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Message Matters: Shocking a Conversation to Life

“All stories have a curious and even dangerous power. They are manifestations of truth — yours and mine. And truth is all at once the most wonderful yet terrifying thing in the world, which makes it nearly impossible to handle. It is such a great responsibility that it’s best not to tell a story at all unless you know you can do it right. You must be very careful, or without knowing it you can change the world.” -Vera Nazarian As a writer, it will come as no surprise to anyone that I fully subscribe to the theory that words have the power to change the world. I also believe that changing the world begins with opening eyes and changing minds.

Every once in awhile I stumble across something that reiterates that point in such a quiet, powerful way that it stops me in my tracks and there’s nothing else to say but WOW. The Pilion Trust, a London charity which helps some of the poorest and most vulnerable, has conducted a social experiment on the people of London to see if they really do care about the less fortunate.” The project has created plenty of shock and controversy, but upon watching it, the message they’re trying to send is clear as day. Pilion Trust knows what injustice they’re fighting, and they won’t be ignored.

I  love this video for so many reasons. Brands are always looking for a way to carry their message out into the world. You cannot craft a powerful message until you know what you’re working with and what you’re fighting against. In this case, apathy.

The takeaway? You don’t need a lot of words to make a powerful statement. By finding the right words, however, it becomes possible to unlock the passion that people keep locked away in their hearts. That’s a mighty powerful thing.

(WARNING: This video may be difficult to watch for some. It also contains strong language. Put on your headphones before you hit play! Also, be sure to watch all the way to the end for the payoff.)

Navigating a Sea of Brand Change

Don’t get me wrong, I like winter. But waking up to several inches of fresh snow (on top of several existing inches of not-so-fresh snow), I can’t help but let my mind fast forward to June, July and August. Warm summer evenings, good friends, welcoming verandas, a cold pint. (But maybe not the kind you’d expect.) It’s no secret that I’m a Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams fan. While I once blamed my Ohio upbringing, it seems the whole world has caught on to Ohio’s best-kept “sweet-cret.” And that’s a good thing. There’s something pretty awesome about watching people across the country fall in love with the brand your hometown has been rallying around for years.

Last week Jeni’s made a big announcement. They’re doing away with their signature trademark, handwritten labels. Turns out they spend more than 15,000 hours a year adding that personal touch to every pint that leaves the building.

From a consumer touchpoint standpoint, I have to admit that I will miss the handwritten labels just a bit. It has become a summer tradition to pause in front of the freezer at our favorite local market to savor the Sharpie art of so many different hands. There is something (no pun intended) so cool about knowing each pint has passed through the hands of a real human. (Though now I’m starting to suspect those hands may have been suffering from a case of chronic writer’s cramp.)

Once I put my selfish, Sharpie-loving feelings aside, I was able to see things from a business perspective, and I began to really appreciate how Jeni’s is handling this transition. Change is never easy. Especially for a brand that is beloved and deeply ingrained in their consumer’s nostalgia experience. But Jeni’s did things right in a few ways:

1. They were open, honest and forthcoming – before the change rolled out. In doing so, they gave their customers a heads up, a little time to mourn and a taste of what’s next.

2. They looked to the past to inspire the future. Realizing that the old, handwritten labels held a special place in their customers’ hearts, Jeni’s new labels will be printed in-house using a variety of samples from their professional handwriting crew. Customers get that personal touch they love; employees get to focus their time and talent elsewhere. Which brings me to…

3. They were transparent about their motivation. While I’m sure financial factors played a part in the decision, Jeni’s announcement focused on a much more important factor: the human factor. “We’re certain that our kitchen team members will be happier when they arrive at work knowing that they will be fully engaged in the making of the actual ice cream every day rather than writing the names of flavors on pint containers.” I love this because it’s a reminder that Jeni’s isn’t just focused on the goodness that goes inside their pints, they’re committed to fostering goodness within the walls of their company and culture. It tells me they’re listening to their employees, looking for ways to best utilize the talent they hire an not afraid to adjust to make that happen. Happy brands start with happy people. It’s as simple as that.

And that’s a brand I want to do business with. Or in this case, keep on doing business with.

Creating a Culture of Heroes: A Brand Lesson via Chipotle

It's no secret I am a Chipotle fan. I live in a city where that sentiment seems to be shared by all. A place where you can find a Chipotle thoughtfully situated at both ends of the same suburb, with a line 20+ patient people deep at both. I love their purpose and soul. I love their clever branding. Their social team is at the top of my list of people doing customer happiness right. And it's that last point I want to talk about today.

As much as I love the line of 20+ patient people at both our Chipotles, I've gotten into the habit of placing my order online so I can pop in, bypass the line and pop out. Lunch hour maximization! It works like a charm. For the longest time, I used to skip the "additional comments" section on the web form, until the day curiosity got the better of me and I started wondering if anyone actually reads the additional comments. So, I tried it. I left a little message.


When I picked up my order, I noticed this...

heart bowl

IT WORKED! A SECRET RESPONSE MESSAGE! (Okay, for all I know they do this for everyone, but it still made me feel special and happy.)

Flash forward a couple weeks and I am hurriedly throwing together a lunch order. Additional comments? You're the heroes of my burrito lunch. Off I go. Bypass the line. Hurry home and eat.

A couple hours later I notice a voicemail on my phone from a number I don't recognize. "Who is this mystery caller," I ask myself?

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Alyssa, I don't know who you are. (I don't even know if I'm spelling your name right.) But I just want you to know that you are not only still the hero of my salad, you were the hero of my entire day.


I can't think of a single brand that doesn't want to be, as Chipotle puts it, "unconditionally loved," but I can think of so many that just can't seem to figure out where to begin. The answer is people. People on the inside, people on the outside. It starts at the top (and from within) and trickles down. It takes root when you create a culture where people can grow and be their (awesome) selves. You can't create a brand that people love until you build a company your people love. And once that happens, they're going to carry that love out into the world via burrito bowl lids, clever tweets and unexpected voicemails. You're going to create a culture of heroes.

This is my Thursday nugget of wisdom for to you, brands. Go look at your team. Can you spot your Alyssas and your Joes and your Rustys? Are you giving your people permission to be awesome? And I don't just mean telling them to be awesome, I mean actively giving them the resources, trust and support to be awesome. Are you fostering a culture that inspires your people to become honorary cupids who carry their love for your company out into the world?

If not, you've got some work to do.

After all, heroes aren't born, they're made.


Unlocking the Creative Potential of Girls

I hail from a long line of strong women. In a time when much of society was clinging to “certain ideas” about what women were good at and capable of, the women in my family were busy cracking glass ceilings and blowing through barriers left and right. And it doesn’t stop with blood relatives. My life is full of awesome women—from entrepreneurs and innovators to healers and leaders. I even work for an agency with a courageous female at the helm. When it comes to women taking names and kicking ass, I pretty much know nothing else. All of this made it especially shocking when I recently stumbled across a statistic claiming that only 3% of agency creative directors are female. Having known, worked for and worked with some amazingly talented, innovative, genius women in the creative industry, I feel certain the 3% stat isn’t a matter of capability. Having known, worked for and worked with some amazingly nurturing, empowering men in the creative industry, I also believe this isn’t a glass ceiling thing.

So what is it?

My hypothesis is that the 3% is, more than anything, a reflection of our failure to foster creative confidence in young women. And I say that as someone who was a victim of creative discouragement at a pivotal time in my life. (You can read that story here.) To this day, every time I experience a win vicariously through my clients, I reflect on the day I was told, by a guidance counselor no less, that a writing degree would get me nowhere. Then I think about all the awesomeness I would have missed had I listened to her.

As girls, there is an especially precious and fleeting blip of time between childhood and adolescence in which we truly believe that we are capable of doing and becoming anything. We haven’t learned to worry or second guess or shrink our dreams because the world has yet to cloud our minds with fear and doubt. It’s a period during which we are a vessel of possibility, unencumbered by messages and expectations and limitations from the world around us. Simply put: it’s the magic, pivotal moment when everything matters–when the difference between a kind or harsh word, a push forward and a put down can change the entire course of a life.

For the last couple years I have been harboring a secret dream: I want to see the women of the creative world band together to supercharge and inspire girls with the support, skills and most importantly, confidence, to know that they can not only be part of the industry we live and love, but leaders within it. I want girls to understand that creativity doesn’t have to be a side project or a weekend hobby, and there are places and ways to turn their passions and talents into the daily practice of their working lives. I want girls to hear that they don’t have to sit down, wait back, stay quiet and politely follow along. I want them to know it’s okay to have an opinion, bring a little opposition, stand up, speak out and take a stand for the things they believe in…and on behalf of themselves.

Whether this dream will eventually come to fruition in the form of a creative retreat, a camp or a summit, I’m not quite sure, but I know there are a bunch of awesome women in this field ready and willing to pay-it-forward by boosting up the girls who will follow in our footsteps. In doing so, I believe we can make the 3% a thing of the past. We can choose to get involved and become mentors, supporters, advocates and champions. We are holding the keys that will unlock the massive creative potential in girls.

Tomorrow is the International Day of the Girl. The mission of this day is “to help galvanize worldwide enthusiasm for goals to better girls’ lives, providing an opportunity for them to show leadership and reach their full potential.”

Yesterday I posed one simple question to some of the wise and wonderful women in my life. If you could tell the girls of the world one thing, what would it be?

There were their responses…

Brandy Amidon, Chief Financial Officer at Brains on Fire Believe it or not you are in control. Yes, you have parents, teachers, and authority figures that you have to listen to, but ultimately you are in control of your life. You control who you are and who you want to be. There are too many opportunities out there for females to do and be anything they want to. You have no excuse and no one to blame for your situation. We are in control of who we are, how we react to our environment and how we shape the world. So own it, be happy and find the passion in life that makes you want to do good and be better.

Emily Everhart, Gentle Nudger + Account Executive at Brains on Fire Don’t let people misconstrue what ‘strength’ is for you especially in your career. Some people think you need to be aggressive or pushy to get ahead. That it’s a ‘dog-eat-dog world’ and you must ‘kill-or-be-killed.’ Being strong doesn’t have to be about being the loudest or always winning or even getting your way. There is also strength in silence, in compassion, in self-control, in forgiveness and in patience. Be your strength.

Cathy Harrison, Account Director at Brains on Fire Be open to change. Take advantage of the opportunities that come your way. Know that there’s no sense of balance, but if you are open to the inevitable lack of balance between life and work, you can find true rewards. It’s ok to ask for help. Everybody needs it.

Kim Hebert, Licensed Massage Therapist Don’t let anyone get inside your head. Decide what you want to do and set your mind to do it!

Mary Susan Henderson, Office Mom + BOF Glue at Brains on Fire Perseverance is your friend. Don’t let the box that someone has put you in define you. We control how we are defined. And its not really a box…we’re people. We’re nice organic blobs!

Shannon Kohn, Community Shepherd Team Cheerleader at Brains on Fire Always surround yourself with ‘sisters’ who get you and support the REAL you. Learn to see who those girls are in your life and seek out their friendship. They might not be the most popular in school, the most beautiful by society’s warped standards, the most academic or the best dressed, but they are REAL. ‘Sisters’ celebrate each other and help each other grow. They don’t judge. They encourage. We ALL need ‘sisters’ and we all should try to be ‘sisters.’

Moe Megan, Puppet Master + Community Manager at Brains on Fire If there’s anything I can say to you, girls of the world, it’s this: be kind to yourself, be patient with yourself, be true to yourself. Life can be a real monster. It gets up in your face, taunts you, pokes you, and the second you think you’ve got it all figured out, it’ll whip around, kick you in the shin, and blow a raspberry in your direction. Life is a bit of an annoying little brother. But you know what? Just like little Jimmy, you’re stuck with it. So love the life you’re given. It’s a miracle we’re even here, and what doesn’t kill us will make us even stronger in the end. When you get overwhelmed, take a break to step outside and explore. Observe the way the veins of a leaf branch off just so, the way the grass sways in the wind. Listen to the birds, stand in a creek, appreciate the feeling of being small. It will always bring you back to your calm. Take time to figure yourself out. Journal, write songs, run, sing, dance, rap, paint, play ball- whatever floats your boat. Don’t beat yourself up, either. There will always be some girl named Amanda with better grades, a cuter boyfriend, a killer job, a gorgeous house. Do yourself a favor and forget the word “better” entirely. So Amanda’s got it goin’ on? So do YOU, honey. You’re amazing in allllll your own ways. Own those ways and nurture them. Let them shine. Be happy for Amanda, be inspired by Amanda, hell, learn from Amanda. Shift your focus to elevating your own strengths & beauties rather than lusting after those of others. Once you find what makes you happy, be patient with yourself AND everyone around you. We’re all trying to tame this beast, and the nicer we are to each other in the meantime, the easier it will be to wrangle. We’ll all be happier in the end.

Nini Ordoubadi, Owner + Founder of Tay Tea Sit still. Get to know yourself, love yourself and trust yourself. How? Listen deeply to your spirit voice (intuition), it will never fail you. Learn to say NO free of guilt and shame. This will save your life!

Amy Taylor, Chief Wordologist + Stoke of the Fire at Brains on Fire Your life is the greatest story you will ever read and ever tell. Savor every word, every page, every chapter. Embrace and welcome the characters you meet along the way realizing that some may stick around forever and others will come and go. In the end, all of them will add their own unique magic to the pages of the story of you. Never forget that every great story has a conflict that ultimately shapes not only the plot, but also the heart of the protagonist. Some of the most difficult things we go through in life ultimately prove to be our greatest teachers in disguise. Don’t shy away from adventure when it presents itself; challenge yourself to say yes more than you say no. Don’t let your story write your life. Write your story by living it.

Libby Williams, Owner + Founder of Libby Williams Photographs You are a girl. But you are never just a girl. You are a woman. I hate the word girl. It denotes damsel in distress – a girl leaning over a tower with her hair draped down waiting for someone to save her. You are not that. You will never be just that. You are a strong. You are capable. You are smart. And fast. You can get yourself out of anything and recreate yourself in a moment. You are beautiful – the most beautiful creature on earth. You are savvy and can multitask without skipping a beat. YOU. ARE. LOVE. You are your dreams and your fears. Most of all, remember that you are never just a girl.

Rachael Wingo, Controller at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams Wingo’s rules for the next generation of awesome ladies: Don’t listen to conventional wisdom – ever. Make your own path and go figure it out for yourself. Learn how to anchor your personal value in meaningful endeavors. If you don’t know how to do this, go find a therapist and get on it. Learn about positive motivation and get with the program already. Stop hating things and don’t spread negative emotions in the world. Accept the fact that you’re really good at math. Put down the gender roles, and remember that respect goes both ways. For heaven’s sake, go to Asia. Europe is totally overdone. Asia will be huge in your lifetime and you need to understand what it’s all about.

Sara Bareilles, Pop Star I Did Not Interview For This Blog Post

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We're All In the Business of Making People Feel Good

A couple weeks ago I found myself in my new doctor’s office awaiting my inevitable fate (two shots…neither of the fun tequila variety). As I sat there reading posters about proper hand washing procedures and the merits of flu vaccines, something occurred to me. I’ve moved around a lot over the past decade. From dentists to ophthalmologists, veterinarians to family MDs, I don’t remember the last time I settled on a new doctor without a WOM referral from a friend. According to one study, when selecting new primary care physicians, half of all consumers relied on word-of-mouth recommendations. If 50% of your new customer base is a direct result of word of mouth referrals, that must mean you’re doing something right, right? Right.

And here are three simple lessons we can learn from them:

Specialize in something.  From skin to sinuses, bones to brains, doctors tend to pick one thing and get really good at doing that one thing really well.

You’re probably not the only brand in the world making what you make or doing what you do. What you can be is the only brand in the world doing it the way you do it. Find your something special…then own the heck out of it.

I’m openly fanatic about Mrs. Meyers Clean Day products. There are hundreds of brands that make hand soap and cleaning supplies. There aren’t hundreds of brands that do it the way Mrs. Meyers does it. Their garden-inspired, no-nonsense approach warms my heart. They’re a happy brand that knows who are they are and what they do best. I’m willing to pay for their soap even though I know other brands they share the shelf with can do the job at a cheaper price. So why do I do it? Every dollar a consumer spends is a declaration. Mrs. Meyers has found their something special by owning what they do and how they do it. With each dollar I spend, I stand alongside their brand and proudly declare, “Yeah, me too!”

The best form of advertising is WOM by way of a happy customer.  Ever notice how many of the best doctors never seem to be accepting new patients? There’s a reason for that. People talk behind their backs…in a good way. I recently got my foot in the door with a GP who wasn’t accepting new patients. How did I do it? Word of mouth. I mentioned that I was looking for a new doctor to a mutual friend (who also happens to be a doctor.) He put in a good word for me…and I hit the doctor jackpot.

Too often brands focus on the new, new, new. New technologies, new advertising, new people. In doing so, they often forget about their established customers and existing fan base. Like old friends, the people who have been along for the ride with your brands are probably the people who are most invested in you. As we mention in our first book, if you (god forbid) got hit by a bus tomorrow, these are the people who would pick up the torch, carry your message forward and keep your brand alive. Don’t forget about them or overlook them. They know you, they love you and they’re a powerful force spreading the word about you out in the world.

Get to know your customer before you jump into the conversation. Imagine for a moment that your doctor barges into the exam room and promptly begins marking up your nose in preparation for rhinoplasty. You’re there to see her about a sprained ankle. Awkward turtle.

In order to create compelling messaging and spark meaningful conversations, you need to know who you’re talking to…and what you’re talking to them about. Marketers love social media (guilty as charged), but we often forget that being social doesn’t mean monopolizing the conversation. It doesn’t mean broadcasting and talking about ourselves. Just like a real world one-on-one conversation, good communication is a two-way street. You’ve got walk before you can run — and you’ve got to know how to listen before you can engage.

Talk to your customers. Ask them what’s going on in their lives and world. Listening gives you insights into your customer’s values, how they use your product, what they like, what’s frustrating to them and what they need. Listening helps you identify potential opportunities and partnerships. Brands pump so much money into research and development in an effort to decode the secret lives of consumers. You can bypass all of that by simple reaching out, asking the right questions, then listening to their response.

Less talking, more listening.

Never underestimate the power of a lollipop. The power of surprise + delight is remarkable. When things go unexpectedly awry, a human touch takes the sting off a bad situation. In times of smooth sailing, going above and beyond to recognize and show appreciation for your advocates is what gets brands talked about. It’s as simple as that.

So. If someone asked you what business you’re in, what would you say? I imagine most marketers would be honest. They’d say “auto” or “government,” “tech” or “education,” then they’d carry on carrying on. Brands, I’m here to tell you that you are not in the X business – you are in the people business. If you want to succeed, you need to change the way you think and the way you do. You need to understand that no matter what industry you’re in – no matter what you do, offer or produce – you’re in the business of making people feel good.

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Who's Your Gary?

FUN FACT: I am extremely loyal to my grocery store. Upon first glance, it makes no sense. Their prices are higher than other grocery stores in the area. I have to battle a notorious traffic bottleneck to get there. The parking lot is an accident waiting to happen. So why bother? Why not settle for one of the other markets I pass on the way? Because, despite being a chain, this particular grocery specializes in being special.

From the Miles Davis cooing over their sound system to the ritualistic Saturday morning explosion of Buckeye-inspired scarlet and grey, 25 cent in-store wine tastings to the stacks of locally-produced artisanal soap available for purchase by the pound, my store doesn’t just sell goods – they create an experience.

I used to dread grocery day, but since discovering this particular store I find shopping has become a form of meditation; an opportunity to put down my phone and worries and wander the grocery aisles like the halls of a museum. Their produce section is a work of art. I don’t know who is responsible for it, but I suspect they have a secret team working behind the scenes. Everything is neatly stacked and displayed with a sense of care. Not so perfect it feels mechanical, just perfect enough it inspires you to take pause and soak it in. A stack of Granny Smiths with a single Fuji apple providing a pop of red. Piles of rainbow chard arranged with their steams peaking out like pink and yellow paintbrushes.

You can tell their people are totally into their jobs. They take pride in what they do. As a result, it’s fun to shop there. It’s fun to be their customer and it’s fun to be a part of their experience.

Last weekend I made a trip to my grocery store and witnessed a pretty awesome interaction. As I was getting out of the car I noticed a family next to me loading their two young sons into a cart. The kids appeared to be about 4 and 2. As the parents finished locking up the car, the older son began yelling, “Gary! Gary! There’s our friend Gary!”

From across the parking lot I saw one of the store baggers, an older gentleman, look up. He was struggling with carts and could have easily ignored the situation and carried on with the task at hand. Instead, he smiled, waved and made his way over. When he reached our side of the parking lot, he shook the little boy’s hand and struck up a conversation with the family. They all marveled over the fact the little boy had so strongly remembered not only his interaction with a virtual stranger, but also the man’s name. From what I could gather, Gary had met the little boy during a shopping trip the month prior – and hadn’t seen him since.

I’ll never know what transpired during their first meeting, but clearly it was memorable. Witnessing the encounter was a good reminder to me that nobody is immune or aloof to a remarkable experience. Everyone wants to feel valued as a customer and appreciated as a human being. And when it happens, it’s not something we soon forget.

Garys aren’t born, they’re made–boosted up and along. They’re the result of an internal business culture that cares. A business culture that understands that relationships and experiences > transactions, and when a brand invests in people, people will invest in you. I have to wonder what would happen if more companies focused on helping their employees embrace what I have now come to think of as “The Gary Way.” Gary clearly understands he was hired to do more than checkmark his way through a task list. He knows his real job is to do whatever he can to make his customers feel good…even the ones who won’t be able to sign up for a store credit card for another 14 years.

I hit on this point last month in “Remarkable Brands Begin With Remarkable People, and the Gary story is another great example. Remarkable doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It doesn’t have to be difficult or over the top. One-off remarkability can be hugely impactful, but so can consistent small acts of remarkability on an everyday basis. These little things, like thinking about how to make the most of your brand-consumer touchpoints (Miles Davis, anyone?) or creating an internal culture where your employees know it’s okay to stop and have a conversation with a 4-year-old little boy, make an impact. These are the stories people tell and remember. These are the things people care about. The things that inspire them to drive past two grocery stores and a bottlenecked traffic cluster to get to you. These are the things that get your customers cheering your name from across the parking lot.

To Gary, wherever you are, you’ve earned yourself a new (albeit slightly older) fan. Thanks for the weekend lesson in awesome.

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Breaking Brand: 5 Brand Lessons from AMC's Breaking Bad

One of the greatest series in television history came to an end last night. It’s no secret that I have been a fanatic Breaking Bad fan since season 1, and while I certainly don’t have any interest in getting creative with chemistry, I do think Walter and friends have left behind a legacy of wisdom nuggets. From the White family breakfast table to the final moments of last night’s forever farewell, let’s take a look at five brand-relevant tidbits we picked up during five seasons of Breaking Bad… KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER. One of the major contributors to Walt and Jesse’s long-running success was a result of identifying a need, understanding their market and creating a superior product based on that knowledge.

TAKEAWAY There’s a conventional tidbit of wisdom that basically says, “You’ll never learn anything while you’re talking.” So many brands are focused on talking at consumers, rather than listening to them, that they miss valuable opportunities to identify the needs and wants of the people they’re trying to reach. Entering into a brand-consumer relationship without doing the legwork to explore what consumers are saying about you, your competitors and your product just doesn’t make sense. Sure, you can invest time and money in focus groups or you can meet people where they are and simply hush up and listen. Word of mouth is a powerful mechanism for feedback, insight and input. Whether or not you’re part of the conversation, people are out there talking about you. If you want to give them what they want, you first have to understand what they want.

BRANDING MATTERS. The infamous blue color of Walt and Jesse’s product was noted time and time again throughout the series. It quickly became synonymous with a high quality, which in turn, created high demand.

TAKEAWAY Whether you’re manufacturing cars in the Midwest, developing apps in Kansas City or bottling wine in Argentina, you’re probably not the only one doing that thing you do. What you can be, is the only one doing it the way you do it.

TOMS isn’t the only company making shoes. Warby Parker isn’t the only shop that will sell you a new pair of frames. Chipotle isn’t the only place you can buy a burrito the size of your head. What makes each of these brands special is that they have not only found – but taken ownership – of their special. I know that when I buy a pair of TOMS shoes or Warby Parkers, I’m cast in the role of shopping superhero, as my investment gives these brands a way to give back, too. When I order a burrito bowl at Chipotle, I know what I’m getting, because Chipotle leads with their special. Ultimately, I know what to expect, because these brands know what they expect from themselves.

I read in a tidbit of Pinterest wisdom this weekend, “Your culture is your brand.” Branding transcends a pretty logo or packaging (though these things are vitally important, too). Branding is the consistent experience you provide, the remarkable people you hire, the permission you give your people to do the right thing. From the way you greet customers at the door to the amenities in your restrooms, the tone of voice in your email blasts to the easter egg hidden on your website – everything you do and say is an extension of your brand and branding. Make it blue.

PARTNERSHIPS ARE POWERFUL. From the early days of Walt and Jesse to Saul to Hector and Gustvo Fring, Todd and Jack to the lovely-yet-lethal Lydia (stevia, anyone?), Breaking Bad is a pendular lesson on the power of partnerships.

TAKEAWAY As consumers our dollar is our voice and our vote. When you place your card on the counter, you’re not just making a purchase, you’re entering into a partnership. With each dollar you spend, you declare, “I believe in this brand and what they stand for. We are in this together. I’m not just investing with them, I’m invested in them.” We want to invest in brands that makes us feel like we’re part of their story, not just a transaction.

As a brand, we must remember that marketing is about people. It’s important to step back and evaluate how you’re treating your people. Are you talking at them or engaging with them? Are you giving them an opportunity and invitation to become part of your story or are you just expecting them to go out into the world and repeat it?

YOUR PEOPLE WILL MAKE OR BREAK YOUR BRAND If the final season of Breaking Bad has taught us anything, it’s that you live and die by the people on your team. (In the instance of Breaking Bad, this truth is quite literal…)

TAKEAWAY Take a closer look at exceptional brands and you’ll discover they have certain threads in common. At the top of the list: a team that believes in what they’re doing and has a clear vision of where they’re going and how they’re going to get there.

Great teams do not just happen, they are made. Building a great team begins with a strong leader who identifies individual strengths, gives people a chance to shine and pulls people up with them along the way. When leaders are transparent and honest, visionary and communicative, others will follow and drive the brand forward. When a leader loses sight of the goal – or worse, loses their passion and appreciation for their team – the whole ship will go down in flames.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT BREAKFAST. Breaking Bad gave new life to the age-old expression, “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” From episode one, breakfast became a silent cast member in the series, giving the White family a regular reason to regroup. Though the circumstances and relationships evolved and dissolved from season to season, this ritual forced them to come together and take a time out to reconnect.

TAKEAWAY Many of the most important, meaningful and insightful conversations happen when we come together and take a timeout. This is true in business and in life. It seems many brands are on a never-ending quest to leverage the latest technology and embrace the “next big thing” in order to reach new people and audiences. In doing so, they often they forget the fans who have been along for the ride, down in the trenches and have loved them all along.

Numbers are numbers. They measure how many people you’ve convinced to click a like button on a page. What’s the value of 10,000 fans if none of them really knows your brand? What’s the value of 10,000 people with their hands out waiting for a coupon, but aloof to your story or success? Don’t lose sight of the people who really get you. Invite them to the table, ask them to share, find a way to connect. Take them to breakfast together. These are the relationships that matter – and their value is immeasurable.

So…to all of you Breaking Bad fans out there (inevitably nursing a bout of series finale blues this morning), chime in! What was your key takeaway from Breaking Bad?


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Silence Is A Response: A Brand Lesson in Crisis

When I was little (okay, pretty much from ages 5-17…) I had a recurring run in with the parental law, so to speak. I always wanted the last word. More often than not, getting the last word came at a price. I knew there would be repercussions, but the temptation was just too strong. And so I jumped, mouth first, into the proverbial fire time and time again. Last week I watched a lot of brands follow in the footsteps of my 5-year-old self. They rose up on the anniversary of 9/11 to get a word in, to seize the moment, to chime in on tragedy. I’m not talking about the stories of horribly misguided advertising. I’m talking about the brands, however well intentioned, that felt it necessary to say anything at all. The butter brand, the laundry detergent, the car dealership vowing they will “never forget.”

There is no question that social media has become a critical conduit for disseminating information in times of crisis. It could even be argued that social plays a valuable role in bringing the nation together in the midst of our most difficult moments, allowing people to process and grieve as a collective community. For marketers, however, the wild card remains the appropriate role of brands in the crisis conversation.

There are people who will argue that brands are people, too. I argue that brands are brands. Brands are comprised of people—individuals who each experienced their own form of loss that day as our lives, country and world as we knew it, were suddenly divided into Act 1 and Act 2.

Though much of the sentiment expressed by brands across social seemed genuine, their actions left me with an unsettling feeling. Wedged between quirky photos of cat memes and 10% limited-time offers, many brands were daring to distill one of the most life-altering days in American history down to 140-character blips and a trending hashtag.

Tragedy is not a commodity or a social currency. It’s not something to leverage, tap into or harness in the name of ROI. It’s not a “like” generator or something that makes your brand more relevant to your consumer. What I want brands to know is that it’s okay to take a step back sometimes. It’s okay to take a time out. Tragedies aren’t a time for self-promotion or proving a point. They’re a time for people.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. It’s all about context. Was it appropriate for American Airlines to share a post on Facebook reflecting on 9/11? Of course. Was it in good taste for marathons around the country to express their sympathies about the Boston Marathon bombings via Twitter? Absolutely.

So how do you know? When is it appropriate for brands to take to social—and when is it better to stay respectfully silent? Here are a few guideposts for assessing if, when and how to respond in a time of national tragedy:

• Is this a conversation space you’d typically participate in? In times of crisis, it’s especially important to ask whether your contribution as a brand is really adding value to the conversation. Do we need our paper towels or cereal of choice to chime in with condolences on Twitter? Probably not. In the midst of a crisis, try not to let the good sense of any normal day get swept up and carried away in the emotional flurry of the moment. Give yourself (and your employees) permission and time to grieve on a personal, human level, then evaluate whether this is a conversation space your brand would normally participate in. If the answer is no, perhaps the better plan of action is to step back and let those who own that space on a day-to-day basis take the lead.

• Take a time out from your regularly scheduled content. Whether or not you decide it is appropriate for your brand to comment on a tragedy, in times of crisis it is typically not appropriate to carry on business as usual. Few things bring on the cringe factor like an ill-timed, pre-scheduled tweet. Give people the space and time they need to talk it out and catch their breath. Your brand doesn’t have to be right in there with them to stand in solidarity beside them.

• Educate your community manager and employees on your brand’s social policy and crisis communication plan. Shortly after the Aurora theater massacre, took the #aurora trending topic as an opportunity to promote its Kim Kardashian-inspired Aurora dress. (See tweet here.) Two weeks ago Kenneth Cole was raked over the coals after making light of the situation in Syria. (See tweet here.) Last week Esquire found itself in hot water after an unfortunate 9/11-related technology glitch prompted a decidedly unapologetic Twitter response from the brand. (See tweet here.) Your brand reputation rests in the hands of the people you put in place behind the technology. Be sure your brand has savvy, attentive social managers on the other end of your digital channels and that s/he feels well versed on your crisis and communication policies. A good social manager is worth their weight in gold. A “not-so-good” social manager is a surefire way to find your brand cast in an extremely negative, extremely public spotlight.

In times of crisis the nation is often searching for answers most brands cannot meaningfully address. What many of them fail to realize is that silence is a response. Often it’s the best response. Know when to use your voice. Know when to use your silence. Your brand will be better for it.



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Brands: You're Only As Good As Your People

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 10.39.50 AM It all began with a man...a plan...a canal...PANAMA! No, wait. Wrong story.

I don't really remember it how it began, but I'm pretty sure it went something like this: really cool designer techie friend makes comment in passing about his awesome new bank. I recoil in horror because we know there is no such thing as an awesome bank. Five minutes later I find myself thinking ,"Is Nathan is drunk? He doesn't seem drunk. Could there really be such a thing as an awesome bank? Perhaps I shall try this so-called awesome bank."

I then proceed to Simple's site only to discover...NO. A nice little message pops up telling me THOU SHALT NOT PASS...for now. But someone will email me eventually. I immediately proceed from "curious potential customer" to "my life is going to end if I can't be part of this RIGHT NOW," thus becoming the living embodiment of why we marketers tell you brand people to dig deep and resist the temptation to let everyone into your party right away. The power of barrier to entry is strong! But that's a blog post for another day.

Months go by. Countless glasses of wine are consumed. I move across the country. And last week I get an email letting me know the secret password for the cool kids table bank.

One app download and passphrase later, I'm in and digging it. But now what? It's a bank app.

After several minutes of poking around on the app and site I come across some pretty serious customer service "mantrifesto." Alongside statements like "we're serious about good service," I find something that basically says (and I'm paraphrasing) "Contact us anytime about questions or problems or just to say hello."

"I will accept your customer service challenge," I think to myself, "I will email you just to say hello." And I did.

bank 1

Much to my surprise, a short while later I received this response from my new bank friend, Ryan O.


And then I said...


Which is when I met my new friend Bank Bruke...


So naturally I did what any person would do...


To which I received this gif as a response...


1. Your brand is only as good as your people. Your company will live and die by the people who make your company. Using the simple laws of attraction, we can deduce that if you develop a solid business plan you'll build a solidly awesome company which will attract amazingly wonderful people. Good draws good. Great draws great.

2. Give your people permission to be awesome. I'm willing to bet that Simple never covered "proper use of to use How I Met Your Mother gifs in customer service conversations," but there you have it. Hire people you trust. Hire people who get your brand. Then give them permission and freedom to love it, represent it and make it their own. Because in making it their own, they're making it awesome for your customer.

3. A little real human goes a long way. Sure, I recognize the irony  of my ways. I'm averse to real banks because I don't want to deal with a real person. (Truth: the day photo deposit was born I threw a mini-celebration.) Now I'm singing the praises of a brand that uses an technology to connect you with a real human.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I didn't like going into real banks because the people seemed mostly miserable, standoffish and lukewarm. Even at their speediest, our interactions typically felt just like a business transaction and nothing more. My interactions with Simple have been a series of fun, quirky, personal moments of human engagement. And that has made all the difference.

4. You pretty much haven't lived until your bank #HIMYMs you.  Wherever you are, Ryan O. and Bruke, I hope you're enjoying a Pine State Biscuit. Thanks for being awesome. I don't know if I'll ever see a drawing of a narwhal playing ring toss with a unicorn, but please know if there were ever a bank I'd walk 500 miles would be you.


How a woman named Thelma changed my views on marketing...and helped me clean up my act.

mrs. meyers soap radish When I was little and we would leave a restaurant, two things would inevitably happen. My dad would pop a red-and-white peppermint in his mouth before we had hit the door, and as soon as we climbed in the car my mom would roll down the window, gasping for fresh air. I always liked the smell of mint so I never understood her aversion, but the day I walked face-first into a friend's vanilla candle-laden home, it all started to make sense. I felt like someone had smeared my nose in a cupcake. And while I love a cupcake just as much as the next girl, I'd rank artificial cupcake scent somewhere between "wet dog" and "dorito feet" on the olfactory offensiveness scale.

Among all the wonderful things I inherited from my mother, it seems  I also inherited her acute sense of smell.

Which is precisely what inspired my first purchase of Mrs. Meyers hand soap. Actually, that's not true. The design drew me in, the scent sold me. I'd like to say "the rest is history" (because that would make for an epically succinct blog post), but it wasn't so. That afternoon, standing in the soap aisle at Target, was just the beginning of a true love story about to unfold.

There aren't a lot of brands I'd profess to love. Even fewer I would say make me feel giddy with joy. Mrs. Meyers is both of those and more. And as someone who so feels enraged over paying $12 for a pack of toilet paper that she has to text her sister to express said anger from the store, pledging allegiance to a $4 bottle of hand soap is kind of a big deal.

Months after becoming a Mrs. Meyers fan, I finally moseyed over to to check out Thelma's website...only to discover a mecca of marketing excellence. (I'm only sort of joking when I say I tiny digital branding and identity angels descended on my screen...)

Beautiful, clean, on-brand site design! Amazing execution of brand storytelling! A tagline that integrates the phrase "like the dickens!"

And that's when the music began. 

Had I found the Holy Grail of  marketing done right?

So here we are. You be the reader, I'll be the writer. And we'll spend the next couple weeks worth of blog posts taking a look at a company that is more than just another pretty smell.

Cupcake huffers need not apply.