Archive for April, 2012

The longer I am in the strategic communication field the more I come to believe in the power of the brand. In fact, I have often come to the conclusion that for many institutions the brand is actually the product that is purchased by the consumer.

Taking on an institution’s identity actually helps to complete the individual’s identity. I am reminded of the classic commercial for Marlboro cigarettes:  The Marlboro man was depicted as a rugged cowboy who always looked confident and in command of the total environment around him.  And this image was always associated with smoking, and with holding the little red and white package in his hand. The theory, which apparently worked, was that when the male consumer held that red and white package in his hand he also felt more confident and masculine.  Holding that  package and smoking the cigarettes it contained completed the consumer’s self-image. This was so effective that feminine looking packages for cigarettes quickly appeared copying the Marlboro strategy.

But when an institution finds itself “on a roll” like this, appearing to be the brand of choice and the current “go to” place in its category, everyone associated with this success begins to worry about when it will all come to an end. The question then becomes: How do we maintain, even accelerate, the “WOW?”

Most brands today can behave like fads.  For a time everyone wants your shoe. But then, the “go to” brand can very quickly shift to another emerging one.  New media immediacy, and its constantly consuming audiences, can change brand preference on a dime. This can happen to institutions too. One day your museum is the go to place in town, but the next day a new show elsewhere steals your limelight.

Your continuing challenge is to find ways to keep adding value.  You can do this by adding new features to the product, developing new support services, streamlining distribution, offering carefully focused price incentives, and even enhanced  creative marketing. And yes all of this applies to nonprofits.

But the reality is that sometimes the ride comes to an end, or at least to a plateau. Some economists and other observers are actually saying this about the United States today.  Once the super power in the world, America’s market  conditions have now changed so that it’s not likely that the top position it once enjoyed can be maintained. Now the challenge will be to adjust to new circumstances and ask:  What are the new marketplace realities?  And how can we define our position so that we remain strong, exciting, and highly competitive?

We will still claim we are the best there is at what we do. But now we must see our market realities differently, and adjust our targets, tactics, and special initiatives accordingly.  Adding value never stops. It just must happen now within in a new set of circumstances.

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Debating can teach you to argue your views and strive to out think your adversaries. But in the practical world of advancing institutions, nations, and causes I have learned that you can only move ideas forward by orchestrating win-win conclusions.

In the rare situation where you actually win the whole day, your adversary will inevitably and  immediately look for opportunities to reverse the situation, or at least just ignore the outcome. When it comes to countries, and even some aggressive organizations, the loser might actually go to the extreme of looking for revenge. The new communication landscape for all practical purposes then becomes more confusing and cluttered than ever.

Experience teaches that you are best advised to negotiate disagreements with a combination of persistence, patience and flexibility. As you proceed, your key objective should be to determine how you can improve your situation while agreeing to some improvements in your adversary’s situation as well.  The most stable outcome always will be one  where there is a clear “win-win.” 

At a later time, and on a new and different day, you might then consider new strategies for altering your previous agreement. Once the competitive moment passes, the climate is often much more conducive to  making additional incremental gains.

Today we tend to push positions to the extreme, and then fight for “my way or the highway.” But even when we win situations like this the loser is immediately plotting a complete reversal.  Your win then becomes no real win at all, and the lesson learned becomes “there must be a better way!”

So I suggest that you make sure you have a clear idea of your ultimate goal, but then be both patient and persistent as you go forward. Move your ideas ahead, but all the time look for what you can give up in order to make at least some progress. Structure a win-win proposal as you go, realizing that fully implementing big ideas must always be an ongoing process.

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The Easter weekend produced much discussion in the news media about the increasing role of religion in American discourse. Political candidates have certainly been testing its viability as a winning political theme. All this recent religion talk has stimulated me to think about the  role it often plays in institutional communication.   

So when developing a strategic communication plan today it seems more wise than ever to take into account the role religion may be playing. There are at least two kinds of religious affiliations that will influence the content and tone of all an institution’s communications. And just as importantly, the beliefs associated with these affiliations will also define the context and tone essential for communicating effectively with them.

The first perspective is where institutional religious beliefs or affiliations are firm and the intent is to convert non-believers to them, or at least to affirm those beliefs very aggressively. A second perspective is where institutional religious beliefs are clear and reinforced in the culture, but are not imposed on others. Tolerance for the beliefs of others is also often in this culture.  

But what both of these perspectives will have in common is that their beliefs are clearly embedded in all their  communications, and that successful communication with them will require a sincere respect for those beliefs. If progress is to be made on any issue or program you simply must approach them by respecting the values that they can accept. You don’t have to give up your own beliefs, but you will have to show respect for theirs. Otherwise, you will fail at every turn.

History is filled with stories where intolerance has destroyed relationships, and even entire civilizations. The “lesson learned” simply is that progress requires tolerance and respect. If you cannot do this, your best choice is to work only for organizations and causes that believe as you do. And even then you are likely to fail with many audiences. 

Bottom line: If you want to be successful communicating with a religious organization or individual, pay close attention to their beliefs and affirm them if you can. Or, at the very least make sure you avoid treading on them in any way!

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On an airplane to Washington this week I found myself reading an article on happiness. The author was discussing the work of several scholars who are spending their careers researching the topic.  Obviously,  this got me thinking: What have I learned about happiness?

Is happiness reaching that moment when you can say: “I have done what I set out to do. My work is finished.”  Or, is that not what it is at all?  And if not, just what is it?

The thing about teaching and writing is that you learn early on that you only clarify your thinking about something when you have to explain it to someone else. 

How do I go about analyzing this topic?  Do I merely list my life goals and how I will know when I achieve them?  Or is it more a matter of listing those times I felt really pleased about my day and trying to understand why? 

Quickly I was able to say I felt happy when I was leading an important project that I thought was making a difference. But I  also quickly had to admit that perfect conclusions never really happen. There always has been a kind of  “incompleteness” about completing anything. 

And so is it the completion of something important, or is it something in the process itself, that produces this state of “being happy?” 

Ultimately I decided that finding my best talents, engaging in activities that use them, and  putting myself around other people who share and appreciate them, is the  key to my achieving personal bliss. For me it therefore is a condition of “the process” more than the completion of a job, or even a career.

Family and best friends factor into this equation in very essential ways. It is being around compelling people professionally and socially who we find stimulating that in the final analysis brings us the greatest joy. Right relationships matter. Who we put ourselves around determines much of how happy we feel.  

I finally concluded that when we identify the professional colleagues, best friends, and family members who make us feel good and surround ourselves with them; and conversely, when we remove the  activities and people we don’t like from our lives; happiness magically appears.

Happiness therefore is a state of being that we can arrange, and not the grand ovation we get at the end of the road!

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