Just Listen

The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” has generated much commentary about the speech, Dr. King’s place in American history, the current state of civil and racial equality in America, and other important issues. Most of this commentary is  best ignored, especially when we are fortunate enough to be able to see and hear Dr. King deliver the speech himself and can do so without the self-serving commentary and “insights” of the nation’s chattering class.

Do yourself a favor and take 15 minutes to listen to Dr. King’s speech from beginning to end. It is a rich and rewarding experience, that not only perfectly captures an historical moment, but also demonstrates how bereft our nation is of leaders–in government or business–of such eloquence and vision. Twitter is a shallow pool indeed, compared to the ocean of meaning and passion that Dr. King delivered 50 years ago.

Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” Speech

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Past Performance Does Not Assure Future Success

Here’s an interesting column by Joe Nocera in the New York Times about what happened to Blackberry. In short: a company and product that was once on top is now probably out of business because it failed to appreciate and respond to a rapidly shifting competitive environment. Companies might stumble for any number of reasons–an economic downturn, a change in leadership–but the failure to understand the needs of your target customers is a death sentence. Good planning and marketing by a company includes taking a dispassionate approach to one’s own business and honestly assessing what you do and how you do it. Falling in love with your own product never works in the long term. Constant change is required, because the needs of your stakeholders are constantly changing.

I wonder what the leaders at Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, or other industry leaders think about when they read the cautionary tale of Research in Motion and the Blackberry. “This couldn’t possibly happen to us.”



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What I Didn’t Miss on Vacation

It’s back to work in a couple of days after two weeks in Maine. Well, maybe “back to work” is not exactly accurate, since, as a consultant I am basically always available to get things done for clients (or for my own business), and in fact I did work on several documents while enjoying the cool Maine breezes and watching the lobster boats pull out of the harbor. Still, the break has been much needed and refreshing, and I count my blessings for the opportunity to get away.

With the Internet, of course, it’s harder to miss things when one is out of town. I did not have to miss the Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, and so could watch with stomach-churning familiarity the Phillies drop to 15 games behind. I kept on trading emails and texts with my kids and siblings.

But the one thing I really made a conscious effort to miss was social media. A two-week break from Twitter has proven salutary. Twitter, as necessary as it may be as a communications channel, tends to produce a frantic state of distraction that I only fully understood in getting away from it.

I will soon return to “checking my feed,” but with a renewed appreciation for the fact that one can live a perfectly satisfactory, productive, and meaningful life without Twitter. I wonder how long before the rest of the world realizes that?


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Free Advice for Paula Deen

Dear Paula: instead of begging for forgiveness, instead of awkward mea culpa interviews, instead of trying to explain how your great grandfather’s ownership of slaves somehow has relevance in 2013, here’s some free advice on dealing with your problem: just go away.

Vanish. Disappear. Come back in about a year. Within a week or so, the unceasing torrent of news will quickly overwhelm anyone’s continuing interest in your racism, whether it is intentional or otherwise. In the meantime, tell your business partners that you will save them embarrassment by voluntarily suspending your endorsement deals. This makes you look gracious and less like a toxic landfill that nobody wants to get near. Take the year to think up some credible responses to your predicament–not just the teary cornpone appeals to Southern tradition you’ve relied upon thus far. Spend your time talking to people who really understand racism and can help you develop a sincere response.

In a year you can re-emerge in an environment that is far less charged than what you find yourself in now. You can talk about what you’ve learned. You can talk about your personal and business efforts to address the racist attitudes that persist in this country.

Of course, this only makes sense if you really want to change. Right now, it’s sort of hard to tell.

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Brand: Old Party

This article from Rolling Stone describes yet another “post mortem” on the Republican Party’s defeat in last year’s presidential election, this one focusing on how younger voters perceive the GOP. It’s not pretty: when asked to describe what they thought of when they heard the term “Republican Party,” many survey participants said “closed-minded,” “racist,” “rigid,” and “old-fashioned.”

According to media coverage, the GOP’s efforts to figure out what went wrong last November fall into several broad camps: those who think the party was not right-wing enough, those who think the party is too right-wing, and those who think it’s just a “branding” problem. That is, if the party could just figure out how to say the same things in a nicer way, its problems would be solved.

Political cartoon 003-1

A political cartoon from the past suggests the Republican Party has had branding problems before.

This last view misunderstands what a brand is, however. A brand is not just your messaging or the “spin” you put on issues. A brand is the totality of a consumer’s awareness, perceptions, and experience with your product or service. Consumers are very good at figuring out when a company’s messaging, for example, is inconsistent with their other perceptions and experiences. The party can talk all it wants about supporting women, but when it fights healthcare or equal pay for equal work and has leading members talking about “legitimate rape,” savvy voters notice the difference.

This is not intended to be a criticism of Republican political positions. The GOP is entitled to advocate any policies it wants. But the party is doing itself a disservice if it thinks that the only thing it needs to change to attract younger voters is to improve its messaging. That thought alone is insulting to voters.

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Brand as Relationship

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, nails an important fact about brands: at their roots, successful brands are about the relationship the consumer has with the product or service. Brooks explores how successful brands rise out of cultures and economies that allow for greater freedom and creativity—which is why American and European brands are so dominant world wide, while virtually no one can identify a brand from China.

An excellent and succinct exploration of a fascinating and important issue that every business must understand to be successful.

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Can You Build a Brand by Tearing Down Customers?

Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothing retailer, has found itself once again in the middle of controversy. It seems A&F’s CEO doesn’t want any fat people in A&F stores or wearing A&F clothes. Fat people are “uncool,” and only the cool kids need apply as A&F customers (or employees, as this internal style guide suggests).

Leaving aside the fact that A&F probably generates these controversies on purpose—as Oscar Wilde said, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”—you have to question the wisdom of building a brand by tearing down potential customers.

A-F 1920

An uncool A&F catalogue from 1920.

A&F wants to be seen as “cool,” and they target the young, beautiful, and upscale. They are entitled to go after this brand positioning, and they are certainly not the first retailer to do so. Plenty of companies—Tiffany, Bentley, Lear Jet—make good money from brands that promote exclusivity. Considering that A&F was founded in 1892 as a sporting goods store, and is now headquartered in Ohio (hardly the epicenter of coolness), it’s remarkable that the clothier has largely succeeded in associating itself with the young and the hot—at least inside the stores.

The problem is, once the product is out the door, A&F’s ability to control the brand disappears, and it’s insistence on its own youth and beauty doesn’t hold up. Just yesterday I observed a seemingly late 20-something wearing an A&F t-shirt. Maybe he was cool, but he definitely was not thin, nor was he a teenager. In addition, in the age of social media, A&F’s actions have prompted a number of responses that seek to work against A&F’s desired brand.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Look at Benetton: a clothing brand that seeks to be as hip and young as A&F, while promoting inclusiveness and a feeling of community. Alienating potential customers might work in the short term—it certainly generates buzz—but doesn’t make sense in the long term. A&F will not have many friends when the time comes, as it inevitably will, that it is deemed “uncool” by the young customers it seeks.

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Consider the Source

ImageWhat perhaps started out as a trendy idea for coffee snobs—making sure the beans in your grinder were raised and harvested by fairly paid coffee farmers—has suddenly become a corporate imperative across a growing number of industries.  More consumers are at least asking about, if not outright demanding, that retailers offer products that have been manufactured in humane conditions by workers paid fairly for their labors. This is a good thing.

The collapse of a clothing plant (though “sweatshop” is probably a more accurate term) in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people has only accelerated a trend that has been fed by consumer demand, enhanced by social media. Within two weeks of the Bangladesh disaster, major retailers in both Europe and the US are at least discussing signing on to support new safety initiatives for factories in Bangladesh and other developing nations.

Up until this point, “fair trade” (fill in the blank) has been more expensive than other traditionally manufactured goods, and some surveys have indicated that some Americans are willing to pay more if they know that T-shirt wasn’t sewed by a 12-year-old earning $1.50 a day. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in the long term. The pressure to keep prices low, especially for retailers like Wal-Mart, is intense and never goes away. On the other hand, the pressure from consumers can be equally intense—if it remains a top-of-mind issue in the long term. American consumers have a long and not so proud history of being easily distracted.

In the meantime, corporations need to consider adding to their communications messages about the conditions under which their products are made. In what may be a small blow in favor of improving humanity, Americans at least seem to be starting to care about working conditions in the rest of the world.

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A Crisis Ain’t What it Used to Be

Did you hear about the crisis rocking Mountain Dew soda? Yeah,  neither did we. It appears the rapper Mountain Dew hired to shill for them, Lil Wayne, said something offensive in a song. The company dropped Mr. Wayne pronto with apologies all around. You may now return to drinking Mountain Dew without guilt, or at least the guilt that might come from putting a few more bucks into Mr. Wayne’s pocket. The guilt over your health should continue.

While you might question Mountain Dew’s wisdom in hiring a spokesman with a long history of enjoying his First Amendment rights, what we find interesting is what this dust up suggests about the nature of a corporate “crisis” and the role of crisis communications. In the Internet and social media age, two new realities have reshaped the nature of crisis communications.

For one, audiences are fragmented. An issue that might be a crisis for a small section of the general population might not make a ripple in the broader community. Two, the speed of news–and thus the speed of a crisis–has accelerated dramatically. The bad news is that issues can blow up in a matter of hours or even minutes. The good news is, a crisis can have a very short shelf life. Got a crisis today? Tomorrow your target audience is on to the next shiny new thing.

We are oversimplifying a little bit to make a point. Businesses should still prepare for the inevitable crisis, should still plan a robust communications response, and should still do the right thing. But the fact is, crises don’t seem to have the impact they used to: they might arise faster, but they also disappear faster, and in some cases affect smaller and smaller segments of the market. At the same time, many corporations (though certainly not all) are getting better at recognizing and responding to crises quickly. That’s a good thing.

Of course, the occasional colossal crisis will still break through to the general public and can still linger for a long time–the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State situation comes to mind–but even here you have to wonder about the lasting impact. The Lions still play to packed stadiums, and Penn State still has a full complement of freshman arriving this fall.

The corporate black eyes seem to be healing faster than ever.

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Pardee Resources a New Wellynn Group Client


The Pardee Resources Company logo

The Wellynn Group is proud to be assisting Pardee Resources Company with a redesign of its web site. Pardee has a long history stretching back to 1840 when Ariovistus Pardee started a company to mine and sell Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal. Today, Pardee Resources owns property in 15 states in which it manages the natural resource rights in coal, oil and natural gas, and timber. In addition, the company has recently expanded its interests into solar energy. The Wellynn Group is managing a redesign of the company’s web site, developing content, and overseeing the work of an outside web design firm. Projected completion is the summer of 2013.

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