Thursday, July 29, 2010

Branding is not a religion. But you can go to Hell for it.

I was once part of an organization that undertook a national branding exercise.

The first problem was the selection. The communications director just picked a branding agency she knew and liked from her days as being a political hack (I don’t think there was a agency competition).

The company was a national firm, and their branding guru came to a meeting of volunteers and staff from across the country to talk to us about branding. The man’s message was very seductive. Branding, he said, was not just a form of identity, it was a mantra for the entire soul of the organization and all its people. In short, branding would change the way people inside and outside of the organization feel. The line that stuck with me was that “staff will come to work with a new spirit, a new attitude, a new way of feeling.” Branding was more than renewal, it was an opportunity for rebirth.

When it came time to make the brand, an agency person called each board member on the phone to interview. They didn’t call the organization’s clients, they didn’t interview random frontline staff members or volunteers. The nice lady who called wanted to know what the board members thought about the organization, but also all about their childhood and their favourite colours (I think it was colours, might have been favourite numbers...I’m not sure anymore). The actual “branding” consisted of having a single group discussion with the board and some senior staff members. Someone came up with a rather snazzy line and that was what the agency used. As far as I know, they didn’t test it to see what the rest of humanity thought.

The brand that the organization came up with amounted to a very nice logo and a tag line. You will be shocked to know that it didn’t transform the organization. People didn’t come to work feeling transformed and full of positive energy, they still were worried about the direction the organization was headed in and they still griped about it. The entire world didn’t start thinking about this organization in a new way – they still pretty much ignored them. In fact, at roughly the same time the organization went through a radical re-organization that almost split it apart. The brand simply made the internal memos and the low-traffic website look better.

Papa Smurf -- The ultimate brander
The lesson here is that branding is not a religion. It does not have magical powers to transform an entire organization and paint everything with a brush of happiness and positive energy (the one exception being the Smurfs). Branding is important, because any organization needs some kind of identity. But it is vastly overrated. Most branding in itself doesn’t do much of anything.

The reason is the assumption that branding can change the way people think or feel. It just doesn’t work that way. Yes, it can evoke thoughts and feelings, but it is actions that an organization wants. At the end of the day, you want your customers or clients to do something, not just think or feel it. You want them to send in a donation or become a volunteer or write their local politician asking for your funding to be restored. Thoughts and feelings are transitory, but actions are not. Organizations change, making the idea of creating a single, all-powerful, never-changing brand hard to swallow. And you can measure actions, but thoughts and feelings are hard to quantify.

So, what do you want your brand to do? You want it to evoke an action or behaviour. You want it to start a conversation or create an interaction. And if it can’t do that, don’t worry. If all you get at the end of the day from your branding exercise is just a fancy new logo and a slogan, that’s an accomplishment. Don’t expect your brand to carry the weight of the world and judge your investment of time, resources and human capital in it accordingly.

Ultimately, it is what your organization does, not what it says, that will make the real impact on your target audiences.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The news editor who used to read your press releases retired three years ago. Now, they just go into the garbage.

We all know about PR, don’t we? You just write up a few overly-complex quotes that sound like a committee wrote them and add some very long sentences that use very, very long words, and, presto, it’s done. You send it to every journalist, reporter, editor, news reader and publisher, alive or dead. Then they either print every word or assign their crackerjack, but sympathetic reporter to do a cover story about you. The next day, you’re smiling on the cover of the newspaper. Sound familiar?

Forget it. Doesn’t work anymore. In some cases, it’s not even worth the effort.
I say this as a former award-winning journalist and editor. I worked for a decade in newspapers and broadcasting. I respect the media. It fulfills a very important public services. But as a communications channel, it sucks, pure and simple.

That’s because the world has changed, and so, too, has the media. Today, the media has fractured into a billion pieces. There’s fewer local media outlets, but millions of others on the Internet. And there’s lots of newsletters, emails, and blogs as well. It’s messed things up so that local readership and listenership is down, but we’re all consuming more news than ever. An interesting twist is that many of us now get all our news from away – we don’t read, watch or listen to any news from our home town. And the media that is out there is so saturated with ads that finding your story is like looking for a fig leaf at a nudist colony. It’s around somewhere, you just have to find it. The bottom line is that the audience who used to consume local media just aren’t there as much as they used to be.

If that’s not bad enough, the media itself has changed. They’ve all cut their newsrooms. The experienced old hands are now gone, replaced by young, inexperienced reporters or even interns. Space for news has shrunk – fewer pages, shorter newscasts, etc. And they don’t have the resources to do much more than the headlines. Their stories are mostly reactive – fires, drowning, car accidents and the like. In short, the media itself just isn’t there as they used to be to help you in your cause. Unless, of course, your cause happens to be on fire, drowning or in a car accident.

To seal your fate, there’s the myth that free publicity is cheap and easy to obtain. You used to believe this, others still do. That means every non-profit, government agency, politician and business out there is also writing press releases. So, the media isn’t just getting your press release, they’re getting literally hundreds of them. At the same time.

So, what are the chances your press release will actually get some traction in the local media? Depending on the story, it can be pretty dismal, even zero.

The solution is not to give up on press releases and media relations. It can still work. And for some non-profits who serve a public role, such as hospitals, social service agencies and the like, it is part of their mandate to talk to the media. No, don’t abandon press releases, but do understand that it has limited value. Don’t expect your press release to work every time. So, don’t base your entire communications program on it.

Use your press release in conjunction with other communications channels (more on that in future Blogs). Find other means to hit your key audiences.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The World has Changed. Your Non-Profit Communications hasn`t.

I`ve spent 12 years in communications working for a variety of clients from universities and hospitals to governments and local charities. And what really strikes me about non-profit communications is that after all that time not much has really changed. Yes, we all have better looking websites and many of us have Facebook and YouTube pages, but deep down the same strategies are at work. That`s why non-profit communications are becoming increasingly irrelevant and why organizations don`t get much in the way of value from them.

That`s why I`m writing this Blog.
 It`s obvious to me that the world has changed. I started in marketing and communications and at an ad agency in Fredericton in 1998 (after a decade as a journalist) and I knew that things were about to change. That`s the year that Google was founded. It was the beginning of the dot-com boom (soon to be bust). Email was still very new – I only had my first email a few years previously. We`ve seen so many changes since – broadband, faster computers, multimedia, social marketing and more.
 When you look at every other business function at a non-profit you know that the world has changed. Internet revolution has changed everything from finance and policy to purchasing and customer service. But not communications.

Most communications shops I know think the same way they did in 1998. They never met a problem that they couldn`t solve by writing ten-thousand words in a press release no one will read. They believe the media is still an effective communications channel (which it isn`t). They are staffed by mostly ex-journalists who know how to write stories, not create out new communications channels. They don`t understand that mass media is dead and that because of things like Internet search the real power lies now with the consumer, not the marketer. They are reactive, hardly ever proactive. They use new technology, but only in ways that fit their old mindset, and not in the way that really pushes the envelope (PDF newsletter by email anyone?). They cling to the perspective of their own organization instead of trying to relate to their target audiences on the audiences’ terms. They jump on bandwagons like Facebook or Twitter without much thought to how to use them effectively. They don`t measure much of anything even though the world has gone metrics mad. And, worse of all, they think communication is a one-way activity – they talk, but they don`t listen (the organization says this, the organization says that...you know the drill).

What non-profit communications really needs is a new way of thinking to match the new world it is operating in. In this Blog I`ll take you there. We`ll explore what`s really happening and how your communications can really change.

I invite you along for the journey. Send me your questions and ideas and I`ll answer them. Listen to me think out loud and tell me if you agree or disagree.


Let`s begin.