Opting out(side)

rei-optoutsideIt’s no secret that the mere thought of Black Friday sends shudders down my spine. It’s also no secret that I love good marketing–which, thronging hordes of turkey-belching people aside, is a big part of my aversion to this crazy day. (Read why HERE.) I stoically refuse to join the masses and stay home. Every. Single. Year.

Yesterday I came across an organized alternative to the shopping frenzy, and I rejoiced. In fact, I’m still rejoicing.

The surprising part is that the alternative comes from a retailer. Instead of discounting to the masses, REI has decided to close all 143 of its stores and encourage employees (and customers!) to go outside. If you aren’t impressed, remember that Black Friday is the biggest retail shopping day of the year.

Still not impressed? The company will pay its 12,000 employees anyway.

No revenue + paying employees = an expensive proposition.

That’s taking a stand for your brand.

And that’s why I love this idea so much. Who better to promote outdoorsy-ness than REI, a seller of outdoor gear and clothing, a company which professes that “for 76 years our passion has been to bring you great gear to get you out, too”?

Sure, giving up a (big) day of sales is a gamble for a retailer, but oh, how very authentic its brand just became for me. The company believes so much in its mission (“we are dedicated to inspiring, educating and outfitting its members and the community for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship”) that it intends to make the mission a reality–not just a sales gimmick.

And that’s the brilliant part of branding: walking the talk.

It’s what makes people seek you out. It’s what keep them coming back. It’s what builds your tribe.

When people believe what you say about yourself because they see you doing it, they trust you. With that trust, you start building loyalty. If you’re an individual, that’s how you make friends. If you’re a company, that’s how you grow your customer base.

Sure, REI is taking a risk with this move. It may prove too expensive for them to be able to ever do again, but I’m betting it will pay off in the long run. After all, when you focus on fulfilling the mission and not the sale, you usually end up succeeding at both. I really, truly believe that.

While I wait to see how it turns out, I’m joining the movement; I’m going to #OptOutside. Kudos, REI, for the on-point brand lesson.

Read the Forbes article about #OptOutside HERE.

Check out the REI Opt Outside website HERE.

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Just desserts

Holy_Cannoli!My daughter’s social studies teacher hosted a cultural fair last spring where the kids could present their year-end country projects. The kids had worked in groups to create elaborate displays, learn facts and anecdotes, and even whip up samples of local cuisines. The teacher expected the cafetorium to be packed, so she asked parents to sign up to bring a variety of international dishes to feed the masses, potluck style. I volunteered to make cannoli.

Okay, stop right there. Before I go any further, let’s all agree to ignore the notion that I shouldn’t have waited till the last day to get things done. This story won’t be any good if you won’t at least give me that much. Deal?

On the day of the fair, I assembled my ingredients and made something close to a vat of cannoli filling. I had planned to buy the shells rather than make them myself, so around 3pm I took off for the grocery store.

*Gulp*

My usual store didn’t carry them anymore. And neither did the next one. Or the next one. Or the next one. With three hours left till the cultural fair, I was out of luck and out of time.

No problem, I thought. I’m a resourceful person. I can figure this out.

And I did. Spying filled cannolis in the pastry case at my local Fresh Market, I asked the clerk if she would be willing to sell me some of the empty shells I knew they had in reserve.

I don’t know, she said. I wouldn’t know what to charge you.

Is there someone you can ask? I persisted.

Well, one bakery manager is at lunch, and the other one is on vacation, she replied, as if that were the end of the discussion.

Surely, I said, we can figure this out. There has to be someone in the store who can help. Please.

With a groan and a sigh, the clerk retreated. Several minutes later she picked up the phone and placed a call. After a round of hushed voices and furtive glances, she hung up the phone and returned to the counter.

Sorry, she said breezily, I can’t. And just like that, with no further explanation, she turned around and walked away.

I doubt the clerk has any idea what really transpired. Even in refusing to sell me the empty shells–I don’t believe she made anything resembling a valiant attempt on my behalf–and in purveying a haughty attitude about it, she wasn’t the one I resented. I resented Fresh Market. Perhaps she didn’t realize that everything she says and does while wearing her bakery duds and name tag represents the company. So how did she affect the store?

  1. Fresh Market lost a sale. They had the goods and I was willing to pay for them. A win-win turned into a lose-lose.
  2. Fresh Market ticked off a customer. I not only felt mistreated by the clerk by her annoyed demeanor and lack of concern, but I also felt as if I were being strong-armed into buying the filled cannoli. Which, by the way, I did not do.
  3. Other people heard of my dissatisfaction with Fresh Market. While I refrained from taking a scorched earth approach, I definitely shared my frustration with several of my friends. Negative word-of-mouth is not helpful to any business.
  4. Fresh Market lost future sales. Oh, I’ve shopped at Fresh Market several times since that day, but I have yet to pull out my wallet at the bakery case. I’ll get my sweet treats elsewhere for a bit longer.

Truthfully, I don’t really care about the cannoli shells (anymore), but I love the branding lesson here. It’s a great reminder that most often it isn’t the people in marketing who have the most impact on a brand–it’s the people talking to customers.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, I trashed the cannoli filling. The cultural fair got mini eclairs as my contribution, and my daughter got an A+ on her project.

Vanity plate

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 8.15.38 AMCrossing the street to head into the office this morning, I waited for a car to pass. Although I didn’t recognize the car, I noticed that it sported a company logo’ed license plate on the front. When it got closer, I recognized the driver, waved, and continued across the street.

That got me thinking.

The person driving the car is relatively new to the company. He’s a good guy, and I’m glad he’s proudly waving our proverbial flag. I thought about how many people we’ve hired over the last several years and how each person changes the face of our company a little bit. After all, our brand is the sum of all the people (and their actions) behind it. I wonder if we’re thinking about that each time we have a position to fill.

I’ve got two open slots right now, and to do my job right, I not only need to think about the functions those people need to perform, but also about how those people will represent our brand. Whether they ever talk to a customer, their words and deeds have a part in shaping our company. They’ll affect coworkers, vendors, and even the community.

Think about it in terms of that car. What if the company license plate had been on an old beater, belching exhaust and dripping oil? Would it have made a difference if that guy had been blaring Megadeth or Jimmy Buffett or the Grateful Dead on the stereo? What would people have thought if they had seen the car run a red light and swerve around a pair of schoolchildren? What if it crawled down the street twenty miles under the speed limit at all times?

When I hire someone, I’m essentially hanging my logo on that person for better or for worse, just like that license plate. I need to put as much time into finding someone who will wear it well as I put into evaluating her functional skills. Every graphic designer, web developer, accountant, engineer, marketer, and technician is an investment in the company’s future.

Back in the day, we used “world class” as our deciding characteristic when it came to bringing people on board. Today more than ever, I understand why.

Feel the love–Carlo’s part 2

karaandbuddyFollowing up on last week’s post, Fran the man, my two-hour wait at Carlo’s Bakery was rife with examples of good business. If you’ll indulge me one more time, I promise this will be my last Carlo’s story.

This is a tale of customer service.

When my kids and I first arrived at Carlo’s, we saw a long line in front of a CVS on the other side of the cross street. The line in front of Carlos’s itself, however, looked fairly reasonable. Given that there were about half a block of open space and a cross street between the two lines, I shrugged off the disconnected tail and hopped into the part in front of the bakery itself.

My kids and I stood quietly for a few minutes and snapped a few pictures before we started talking to the people in front of us. That’s when we learned that we needed to go to the end of the other part of the line, the part that wasn’t disconnected after all. We made our way unfazed down the block; we figured it had been too good to be true.

Once we settled into our rightful spot at the back of the line, we learned how it worked. Periodically, a Carlo’s employee would make his way down the line, handing numbered tickets to each person or group who would be purchasing something. (For example, I received one ticket for my kids and me, since the pocketbook was mine-all-mine. We would have gotten individual tickets if they had intended to make separate purchases. Fat chance of that.) We couldn’t get into the store without these tickets, and we had to wait our turn until our number appeared on the “Now Serving” message board.

Besides keeping things orderly, what this really accomplished was to eliminate line jumpers. If we had stayed in our original location, we wouldn’t have gotten into the store anyway. No ticket, no entry. Once we understood how it worked, I could let down my hyper vigilant sense of righteousness and not worry about people getting in front of me; it wouldn’t do them any good.

The guys who handed out the tickets were very pleasant and especially patient. They tirelessly answered the same questions over and over again. They never stopped smiling, and their enthusiasm seemed genuine. They knew that our collective desire to wait in line, crowd into the store, and make outrageous purchases of pastries meant job security for them.

So did the people behind the counter. Questions such as, How often does Buddy come in? Is Buddy here? Where are the sisters? Is it always this busy? pummeled them from open to close. They answered every one and never seemed to melt in frustration. They clearly understood that they were there because we were there. The small bake shop may have been crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with people, but the overall mood was good, perhaps because we all felt appreciated and valued.

I found some outstanding object lessons here: make customers comfortable, address their concerns, answer their questions, act happy to see them. WIthout their Cake Boss fans, Carlo’s becomes just another local bakery.

In any business, we NEED our customers. Spending more time making them comfortable, addressing their concerns, answering their questions, and acting happy to see them shows that we appreciate them–and helps keep them as customers. What strikes me as odd is that intuitive as this seems, I’m always amazed when it actually happens. That tells me it doesn’t happen enough.

First impressions

A friend sent me this clip over the weekend with the following commentary:

I see the language (or variations)  all the time in print and hear it a lot in personal conversations—-business or otherwise. When we see it or hear it don’t we immediately form a positive or negative impression of that person?

Wonder how many business deals go “south” because of this?

My friend is absolutely right about this. Whether we realize it or not, the language we use makes an impression on others. More importantly, people form opinions based on those impressions. It happens almost instantaneously, and usually subconsciously.

The way I see it, there were two mistakes in this article. The quarterback’s double negative is the more obvious, but what about the newspaper’s role in perpetuating it? I understand that this is a direct quote, but there is an editorial convention that should have been employed to address it: sic. By NOT following the original error with [sic], I am led to believe that 1) the writer didn’t notice the error, 2) the writer didn’t care about the error, and/or 3) the paper’s editing/proofreading staff also neither noticed nor cared.

People often make mistakes in the spoken word. Even I end a sentence with a preposition now and then, occasionally drop the Gs from my words in typical Midwestern fashion, or carelessly split an infinitive. Sometimes (hopefully this applies to the quarterback), we talk faster than we think. Dealing in the written word, however, the newspaper has both the time to employ appropriate language standards and the duty to uphold them. After all, the written word lives much longer and can be oft revisited. As grating as I found the original comment, I am much more disappointed in the newspaper.

Yes, I form opinions based on people’s language, and whether you realize it, so do you. Someone once said that a person never gets a second chance to make a first impression. That’s not for nothin’.

Thanks for indulging my grammar rant. I hope you didn’t find it too esoteric; I really believe that words matter.

Back on the brand wagon

Branding makes my world go ’round. Beside the fact that it plays a prominent role in my professional responsibilities, I love the whole proposition: building a reputation and an awareness of that reputation that speaks for itself. Essentially, it’s the impression others have of you.

Effective brands will be consistent across all audiences, and each interaction–whether visual, electronic, or personal–will reinforce whatever message “The Brand” is trying to convey. Brands can be personal or professional; the basic premise remains the same: Who do people think you are? What do you stand for? The thing people often forget, however, is that everyone affects the brand. In a company, for example, brand goes way beyond the marketing department.

I received a strident reminder of that very fact this morning. A friend from years past sent me a frustrated email about my company. She had applied for a job and, based on direct contact with a company representative, felt that her application had been mishandled. Though it could have been an honest mistake, she was left with a negative impression–all because of one person’s communication with her. She told me, “My perception of [your company] has already changed…and not for the better.”

My friend’s brand encounter had nothing to do with a logo, a product, or a fancy-schmancy marketing brochure. It didn’t involve the website or a warranty. Her impression of the company was entirely defined by an email from someone in HR. To me, that’s powerful stuff.

It doesn’t matter what job we do; when we pick up the phone or answer an email or talk to someone face-to-face, we ARE the company to that person. If you’re weeding the flower beds at your company and a passerby asks you where to find the entrance, you’d better believe that how helpful (or unhelpful!) your response is will color his impression. If you answer the phone and you’re a jerk, do you think people will think about how good your product is? Chances are, they’ll care a little less.

Whether it’s for yourself or for your company, everyone is an ambassador. C’mon everybody, jump on the brand wagon.

Get involved

Sometimes I find great customer service experiences in the most unexpected places. Yesterday I took my son to wrestling camp at a high school about an hour’s drive from home. It’s an overnight camp, so the check-in process was more involved than a typical drop-and-run.

As soon as we walked into the school, a student assistant immediately greeted us and led my son to his assigned locker room. Another directed me to the check-in area, where we found a series of tables laid out in progressive order. The first table was check-in/registration, the one behind it was medical check-in, and behind that were menus and team assignments, respectively. Because of the layout (one behind the other), movement was intuitive and people couldn’t inadvertently wander to the wrong table.

Everyone had to start at the registration table before moving on, and none other than the coach himself handled the check-in. He personally manned that table so he could introduce himself to every parent, sibling, and hanger-on who brought a kid to camp. And he didn’t just stand there shaking hands; he was THE guy, the only guy.

Not just as a parent, but also as a customer, I thought this was a brilliant move. In that masterful positioning of tables and bodies, he invested himself personally in that camp. He recognized that his “customers” were more than just the kids taking part; they were also the parents who entrusted their mini macho men to his care. He got involved, and his actions spoke volumes.

As long as my kid wants to keep going to that camp, he’s got my blessing. Brands are personal; what a powerful object lesson.