also offered the versatility of making really large prints compared with a typical 16 – 20 MB digital camera.

At the end of November I launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to create a gallery exhibition, book and short film on the twenty key bridges connecting the communities on the Oregon coast. The goal was to raise $5,000 to cover the costs of film, processing, scanning and printing of the show, as these costs were not insignificant and tough to justify in a digital world. Finding a publisher for the book would come later.

19 people backed the project, with $1,005 and I owe each of them a huge thanks for their support. It really meant a lot to me. Particularly CASUDI who not only backed it but wrote an incredible post about it. And Jackie, Jill and Mila. And then there were the backers I didn’t know who discovered the project during the 40 day campaign. Like Michael from The Lighthouse Gallery in Astoria expressed interest in hosting the exhibition.

A Kickstarter campaign is not just an opportunity to crowd source funding for a project, but to test proof of concept. Raise the funds and you know you’re on the right track. Fail to do so and you know your concept either needs to change or killed. Or do you?

43% of Kickstarter projects are successful. There are some incredible success stories like this project for an aluminum iPhone dock. But I don’t think that all of the 57% who don’t make it are completely flawed. This one has about a week left and likely may not make it either.

CASUDI once wrote about a successful fail which is about one of her projects – much more ambitious than mine. Everyone who commented to me about Twenty Bridges had positive things to say. Made me think I was on the right track. So why did it fail?

I think in part that I didn’t have a broad enough community to reach out to, particularly in Oregon. It was centered in Oregon versus something with broader human interest appeal. Or maybe it wasn’t packaged as well as it could have been. There are any number of reasons one cannot know for certain.

Everyone is also faced with many competing priorities. Demands for our attention, time, hearts and money. Each of us must choose carefully what we support and accept that there are many things that we must pass on.

While I certainly hoped for a positive outcome, it’s been an interesting experience. Forced me to put something out there. To take a risk. To ask my community for support. Not something I found easy as I prefer helping to asking. I always tried to be careful about how often and to whom I shared the project to avoid coming across as a spammer. Just as I dislike being spammed or coerced into action. I believed and continue to believe that on a project such as this, it either elicits an emotional response and support. Or not. And one shouldn’t try too hard nor force it. Just accept the outcome.

Same goes for brands. It’s about respect and relevance. Shouting louder only pushes people farther away.

So what’s next for the Twenty Bridges project? Kill it? Proceed as is but on a much slower, self-funded pace? Change it moving from film to digital, saving significant costs? I’ve found the work so far a wonderful break from my daily focus on B2B technology. Diverse projects add color and perspective to others. Everything is interconnected and you don’t always know where.

So we’ll see where Twenty Bridges will go from here. Whether it continues or morphs into something entirely different. Certainly there are new bridges to build. New bridges to cross. Stay tuned!