Take Heart: Send a Brand Valentine!

‘Tis the season for valentines. What makes me smile in my professional life is finding companies that foster an intentional and caring attitude towards their employees all year long. Of course, I am taking for granted that these brands already show an intentional love for their customers all year long. That’s certainly how they have become “Lovemarks” (to borrow Keven Roberts’ term for beloved brands) in their industries: building trust, continually wooing and wowing new and existing customers and exceeding expectations.

‘Tis the season for valentines. Those who know me well know that I am partial to all things heart-shaped … especially when found spontaneously in nature. I am drawn to heart-shaped rocks while hiking, heart-shaped shells on the beach, clouds in creative heart forms and fruits and vegetables that have grown unexpectedly in heart-shaped ways. Yes, these hearts make me smile in my personal life. But what makes me smile even more in my professional life is finding companies that foster an intentional and caring attitude towards their employees all year long.

Of course, I am taking for granted that these brands already show an intentional love for their customers all year long. That’s certainly how they have become “Lovemarks” (to borrow Kevin Roberts’ term for beloved brands) in their industries: building trust, continually wooing and wowing new and existing customers and exceeding expectations.

But I want to focus on a brand-building ethos that often can get neglected as companies pour all their attention in outward facing ways: internal brand love. A brand valentine of sorts! Brand leaders need to be sure that first and foremost their employees feel empowered, respected and celebrated.

Without an ethos that highly values employees’ contributions, there is no foundation for valuing customers or stakeholders. Even the best external brand-building activities will be soulless. You know it when you experience lukewarm (at best) service from a brand ambassador at a retail establishment or at a restaurant or on a plane. There is no real human connection … it is simply a transaction. Conversely, the experience that occurs when brand ambassadors feel highly motivated and engaged with their work comes across as genuine, true and helpful.

Several years ago, Kip Tindell, CEO and cofounder of the Container Store, started National We Love Our Employees Day—a celebration (coinciding with Valentine’s Day) to show appreciation for all that its employees do for the company, their colleagues, customers, vendors and communities. This is not a publicity-driven effort. It stems from Tindell’s deep-seated belief that employees are the heart of its business and how employees are treated are how customers will be treated. (Read Tindell’s inspiring book, “Uncontainable,” for a deep dive into this stellar brand.)

And, just last year, Tindell continued to celebrate this ethos by creating The Container Store’s Employee First Fund. Here’s how it is described on the website:

The Fund provides grants to employees experiencing unforeseen emergencies like a major medical situation, a catastrophic event, or other grave challenges that they are not financially prepared to deal with. This fund will support our company’s commitment to an employee-first culture, ensuring all employees are well taken care of, safe, secure and warm. It’s a culture that is driven by our seven Foundation Principles® and results in an environment where the lives of everyone connected to our business are enriched and brimming with opportunity—where everyone can thrive—starting with our employees FIRST!

So, take heart! In this season of love, why not take some inspiration from Tindell and find a creative way show (and tell!) your employees just how much they matter to your brand!

Season’s Greetings!

Perhaps like me, you love summer and all it entails: longer days, outdoor play, flip-flop casualness, patio grilling, hummingbirds, wildflowers and a beachy attitude (even here in the midst of the Rocky Mountains). As a greeting card from artist Renee Reese playfully reminded me, the summer season is nearing its end. Rather than bemoan its passing, why not spend some time with your brand leaders reflecting on these questions.

Perhaps like me, you love summer and all it entails: longer days, outdoor play, flip-flop casualness, patio grilling, hummingbirds, wildflowers and a beachy attitude (even here in the midst of the Rocky Mountains). As a greeting card from artist Renee Reese playfully reminded me, the summer season is nearing its end. Rather than bemoan its passing, why not spend some time with your brand leaders reflecting on these questions:

Has your brand taken full advantage of this season’s learnings? For companies like Ben & Jerry’s, these 100 days from Memorial Day to Labor Day are the company’s prime ice cream selling days. For back-to-school retailers like Bed, Bath and Beyond and Staples, the late summer proves to be a mini-Christmas. Nordstrom’s annual Anniversary Sale in July/August is highly anticipated by its customers and gives the company a retail boost that most of their competitors won’t see until the fourth quarter. Even if your peak selling seasons don’t fall in this timeframe and your brand braces itself for the dog days of summer, it still can be a quietly productive time of the year. What did your brand do differently these past 100 days to help strengthen your customer engagement for the next 100? What more did you learn about your customers’ lives and pain points that will enhance your service levels and enrich your product development efforts?

If indeed this is a quieter season for your brand, why not literally get out of your office, away from your devices and take your leaders on a Brand Vacation day to explore and learn from what other companies in noncompetitive industries are doing? Go to a gardening center and see how the owners entice their customers to keep coming back for more plants and flowers all summer long. Go to a new restaurant in your town and see just what the trendy new chef is cooking up to lure patrons to this establishment. Go to a store in the midst of back-to-school madness and see how it organizes and promotes each school’s necessities for the kids and parents. Go to any enthusiast-specific retailer (camping, cooking, beauty, hardware) and see what impulse items they are selling to their brand fans. Gather back together and relax over a summer cocktail and talk about these field trip learnings and their potential impact and inspiration for your brand.

For many of my clients, taking time to pause, to play and to embrace a different pace—if even for an afternoon—is something that falls off the urgency-driven to do list. However, as Stephen Covey reminds us, it is just this kind of important time that refreshes and reenergizes your team and prompts new thinking.

After reflecting on these questions with your team, why not construct your own summer season greeting card to tuck away for next year as a reminder to embrace these 100 days fully?

PS If you’d like to order this handmade card, you can find it here on Etsy.

A New Year THINKABOUT!

Happy January—the month of all sorts of resolution making! It’s hard to resist the desire to start anew with a clean slate each year. Something in us likes that blank blackboard/screen feel and the  “do-overness” ability that comes with a turn or click of the calendar. But whether or not the act of resolution making resonates with you, I do advocate the practice of taking a pause for a New Year ThinkAbout with your brand leaders to reflect together on two powerful verbs. Ask yourselves these questions:

Happy January—the month of all sorts of resolution making! It’s hard to resist the desire to start anew with a clean slate each year. Something in us likes that blank blackboard/screen feel and the “do-overness” ability that comes with a turn or click of the calendar. But whether or not the act of resolution making resonates with you, I do advocate the practice of taking a pause for a New Year ThinkAbout with your brand leaders to reflect together on two powerful verbs. Ask yourselves these questions:

  1. How well did you WOO and WOW your customers last year?
  2. What are your plans to live out these verbs in a fresh and meaningful way this year?

WOO and WOW: Six letters with all sorts of magnificent brand potential. Short and simple little verbs that can easily get lost in the day-to-day shuffle of omnichannel strategy creation, personnel issues, financial plan execution and competitive activities springing up all around you. But these two verbs should be at the forefront of your best brand thinking. Here’s why:

• Wooing is a full-time, year-round, relationship-building branding activity. When brands forget to woo, that is, continually win over, both potentially new and, of course, existing customers throughout all their touchpoint interactions, these customers can turn elsewhere. When customers feel their business (and time and attention and wallets!) are taken for granted, unappreciated and or even assumed, they can start to slip away. You may or may not even notice at first … it may be subtle: one less purchase from you, one extra month between transactions.

• Wowing is a full-time, year-round, relationship-building branding activity. When brands fail to keep pace with their customers’ needs, when they keep doing more of the same, when they don’t stay a step ahead of their competitors or disrupt their own successes, they stop wowing customers. Customers get bored, fatigued and even worse, distracted by those competitive brands that are indeed wowing.

So, who is your Chief Wooing Officer? Who is your Chief Wowing Officer? What’s their action plan for 2014? Better yet, why not have a thinkabout incorporating wooing and wowing as a full time, company-wide, all-brand ambassadors’ initiative this year?

Are You Mad About Your Internal Culture?

Sometimes we forget that great brands start inside. Before companies can show and tell the outside world about their awesome products and services, they must pay important and mindful attention to the team members who create and are responsible for engineering those amazing brand experiences. Internal branding can sometimes be overlooked or lower on a corporation’s list of active priorities than it should be.

And by mad I mean actually passionate about your work in a good way, in a can’t-wait-to-build-the-brand-in-some-new-way-today kind of way?

Sometimes we forget that great brands start inside. Before companies can show and tell the outside world about their awesome products and services, they must pay important and mindful attention to the team members who create and are responsible for engineering those amazing brand experiences. Internal branding can sometimes be overlooked or lower on a corporation’s list of active priorities than it should be.

As I lead interdepartmental meetings these days with my clients, I often hear comments like these from our face time “group genius” gatherings:

  • “We really should connect as a group more often.”
  • “I now understand your department better.”
  • To a co-worker: “I never knew what you did!”
  • “Oh, that’s why we do that! That makes sense now.”
  • “How come I never heard this before?”
  • “We need to tell the rest of the team this!”

Building passionate brand ambassadors and an engaging culture should be high on every brand leader’s “must do” list. Companies like Southwest Airlines and Zappos.com consider these internal branding strategies core to their successful business models. Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, says, “our people are our single greatest strength and most enduring long-term competitive advantage.”

And these Zappos’ core values lay the groundwork for its notable and enviable culture:

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I’m blessed to work with clients like these who are positively mad about what they do! I recently had three experiences of working again with long-term clients. I hadn’t been on-site to their respective offices for almost a year. I smiled as I saw reconfigured offices to allow for more collaboration, customer comments boldly displayed on walls, brand storytelling by happy customers sprinkled throughout the entire office and profiles of customer segments/personas highlighted throughout the company. These brand leaders were so thrilled to show me how they’ve elevated the importance of internal branding and what it’s meant to their employees. Internal branding matters.

Sara Florin, senior director of creative services for SmartPak, the Zappos of the equestrian industry, was delighted to share one recent event she led to help the rest of this fast-paced entrepreneurial organization learn more about all that her talented department handles. Here’s how she describes it: “Our energetic, passionate creative department is constantly working on bigger and better ways to market our products, but not everyone in the company understands the scope or details of what we do. We wanted to take time to celebrate our accomplishments and show off our capabilities in a fun and formal way. Inspired by the hit show “Mad Men,” we hosted an open house and cocktail hour so we could show off our “mad style.”

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“We dressed up to fit the era, served 60s-inspired food and cocktails to encourage attendance, and set up displays of our recent work. With over 50 people from other departments attending throughout the hour, we were able to demystify the creative process and present ourselves as a polished, professional in-house creative team that could rival any external agency. And we got to have a lot of fun doing it!”

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Activities like hosting a “Mad Men”-themed party may not fit your brand personality, but why not brandstorm some ideas that might help your team members empathize more with all the various roles and responsibilities needed to create your brand experience. Identify activities that engage co-workers from cross-functional areas, inspire collaboration, and just plain add fun and playfulness to all the hard work in building remarkable customer experiences.

So go ahead, get mad … in a good way!

Two Summer Must Dos: Play and Play On!

It’s August. Have you taken any time this summer to play in your brand? To even play at all? Remember the days when you didn’t need a reminder to play? When, as a child, you just may have left the house for hours at a time and rode your bike or played kickball or went to the pool or beach or woods or played Monopoly or read under a tree. Long stretches of time went by without schedules, watches, computers, without anything at all plugged in around us. You certainly didn’t need to be told to set up a play date. Playing came as naturally as breathing.

It’s August. Have you taken any time this summer to play in your brand? To even play at all? Remember the days when you didn’t need a reminder to play? When, as a child, you just may have left the house for hours at a time and rode your bike or played kickball or went to the pool or beach or woods or played Monopoly or read under a tree. Long stretches of time went by without schedules, watches, computers, without anything at all plugged in around us. You certainly didn’t need to be told to set up a play date. Playing came as naturally as breathing.

Nowadays, there are serious adult-level articles, books and TED talks encouraging us to play. Experts from the fields of research, creativity, management, innovation, medical, education and human relations all want us to set up play dates. They want us to take play seriously. They remind us how important it is to unplug and unwind. To detach. To disconnect. To pause and be. To give our multifunctioning, always-on brains a rest. These experts nudge us a step further and call play a necessity. A must do for long-term vitality, for peak performance. Samuel Johnson believed, “All intellectual improvement arises from leisure.”

We don’t quite believe it. Or, we believe it but we think it’s for everyone else but us. Or we nod and agree and think yes, it is valuable for us, but we just can’t get to it right now … and then right now becomes three months from now which becomes six months from now … which becomes well, like never, not this year!

Play
Perhaps we need a permission slip … a permission slip not to read or listen or intellectualize about play but to actually play. To catch up with our souls, to feed our imaginations, to simply rest and be. DO IT! Mark some days off to be totally off. Soon. This month! Then do something not related to business at all. Whatever that brings you joy. Do it all slowly. Let the work brain rest. No business books, articles, videos. Nap. Stroll. Wander. Daydream. Journal. Paint. The “whatever” does not matter. What matters is actually doing it. And soon matters. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It is a happy talent to know how to play.”

We must develop this talent so that we will have the capacity to …

Play On!
Our business lives are demanding. Brand leaders must be on their A games day in and day out. Without recharging our batteries, we may get winded … or worse … we may lose our passion. There comes a time when we might need a reminder to keep in the game, to play on. Missy Park, Founder of Title Nine, knows the value of staying in the game. Take a peek at the letter of encouragement she recently shared with her customers:

So, before this summer wraps up, give yourself a gift: take some time to play. There’ll be plenty of time to play on soon enough!