Tag Archives: branding

What We Can Learn From Walmart

Oh, hey, Walmart. Look at how you’re winning at branding today. I used to work with brands that were sold at Walmart. I know from experience that the “Own the school year like a hero” tagline and point-of-sale sign was never designed to market firearms. With two clicks of a mouse, I confirmed that the sign is part of a campaign featuring back to school clothing items featuring superheroes.

Unfortunately for Walmart, this “display” — likely the work of a cheeky sales associate who did it for the laugh — got lots of negative attention.

See also: Will Brandless Become the Biggest Brand?  

With more than 3,000 stores, the retailer has a tough job keeping tabs on its brand across all touchpoints. This speaks to the need for training and empowerment of all store employees to deliver on the company’s brand promise — every day, with all their actions. This one brand transgression has already thrust Walmart into the spotlight with some negative publicity — at a critical time when families are flooding back to retail to restock for the new school year.

A company’s people are probably the most important part of their brand. In the age of instantaneous news, non-news and social sharing — one bad decision on the part of a single employee can cast a negative impression on the entire brand.

This is almost the same as was happened to United Airlines a couple of months ago, when line employees weren’t truly empowered to do right by their customers. As was the case with United, I don’t suppose that Walmart’s brand will take a significant financial hit because of this one incident, no matter how awful we think it is.

The strategic brand construct consists of two parts: 1) the part the company owns: the “identity,” and 2) the part that customers own: the “image.” One of the goals of branding is to ensure these two aspects match. That requires a 360-degree focus on the brand and requires everyone in the company to be a steward of the brand, from the most junior sales associate on the floor, all the way to the CEO, and everyone in between. When one oblivious sales associate makes a split-second decision to do something off brand, and that image is captured on social media and subsequently shared at the speed of light, that single action speaks for the entire brand.

See also: Lessons From 3 Undisrupted Brands  

For all brands, regardless the industry they’re in, employees are the primary stewards of the brand experience. Train employees on your brand’s vision, its core DNA and the essence of how every customer should feel when he or she interacts with the brand at any stage of the customer journey. Create incentives for employees to deliver an on-brand experience. And correct them — or even dismiss them — when they don’t.

A Practical Tool to Connect to Customers

I recently led a workshop at the BRITE Conference at Columbia University on how to connect to customers and was honored to be among speakers including Shelly Lazarus, Ogilvy’s chairman emeritus; Vikram Somaya, ESPN’s global CDO; Linda Boff, CMO of GE; and Columbia Professor and innovation thought leader Rita McGrath. Organized by faculty members David Rogers, Matt Quint and Bernd Schmitt, and now in its ninth year, BRITE promotes dialogue on top brand, innovation and technology trends across business and academia.

I’ve condensed about half the workshop into a self-directed exercise, so you can try it.

The workshop started with three premises:

  1. People-based offerings are the basis for market relevance. Product pushing cannot endure. We are doing business in an “I want” world where companies like Amazon and Apple have set an “anything is possible” standard. The standouts will be companies that know how to walk in the shoes of the people they aspire to serve. These successful brands will follow the customer’s journey through life with authenticity — not just fixated on how to push product selection and purchase.
  2. Customers wear different hats – they may be users, buyers or payers for your offering. People see different brand benefits based on their role. Building brand/customer connections requires you to parse these roles and tune into the relevant benefits. The benefits may not be the same — this matters when it comes to product, communications and experience decisions.
  3. Network thinking overrides linear thinking and action. Building a business through binary relationships with suppliers on the one hand and customers on the other hand has been supplanted by businesses driven by value networks, or “value constellations.” Once you have a clear picture of the user, buyer and payer roles, you have in hand raw material to begin to assemble the members of your constellation. More on this topic in a future post.

Growth and Transformation: The Holy Grail

There’s not a conversation I’ve had with a senior executive in the past few years – irrespective of business size or sector – that didn’t share two linked priorities: growth and transformation. Technological possibilities, customer expectations and the need for speed demand a departure from historically beneficial but now outmoded strategies.

To Solve A Big Problem, You Have to Chunk It Down

To paraphrase a favorite colleague of mine from my days at American Express, “you just have to chunk” the big, hairy problems to make progress toward solving them.

Traditional business strategy starts with questions like: “What business are we in?” and “What core competencies can we use to compete?” These are inside-out questions whose answers assume “sustainable competitive advantage” is something you can achieve and own.

Set these assumptions aside. Our economy demands you define your strategy from the “outside” — where the customer is. Twentieth-century notions of strategy revolved around your position relative to competition. Twenty-first century strategy revolves around the customer.

This means the first chunk to work at is “Who is our customer?” And next, “Can we engender a transformational relationship with our customer, starting with focusing on needs, and then align all of our activities and decisions to deliver?”

A Simple, DIY Tool to See Your Customers as People, Not Data Points

Here’s a tool you can use to deepen your brand’s connection to customer needs and begin to conceptualize new business models for enablement.

Whether you complete it in your head or around the table at a team meeting, this simple template can nudge even stubborn traditionalists to ask new questions about how customer insight translates into business results.

Milton Rokeach: The Hierarchy of Needs and the User/Buyer/Payer Model

Rokeach, a 20th-century social psychologist, conducted research resulting in an inventory of desired end states for human existence. These end states, or values, are summarized below:


How Does This Theory Apply to Brands and Innovation?

Brand managers tend to enumerate product features to explain value to customers. Better brand strategists get to the benefits, too. But almost always, brands stop short of the much richer territory – connecting the brand to the values people strive toward in life.

By pushing a little harder to understand which values your brand satisfies (i.e., back to Rokeach’s inventory) you can find new growth levers, and pragmatic transformation priorities can emerge.

What Does Soup Have To Do With It?


So, in the simple example of a can of soup purchased for my family, the benefits may be a tasty, quick, low-cost meal that satisfies my daughter’s hunger and provides some nutrition. But as a mom, my values are things like fulfilling my sense of duty to family, maintaining family harmony at the dinner table, keeping my life under control and getting time back in my day. Brands that demonstrate connection to these sorts of deeper values will win my perpetual loyalty. Features and benefits are temporal. Values endure.

Next, by delineating what is sought by users vs. buyers vs. payers (and understanding what the implications are when these roles are played by different people), you will establish a new angle on segmentation and shine a light on otherwise hidden innovation opportunities.

So back to the can of soup, note the differences below between the benefits that matter to the user, the buyer and the payer. These may be one, two or more people. But even when one person plays all three roles, the benefits that one person sees through each lens are different.


Slide1 copy

So what about features?

Features may provide reasons to believe in the brand benefits, or even ladder up to the brand values. But by themselves, they will almost never endear customers to you. And, in fact, they may burden people with detail that distracts from a quick determination of whether the brand represents a good choice. At a minimum, features must be shared for the sake of ingredient transparency – the latter representing a brand value that has gained in importance especially for millennial buyers.

Try to complete the user/buyer/template model as a team exercise or on your own. See how it can get you thinking about improving customer focus and engagement by connecting to the higher-order needs of whatever marketplace you serve.

Are We Listening to Our Customers?

There seems to be a growing mismatch between what consumers want from their insurers and how insurers are attempting to satisfy them. Is it intentional, or is the lack of alignment between insurers and their customers because of some unforeseen technology hurdles that require too much work to correct?

Key relationship indicators are all pointing toward growing communication issues. To build long-lasting relationships, insurers need to address their external communication issues, but only after they have determined that they are truly interested in listening to what the customer has to say.

In April 2015, Majesco commissioned a survey of 1,000 insurance customers in the UK. The respondents came from a broad cross section of occupations, ages and incomes. The survey pointed out some insurance industry issues, with implications for all geographic markets, and also uncovered some details that may be worth further exploration.

In a two-part blog, I am going to focus on the findings and what we should do about them.

The first of our findings was striking. What insurers seem to think is important to consumers isn’t always what consumers say is a priority when it comes to choosing an insurer. Insurers and consumers agree on the importance of pricing — insurers say they want to provide a competitive price, and consumers say they want a reasonable and understandable price — but then the two sides differ.

Insurers want to build loyalty and referrals through branding. Customers want relevant products, a high level of service from a wide array of options, clarity about products and a simple process.

Here is where we begin to find some problems.

Pricing Problem #1 – Majesco’s study found that many consumers are focused on price — but not all. Companies that focus on price and not a) service levels, b) relevant products or c) ease of access may alienate 30-40% of insureds. The policyholders least focused on price are naturally those who are more affluent – those who can afford more products and higher premiums to cover greater assets – so insurance companies are putting their best customers at risk.

Pricing Problem #2 – Clients are more likely to find pricing information on aggregator sites than on their own insurer’s website. While some insurers were digitally sleeping, aggregators cropped up and stole their territory. Aggregators may be a source of fuel for new business, but they are most certainly also poised to be a major contributor to client attrition.

Technology improvements and marketing efforts aimed at price messaging within the client base can help stem the flow of lost policyholders.

Besides pricing problems, there are two service problems that cropped up in Majesco’s survey, as well.

Service Problem #1 – One in three survey respondents felt that insurers were failing on minimum service levels. The Majesco survey found that between 47% and 60% of respondents are contacted by their insurance company only once per year! The irony here is that insurers are traditionally risk-averse, doing anything to avoid incurring an additional 1% to 2% of risk. Yet disruptive technologies have brought to market a new breed of competitor that could grab 33% of their business because of inattention. That is a tremendous risk!

Improving service through more digital and mobile communication (and even through more phone calls and mailings) will lower insurer risk.

Service Problem #2 – Insurers don’t seem to realize that what consumers are asking for, such as improved self-service through improved technology, will actually save on administrative costs. While some insurers seem to be waiting for a better scenario, there is no time better than now to build a labor-saving business case that improves customer communications. In this case, listening to the customer will do more than improve relationships; it will improve the bottom line.

The Majesco survey uncovered additional surprising data, as well, related to desired products vs. product offerings. Younger insurance customers (under 35) were surprisingly less influenced by price than older customers; price, while always important, may become even less important than service, brand trust and product types in the coming years.

It is clear that often insurer perceptions are no match for consumer realities. To clear away these notions, insurers need to listen to their customers, listen to trends and embrace the idea that giving the customer what she wants can be a key to success.

In my next blog, we will look at the practical aspects of developing a listening organization. What actions can insurers take to hear their customers, act upon their needs and anticipate the development of products that will take them into the next generation? How can technology assist insurers as they rebuild a relevant relationship? I hope you’ll join me as we discuss several options that insurance companies can use to stay effective and remain competitive.

The Thorny Issues in a Product Recall

In 1982, people in Chicago began dropping dead from cyanide poisoning, which was linked to Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol in select drug stores. Johnson & Johnson immediately pulled all Tylenol from the shelves of all stores, not just those in Chicago. It was ultimately determined that the product had been tampered with by someone outside of Johnson & Johnson. But the company’s aggressive actions produced a legend: The Tylenol scare was chalked up as the case to review for an effective brand-preserving (even brand-enhancing) product recall strategy.

In 2011, though, the FDA took the extraordinary step of taking over three Johnson & Johnson plants that produced Tylenol because of significant problems with contamination. This time, Johnson & Johnson could not blame a crazed killer, only itself. A company that should have learned from its own celebrated case study had not retained that knowledge 30 years later.

The problems associated with recalls often aren’t the recall itself. In a recall, stores pull the products, and the media helps get the message to those who have already purchased the product to return them for refunds, replacement, repair or destruction.

One problem crops up when companies are too slow to move. It was revealed in the press in June 2014, that GM allegedly knew of its ignition switch problems seven years before it recalled the product. The recall that began in February 2014 itself became tortuous as new models were added almost daily to the list of cars that were in danger of electrical shutdown while in motion. The press, the regulators and, of course, the lawyers pounced on GM for its alleged withholding of information for so long and for the seemingly endless additional recall of cars affected by the problem. In 2015, regulators have called meetings with GM and other auto manufacturers mired in what has become an epidemic of recalls to discuss why repairs are dragging on so long.

Denial, lack of information, hunkering down (bunker mentality), secrecy, silo mentality and fears for the impact on the bottom line all contribute to disastrous recalls. With all recalls, there is the cost of the recall, the cost of complete or partial loss or loss of use of certain products, repair costs in some cases (GM), regulatory scrutiny and fines, class action and other lawsuits and the loss of potential income during any shutdown. These can all be big-ticket items, and some companies will not survive these expenses and loss of revenue.

Probably the biggest cost of any recall is the cost to reputation, which can mean loss of existing and future customers. In recent years, lettuce growers and a peanut warehouse did not survive recalls over contaminated products. In the case of primary agricultural producers like growers and peanut warehouses, the processors simply change suppliers, leaving the primary producers without any customers. In the retail market, the competition for shelf space is high. Brands that are recalled that are new or that do not have high customer value are simply barred from shelf space, effectively destroying the ability to market their products.

However, there are others that have strong brand following and even cult-like status in local markets. Blue Bell Creameries (famous for its ice cream) is one such company that has secured an almost cult-like following in the Southern and Midwestern states. Blue Bell, founded in 1907, maintains its headquarters in the small town of Brenham, TX (pop. 16,000).

Problems began when hospitals in Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas reported patients suffering from an outbreak of listeria-related diseases, some as early as 2010. Some reports included the deaths of patients. On May 7, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reported, “It wasn’t until April 2015 that the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control during routine product sampling at a South Carolina distribution center, on Feb. 12, 2015, discovered that a new listeria outbreak had a common source, Blue Bell Chocolate Chip Country Cookie Sandwich and the Great Divide Bar manufactured in Brenham Texas.”

Listeria is a bacteria that can cause fever and bowel-related discomfort and even more significant symptoms, especially in the young and elderly. Listeria can kill. Listeria is found naturally in both soil and water. Listeria can grow in raw and processed foods, including dairy, meat, poultry, fish and some vegetables. It can remain on processing equipment and on restaurant kitchen equipment, and when food comes in contact with contaminated equipment the bacteria finds a ready-made food source in that food and multiples. The FDA has issued guidance reports to food processors, preparers and restaurants on how to prevent listeria contamination. This includes proper preparation techniques, cleaning techniques, hygiene, testing and manufacturing and processing methodologies.

Once Blue Bell understood that its cookie sandwiches and ice cream bars were implicated, the company immediately recalled the products. But soon it became evident to Blue Bell and others that this outbreak might not be limited to the ice cream bars or cookie sandwiches, and Blue Bell recalled all of its product and, to its credit, shut down all manufacturing operations.

The FDA conducted inspections of Blue Bell plants, and in late April and early May produced reports on three plants, noting issues of cleanliness and process that were conducive to listeria growth. The FDA has also reported that Blue Bell allegedly had found listeria in its plants as far back as 2010 but never reported this to the FDA.

As of this writing, Blue Bell plants are still shut down. The FDA investigation has come to a close, but many questions remain. The company has cut 1,450 jobs, or more than a third of its work force, and has said it will reenter the market only gradually, after it has proved it can product the ice cream safely.

The question is whether these things Blue Bell has done: the quick recall, first of the problem products and then all products, and the closure of plants to mitigate contamination issues are enough to save Blue Bell from further damage in the eyes of consumers and the stores that sell the product. There are many tough questions to be answered going forward.

In the intervening months, will competitors replace Blue Bell with their own products that consumers feel will compare favorably? If so, when Blue Bell products are returned to stores will consumers return, or has the stigma of listeria and the acceptance of the taste of comparable products weakened the brand? Will stores give Blue Bell adequate shelf space? And, does Blue Bell have enough of a cult following and viral fan base that once product is back in stores customers will return as if nothing had happened? These are the scary questions that affect all food and drug companies when recalls are from contamination in their own plants or those in their supply chain.

The American consumer seems to have become numb to the endless succession of automobile recalls from just about all manufacturers. We dutifully return our vehicles to the dealer to fix a broken or faulty this or that. Even though many recalls involve parts or processes that could cause car accidents, injuries and deaths, it is as if we have come to accept faulty auto products as the norm.

This is not the case with food-borne illnesses. The fact that a faulty car can kill as easily as a contaminated food product seems not to be an issue as people return again and again to buy new cars from the same car manufacturer that issued five recalls on their last purchased model. However, consumers will shun the food brand that made some people ill. This bifurcated approach to risk makes no sense even in the context of protecting children from harm. The faulty car that mom drives the kids around in every day may have the same probability of injuring or killing her child as the recalled food brand. She doesn’t abandon her car, but she bans the recalled food brand from her table.

In 1990, Perrier discovered benzene in its sparkling water product. It quickly recalled all its product but then hunkered down into a bunker mentality. The lack of communication by Perrier about the problem and what it was doing exacerbated the fears of consumers, and the press speculation and outcry ran high. Perrier had always touted the purity of its water, so toxic benzene shattered this claim. Hunkering down reduced consumer confidence, and many left Perrier for suitable alternative products. Perrier has never regained the market share it had previously.

Blue Bell has taken the time to do things right, to find the causes of the problem and take steps necessary to prevent contamination in the future. But time also means that existing or even new competitors with comparative products will try to fill the shelf space vacated by Blue Bell’s absence. You can be sure that other-region favorites with cult followings that could never before gain a foothold in Blue Bell’s territory have been pressuring retailers to try them out as a replacement for Blue Bell.

Is the Perrier loss of market share inevitable for Blue Bell even if Blue Bell communicates adequately and with transparency? Time will tell. For now, Blue Bell not only has to fix the problems of plant cleanliness, it also needs to address emerging questions about its past operations, such as allegedly not reporting to the appropriate

While we note the good press that surrounded the 1982 Tylenol (external-tampering) recall and have seen so far a good effort by Blue Bell to resolve its own plant contamination issue, ultimately it is contamination that is the problem. Companies can become complacent, let cleanliness slide, use outmoded procedures, not replace older equipment or even ignore warning signs and isolated contamination events. Regional and limited product line companies need to be especially cognizant that even though they have carved out a powerful niche in the marketplace, maintaining this niche is tenuous at best in the highly competitive world of food products. Cleanliness and contamination-free are assumed by consumers. Food processors and manufacturers must do everything possible to keep that assumption from becoming contradicted.

What if Insurance Brands Were Marketed Like Red Bull?

Bryan Adams of @PhCreative recently wrote a great piece on the insurance brand here. Dare I say it’s an outsider’s perspective on the insurance world, provocatively titled: “Imagine if Insurance Brands Started Marketing Like Red Bull.”

He really got me thinking, and I wanted to share my perspective:

1. This is a hugely exciting idea, with lots of disruption to come, but you could argue that what we’re experiencing is evolution, in the same way that Pixar was an evolution to Disney — Disney is still about. The insurance industry is changing, general insurance quicker than life or health (as general insurance is what most of us see or experience), but all will evolve over time.

2. The insurance industry is one of the oldest; you have to go back to Edward Lloyd in 1688 to see the wonderful tradition of the coffee shops of London and how it all began. In many ways, we are returning to this tradition and bias toward the customer. It’s great to see, but many industries are doing or have done the same. Anyone want to talk about the rise or fall of bank branches?

3. We are steeped in tradition, and like many industries need to have the old guard making way over time to the new guard. We will always have the traditional guys, the new guys and the bleeding-edge guys. From life policy to telematics and so much more in the middle, it’s an exciting space. Many new CxOs are from industries outside of insurance, bringing in new ideas tried and tested in other industries that resonate well.

4. We have some amazing brands in the UK and worldwide from Direct Line, Churchill (yes, the dog), Legal & General (the bowler hat), LV=, Zurich, Allianz, Geico (the lizard), Prudential (the man from the Pru) and so much more, each with its own catchy strap line, just like those guys who are never knowingly undersold — and you know who I mean without even looking it up (for the UK guys, anyway). In fact, I think brands are one of the biggest investment areas over the last few years, and are paying off. We can engage and resonate better with a new breed of savvy consumers with a limited and reducing attention span (regardless of the product or service).

5. Our brand is key (to most folks who care). We are generally trusted, irrespective of the line of business; we are long-term rather than short-term. Can you name the brand if I said:.

  • Every day matters
  • Drive like a girl
  • With you ever step of the way
  • Redefining standards
  • Where you mean more
  • It’s about time.

These brands, to me, say core values, vision, purpose and belief. We are not a sugary soft drink; we are the guys who help when your house is flooded, when your kids have written off the car, who help you through a hospital visit, who keep you well in retirement.

We don’t want to be a sugary soft drink. And we are doing all of this without our customers really ever wanting to engage regularly with us — if they do engage, you know something is changing or, worse, has gone wrong. Apparently we now look at our phone more than 200 times a day. Your insurer, you call perhaps once a year, at best.

You could argue that this makes the brand experience even more important.

As for goosebumps, you are right: The insurance industry doesn’t sell goosebumps.

In days gone by, the insurance provider was there after the event. More recently, insurance has been there with you. Because of technology and brand disruption, insurance will be there ahead of your need — from the crashed car creating a claim, to the water leak in the office block that sensors detect, turning off the mains and notifying the insurer and loss adjuster. When it comes to insurance, I’ll pay extra to know I’m safe and will avoid the goosebumps.