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Interrogative on Reputation

Resolving the differences between brands and corporate reputations might seem about as important as deciding how many angels fit on the head of a pin, but confusion over definitions is a chronic drag on corporate communicators.

For sake of argument:

Brands are made up of the experiential or emotional benefits that businesses attach to their products or services via marketing communications. It’s a future value, or “intangible” that reveals itself when you ask stakeholders what they think about it. It represents your hope that your stakeholders will, one day, choose you over your competitors based on what you’ve said to them.

Reputations are made up of the judgements and actions businesses earn by their performance via operational behaviors. It’s a present value, or “tangible” that reveals itself in purchase price premiums, happier and more loyal employees, better borrowing rates, longevity of stock ownership, and other objectively real attributes. It represents your stakeholders’ expectation that, today, they’ll choose you over your competitors based on what you’ve done for them.

If branding is the outcome of what a company says, reputation is the result of what it does. Marketers promote branded content and corporate communicators share components of reputations (when stakeholders can’t or don’t experience them directly).

As such, I would argue that we PR types should get a lot closer to reputations and not get distracted or sidetracked by branding. Here are three questions that might help bring such an approach into focus:

First, do you know that you can’t control reputation? Unlike branding, which can be creatively decided on a PowerPoint slide and literally bought with marketing funds (isn’t it interesting that the entries on every list of the “greatest” brands usually correlates with the largest marketing budgets?), reputation emerges from every point (and every moment) in the life of your business. It’s an endless list of experiential outcomes that add up to stakeholder conclusions.

Your delivery truck cut off another driver when making a turn. Your investor relations folks have a habit of talking down earnings expectations every quarter. One employee is an irascible idiot to his vendors, and another one is a saint to hers. New products tend to come from your research folks more regularly than others, and they sell better, too. Your CEO talks in bland tautologies that he thinks are visionary.

Reputation is synonymous with truth, however imperfectly or subjectively understood. At least it’s what your stakeholders have decided is true, and that means they’ve purposefully or unconsciously compared what they expected and what you delivered. Their conclusions underlie their next decision(s) related to your business.

This has interesting implications for what PR people can and should do. For instance, any promise that you could somehow “manage” it is either naive or disingenuous. It’s far more important to be the voice of reason for your leadership and internal stakeholders on the reality of reputation and what they can do to impact it.

Second, are you focused on the right risks? Reputational risk is the delta between what your stakeholders know about your business and what the truth might be, so unawareness or misunderstanding are your enemies.

Your corporate video declares your commitment to saving the planet from climate change but your activities don’t match up (and it was unreasonable to presume to make a major contribution anyway). Your actual employment practices don’t embody your official policy (and more glossy propaganda) on worker and workplace conditions. You bury your privacy policy in dense mouseprint so your customers aren’t aware of how aggressively you monetize their data. Your branding claims leadership and uniqueness but your performance is pedestrian and your offering is generic.

At some point, people will discover the truth and punish you for it, so your goal should be to minimize these risks.

How? By making every effort to reflect and respect reality in your communications content. Is your announcement really the best thing since sliced bread? What about acknowledging the context in which you operate, not to mention the obvious questions that will be obviously asked the moment you reveal whatever it is you’re doing?

Transparency and disclosure aren’t just buzzwords when it comes to reputation, but rather the methods by which truth is revealed. Reputation is recognizing that you’re having actual conversations with your stakeholders, not simply promoting content for them to consume.

If there’s something that they’d find surprising if they discovered it, chances are you should figure out how to share it with them sooner versus later. If a critic will denigrate your use of the calendar, perhaps you should note it proactively. Issues that are too complicated to be reduced to simple positions should be described with the nuance they deserve; conversely, when it’s painful to be clear on things that are painfully clear, provide clarity.

Third, do you know how to measure reputation? In a sentence, look to operations for reputation metrics and not media or survey results.

If only opinions were enough; the various measures of sentiment or “share of voice” make for great graphics but they have little to no causal connection to what people actually do, and it’s where the branding people make their case. Instead, consider looking at operational efficacy for the outcomes of reputation (so don’t try to measure “it” as much as its effects).

Companies with good reputations should spend less money trying to sell stuff and have supply chains that are more impervious to disruptions than others. They might retain employees longer, and at less outright cost, as well as attract better talent than the competition. A good reputation could mean that vendors and suppliers provide more liberal terms, and are higher quality than not. There’s no good off-the-shelf model for these metrics, perhaps because no agency wants to live and die by actual results, so you can come up with a model of the performance indicators you want to influence and then work backwards to your content development for ways to do it.

Ultimately, making clearer distinctions between brands and reputations will benefit both communicators and the companies for which they work.

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Interrogative on Predictions

’Tis the season for forecasts and predictions about the coming year. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what can or should happen in the communications and marketing world.

Very little of it ever comes true.

Sure, there have been loads of recommendations for using new gimmicks or tools, usually coming from the folks who’ll happily provide those services to you (or profit from covering them when you pay others to do the work). But, more broadly, the world next year will look a lot like it does this year: the details will be different, as will the events that precipitate our collective joys or woes, but people will remain the same.

Here are three questions you might want to ask of a prediction before you decide it’s legit (or go to work trying to make it so):

First, does it challenge basic truths of human nature? People, and our psychological subsets called “consumers,” have been acting the same ways for the same reasons since time began. Customers shopping online today are driven by the same needs, interests, aspirations, limitations, and fears as they were when they visited medieval marketplaces. Digital might condition us to actuate ourselves differently, but it doesn’t change us.

That means if a forecast suggests otherwise, it’s either foolish or purposely a lie. Your customers won’t stop being curious or judgmental (or whatever) next year. They won’t want content from you that doesn’t address their needs, and they won’t want to change whatever imaginary relationships your brand evangelists wish existed between them and your business. You need to be relevant to their purchase decision making in 2022 and not to tangential or unrelated issues. Your “purpose” will remain to sell them stuff.

Put your money on people being people, just like always.

Second, does it sound too good to be true? It’s less a prediction than a certainty that there will be more opportunities for you to pay for publication of your content, as established and novel platforms have figured out how to monetize their brand names (why try to earn coverage in so-and-so media if you can buy it by producing a TikTok video?), delivering glossy reports that make your internal stakeholders feel important.

Such “paid media” is really advertising only without the creativity, purchase decision-relevant content (see Point #1 above), or accountability. Views aren’t purchases.

Next year will challenge you to uncover and present content that could get in front of your customers because of its credibility and merit, and gives them information that’s so timely and useful to them that they’d be willing to pay for it if they had to instead of relying on you buying their attention. Promised shortcuts will continue to be too good to be true.

Third, why are you interested in it? Another eternal truth of human nature is that keeping our jobs is always a component of our jobs, regardless of the other outcomes of our work. For some of us, it’s the primary driver of every decision, while others seem to exhibit at least an occasional disregard for their job security. The pandemic has moved millions of people to explore and reconsider how this tension plays out in their careers.

It’s through this lens that you’re seeing every forecast for what’s on tap for next year. It’s a bias, too, that makes things seem more or less relevant to you and will impact what you do in 2022.

Why and how you interpret and apply predictions is far more important than any of the predictions themselves. What are you trying to accomplish next year? Why do you think it’s right for you and/or for your business?

Making a forecast for your own motivations and goals is probably loads more important to your success than any blather about the near-future of communications or marketing.

Happy New Year!

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Interrogative on Live Interviews

A company exec in front of a live camera or microphone is a unique opportunity to connect directly with an audience. So why are so many of them so bad?

Spend some time watching the daytime programming at CNBC, for instance, and you’ll see what I mean. Most interviews are filled with buzzwords and non-news piled on top of news that have me remarking “wait, she didn’t even answer the question” more often than not. Most exec podcast interviews put me to sleep.

Such stumbles don’t come with lots of hard work: PR people produce soaringly generic talking points which then get vetted by marketers to make sure they’re suitably skewed to whatever messages they’ve deemed important. Approvals from legal departments ensure there’s nothing said that could be construed to be surprising or meaningful.

It takes a community to produce an “on brand” throwaway interview.

Before you prep for the next one, here are three questions you should ask yourself:

First, is your exec prepared to be a human being? Doing so is the first if not sole objective of any live appearance, whether video or audio. These media are visceral, not literal, which means that your exec needs to successfully establish credibility and rapport with the interviewer and audience before regurgitating whatever branding blather you’d made her memorize.

This is easier said than done, since many top execs don’t really come across like real people in their daily lives, having spent their careers learning to measure their responses and guard their personal feelings. Some never had much of a personality in the first place, while others have horribly inflated opinions of their own likability (which deservedly should be kept hidden, however imperfectly).

Therefore, you need to help them understand that their goal isn’t to appear smart or leaderly but rather to be human. If they aren’t comfortable with this, you must teach them a few tricks to pretend.

For instance, tell them it’s OK to not know the answer to a question, to smile or frown, and to always speak in the first person (only royalty get to use “we” without sounding like a stunt double for a real person). Talking about the dullest news should be presented in terms of how the exec feels about, wonders, or has hopes for it, and not as if he were some spirit hovering over an operating table describing a procedure.

There are also tricks, like pausing before answering as if they’re actually thinking about what to say (Winston Churchill used to script them) or complimenting their interviewers because they’ve asked a good question or made an interesting point.

Humanity first. Messaging later.

Second, will she talk about solving a real problem? Every strategy seems intended to “create value” these days, especially if it involves technology, as if there were ever plans in the past to purposefully spend or destroy it. It’s a term that comes from corporate boardrooms, where you create value because you can’t credibly explain what you’re really doing.

Further, many (if not most) interviews are booked in hopes of talking about some recent news event. Even if your exec gains airtime to do it, the messaging will be mostly DOA because the media and its consumers are far more interested in ongoing challenges and work; the news prompt is, by definition, no longer newsworthy unless your exec can add something to it.

Whatever the prompt for the appearance — last quarter’s earnings, a tech innovation that proves time travel is possible — your exec should be prepared to talk about some real, unresolved problem and how your company is focused on it.

Think real problems that involve suffering, injustices, and other impacts that don’t require a fancy online dashboard to measure, and not making shopping easier.

Real problems require vision, ingenuity, fortitude, and a host of qualities that audiences respect, both in individuals and from the businesses they represent. Problems make strategies necessary, not just nice to have, and they make talking about your latest breakthrough in using machine intelligence to mine microbial data, or whatever, far more relevant and memorable.

Third, does your exec know that humility is the new confidence? If your exec had all the answers, your company would be the most profitable and untouchable entity if all of human history; if this isn’t the case, live interviews should be considered installments in your search for answers.

Sure, your exec should articulate goals, aspirations, and even talk about confidence in the future as long as it’s couched in terms of personal hope and intention. But the future is unwritten and any interview should reflect this fact.

All of us face that truth every moment of every day.

Maybe it would help if your exec thought of your blathertastic “brand journey” as an ongoing experiment; this would mean that even the most impressive recent accomplishment would be tempered by admission that more work and even greater risk/reward work would follow. One successful test begets the next, which may or may not succeed.

This perspective would allow your exec to use live interviews to invite audiences and journalists into this ongoing narrative, and give them milestones upon which to track it.

It’ll take work to reconfigure the way your execs do live interviews, and you may never succeed in getting marketers and/or lawyers to let them talk like human beings. But even small steps in that direction will improve the credibility and benefit of doing the gigs in the first place. Maybe add some humanity training to the next media training?

It might even create value.

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Interrogative on Technology

New technology is an old idea. We’ve been singing its praises since our caveman ancestors first learned how to grill.

Today’s digital tech is so pervasive that it makes every business a technology company, which makes it particularly hard forth to differentiate based on tech alone. It’s why the most popular tech stories are about people, usually at startups and the occasional billionaire rocket launch. Big, established businesses that tangibly do more with tech that any entrepreneur promises are left out of most coverage.

There are three questions that will help you get in on those conversations:

First, are you changing the world? Tech that enhances, improves, or otherwise makes things better in some incremental way is what drives the vast majority of real business innovation, development, and sales, yet it’s DOA from a news perspective; only your most informed customer cares that your whatchamacallit increases resonance variability by 4 percent, yielding a richer user experience, or that your thingamajig works at the periphery of the value chain instead of midway.

Yet talking in this mixture of gibberish and complacency (“we’re the leader in…” is a kiss of death phrase) keeps most tech marcom content on the sidelines. It doesn’t help that a big company’s stock price is dependent on its ability to reliably make profits, and even the suggestion of a Hail Mary pass could whack said value. There’s no money in dreaming big.

You need to question this assumption, however, and challenge yourself to see a bigger, longer play in what you’re trying to accomplish. Little steps aren’t so little if they’re steps along a bigger journey and are communicated with consistency and meaning.

Second, are you aware of your stakeholders’ interests and concerns? Most technology development happens based on prior tech performance specs and expert analyses of what improvements are possible within the limitations of time and budget. Making it relevant to different stakeholders is an afterthought that usually involves bolting-on references to the IoT, smart (insert industry here), AI, or some other buzzworthy topic suggested by management consultants (who make the same suggestions to everyone).

The thing is, nobody cares about technology except technology people; the rest of us are happy using streaming movies and flying in airplanes with limited to no understanding of how those miracles are even possible.

This means that your stakeholders probably aren’t interested in your latest tech announcement, so the media outlets they consume aren’t, either.

Instead, what if the comms planning for your next tech news started with a deep understanding of what issues a particular stakeholder group cared about, we’re hearing about in the media, and then imagining how and where your content might fit into that construct?

Third, are you willing to talk about people? Anybody who innovates for a living knows that it can be challenging, scary, thrilling, rewarding, dumbfounding, demoralizing, and then all of it all over again. Even the most inarticulate engineer feels deeply about her or his work, maybe never using the word “passion” but certainly revealing it by doing things like working at home or forgetting to bathe.

How is it that corp comms manages to produce content devoid of any of this humanity?

Before you produce that next glossy video or try to erase your spokesperson’s personality with corporate messaging, consider letting people talk about their technology journeys, not just your corporate destination. Let them share hopes, dreams, successes and failures. Let them be themselves, whether in front of a camera or simply getting their names pasted on top of expertly produced blog posts.

Like I said at the beginning, technology stories are people stories, and there’s no reason your comms have to be stuck inside a box that is separated from goals, stakeholder needs, and authentic personal voices.

It’s time to think outside the box. Now there’s a new idea!

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McKinsey Spins As The World Burns

I promised myself at the start of this year that I’d forego writing about the ethics and mechanics of communications, but today’s newspaper forced me to make an exception: After getting accused of coddling the world’s worst polluters in a widely-shared news article earlier this week, McKinsey & Co. ran an unapologetic defense as a full page ad in the Financial Times (here’s the text on their website).

The company has the right to make its case and deserves credibility points for standing by what they do, but all of the points get erased by the spin of the author’s arguments which I’ll address in specific references below:

“Why do we serve high-emission companies? Because that is where the emissions are.”

The ad’s headline is deceptive because it poses McKinsey’s engagement with such companies as focused on their emissions (later on, the copy will reference many “climate transitions” in another fudge) which of course isn’t true, since the scope of their projects ranges far and wide. The subhead repeats that positioning along with the requisite reference to the upcoming COP26 conference and then the first paragraph does so again (while noting a partial list of industries it serves).

“And no, there is no contradiction between working in these sectors and our commitment to the transition.”

Repetition is a proven tool for producing memory retention and it’s clear that McKinsey’s main point is that it’s not guilty of doing anything wrong because it’s not guilty of doing anything wrong. The reference to “our commitment to the transition” is a notable add at this point, considering the reader has no idea what it is. A quick visit to the company’s website doesn’t add any clarity though the repetitive headline features front and center on the home page.

“Hard-to-abate sectors represent 81 percent of the global economy’s carbon footprint. Like it or not, there is no way to deliver emissions reductions without working with these industries to rapidly transition.”

Sure there is, starting with replacing them with technologies and solutions that don’t set the planet on fire.

“At the same time, the world economy needs to keep going and growing, and fossil fuels (more than 80% of primary energy demand) and non-electric cars (99% of the global fleet) are what moves it today.”

This long paragraph sets out the full employment argument for McKinsey’s consultants: meeting emissions reduction targets is a woefully huge, complex challenge that touches everyone everywhere and McKinsey is in the thick of it making sure its clients keep making money. There’s no crime whatsoever in such a value prop — it’s actually a smart offer — but it’s simply not true, or rather it ignores aforementioned woefully huge, complex challenge. “Transition” is happyspeak for clients who’re scared of the blunt and shocking changes they will either implement of suffer.

“We…have completed some 600 engagements in the past two years alone focused on helping our clients with climate transitions.”

The original reference to “transitions” to low or no-emissions is now a more vague “climate transitions,” which could reference a wide variety of consulting gigs since so much of what’s going on these days is brought into focus by a lens of impacting climate or it’s influences on business. The graph goes on to list four examples of that work, none of which cite climate impact as the sole or priority nature of the engagement; even the most overt reference, to “helping a chemical company reach net zero” could reference a project analyzing staff pay that happened down the hallway from the folks trading carbon offsets. Other projects to track emissions, price climate risk, and create “end-to-end EV solutions” (whatever that means) assert no responsibility for delivering emission reduction goals. They’re simply along for the ride.

“These aren’t easy problems. But no one said this would be easy.”

So true. Nobody said it, and an idea introduced with the sole purpose of using it as foil for the point you want to make is called a “straw man.”

“We are also walking our talk: McKinsey is well on the way to being net zero in our own operations by 2030.”

Actually, it’s exhibiting the leadership over its own businesses that it fails to provide to its high-emitter clients. It helps that it doesn’t manufacture anything except PowerPoint presentations and copy for newspaper ads, but still, this point seems legit and deserves to be recognized.

“To us, the practical case then is straightforward: cutting emissions means cutting emissions. Abandoning the hard-to-abate sectors does not advance the cause.”

OK, back to the unmitigated spin. Up to this point, McKinsey has purposefully used the mushy term “climate transition” to describe the journeys of its clients. It has taken no responsibility for overtly helping them cut emissions, and its engagements only indirectly “focus” on this cause. So, how again are they advancing it?

“McKinsey won’t always get this right, and we recognize that we are also a work-in-progress ourselves.”

The longest graph in the essay is an extended riff on the huge, complex challenge noted earlier and a commercial for why clients should hire them (the “I may be a caveman, but…” intro is standard sales technique). Halfway through it repeats the fiction of “…an orderly, just, and inclusive transition,” as if in conscious denial of the UN’s recent announcement that the world is “on track for climate catastrophe.” Good client marketing isn’t necessarily good policy.

“Our goal is ambitious and clear: to be the world’s largest force for decarbonization in the private sector.”

Really? That sounds like a truly big deal, so why is that declaration of corporate purpose a single sentence at the end of a long letter? How is that ambition translated into operational policies, like what clients it will take on or on what projects it will focus? Where are the metrics for the impact for being “the world’s largest force?” Check McKinsey’s About Us page on its website for the answers: There are none.

“Companies can’t go from brown to green without getting a little dirty. And if that means some mud gets thrown at McKinsey, we can live with that.”

The closing statements to the letter are too cute for their own good. McKinsey isn’t helping companies go from brown to green but rather to some muddled color in-between, and I thought the whole point of transition was to move from more to less dirt. Characterizing the complaints about the company’s work for carbon emitters as mudslinging is an insult to people who have legitimate questions about the nature and pace of McKinsey’s engagements.

Maybe the problem with this ad starts with its headline, which echoes the line attributed to bank robber John Dillinger (when asked why he robs banks, he replied because “that is where the money is”). Maybe positioning McKinsey’s work with big carbon emitters as theft revealed more than the letter hoped to communicate?

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A “Very Nice!” PR Stunt

Sasha Baron Cohen’s fictional character Borat is a lout from Kazakhstan who says “very nice!” after saying and doing not-so-nice things. The real Kazakhstan has embraced it, and I think it’s a brilliant stunt.

I must admit that I wasn’t even sure Kazakhstan was a real country when the first Borat movie came out in 2006, and I was marginally entertained as Cohen used cluelessness to compensate, just barely, for the repulsiveness of his character, starting with Borat living in an ugly, twisted rural village. The Kazakhstan government ran newspaper ads in the US refuting the portrayal and banned showings of the movie at home.

Now, it has created tourism vignettes using “very nice!” as the catchphrase.

What changed?

An American living in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, came up with the tie-in idea and pitched it to the country’s tourism board, which approved production of short ads pretty much on the spot.

A Kazakh Tourism exec explained at the Huffington Post:

“Kazakhstan’s nature is very nice. Its food is very nice. And its people, despite Borat’s jokes to the contrary, are some of the nicest in the world.”

Supposedly the content has generated lots of social media love.

Now, the marketing strategy is kinda suspect since I just checked and it would take three flights, 19 hours, and thousands of dollars for me to get from Chicago to my vacation in Almaty, and none of what the videos promote is “nice” enough to motivate me to expend that much effort. But maybe the underlying purpose is to raise awareness that might lead to other business or development opportunities? I don’t think they’re spending anything on media, so that might make sense.

The bigger point for me is that other brands could consider similar activities to ride a perceived negative into revealed positive.

I’m thinking Spam, for starters.

Actually, I’ve long believed that Spam missed the opportunity to play off of the zillions of dollars’ worth of exposure the word got in the early days of email. I could have imagined so many different ways to work with it…”the Spam you want,” “there’s good Spam and bad spam,” or “The inbox of your mouth wants this Spam”…or wacky promotions, like a Spam-branded email spam filter that accrued points worth discounts on their product, or whatever.

Instead, Hormel’s reaction was an ambivalent silence and, unless I’m missing something, its product has the cultural relevance of Tang.

Can you think of other products or services that face similar challenges that are really opportunities? 

Making a list of them might be “very nice!”

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Airbnb To Disrupt Gig Economy Branded App Engagement

Former Apple design guru Jony Ive is working with Airbnb to “design new products” prior to its upcoming IPO. Last week’s story was covered extensively across mainstream and tech media. 

What’s the big news? Airbnb plans to redesign its app and website.

There’s a lesson to be learned here: All that matters is the headline. I mean, there’s no story to this story. The rules for web and app design are pretty much established science, driven primarily by the need to seem familiar to users and easy and reliable for doing whatever they want to do. There’s no way Airbnb is going to blow up those rules before its IPO, let alone no compelling reason to do it any other time.

According to a blog post from Airbnb’s CEO, Ive will not only help the company design new products but hire new designers for an internal team. This comes after the company fired 25% of its employees in May.

What exactly are those other products that Ive will design? Maybe there’s something more fundamental going on here, like the potential for designing elements that Airbnb rentals would embrace…think common signage that have been the staple of franchising for decades, only more substantive to experience.

It would be amazing if Airbnb’s shared, say, common controls for heating and cooling, maybe some consistent amenities (SPF for a warming world?) or some cool “incidental” tech for dealing with common traveler woes (a magic de-wrinkler, for instance)? What about a secure lockbox for safeguarding valuables?

In other words, Airbnb could be on the road to operating like a crowdsourced hotel brand.

But we don’t know that, or much of anything else, since the coverage was limited almost exclusively to the headline of Ive working with Airbnb. Journalists didn’t even try and tail to question how it could possible make any sense.

We communicators should take that to heart.

Every announcement we write should have one single, memorable idea that can be expressed in a handful of words. It has to have stand-alone value, which means it must reference doing something tangible that suggests, by the action itself, a bigger idea. Set a goal. Reveal an accomplishment. Announce a partnership, like Airbnb.

Lead with the act, not the meaning. In fact, don’t waste space explaining why it matters…because if you have to explain, nobody will understand or believe it. It certainly won’t help getting it covered by the media. Also, skip all of the technobabble language and evidence-based proof points of functionality.  

David Ogilvy once said:

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

He was right, though in his day it was assumed editors and readers still had patience for the content that followed. Now, I’d say spend your time crafting the best possible headline because everything else is incidental.

Maybe there’s a second lesson, too, which is be very, very wary of the Airbnb IPO.

The two trends of post-pandemic living and the concept of the gig economy collide in Airbnb’s business model. Travel is down and its recovery won’t look like the past. It’s not impossible to imagine Airbnb hosts getting classified as employees, or their physical sites getting held to regulated standards of safety and security (and not just customer expectations)?

Worse, there’s no unique IP behind its offering so any number of competitors could whittle away at Airbnb’s customer base. The only thing is truly owns is its brand and whatever data insights into rooms and customers it has collected.

This is what leads Airbnb to an announcement about marketing and a celebrity advisor.

Again, maybe there’s a lot more going on (I sure hope so), and there’s a slight chance evidence of it will surface in the IPO documents, though it’s far more likely that the company will hammer on the proven excuse of brand value. Investors, like consumers of media, tend to rely on headlines. It’ll also tout wonderful benefits while ignoring or downplaying any direct or indirect negatives, which is how companies like Facebook achieved incredible valuations.

Treating the messy, undetermined future like an externality to the graphics on a management consultancy presentation is another successful trick.

So, write better headlines. And maybe avoid the IPO?

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A Photo Op In Outer Space?

A few weeks ago, Estee Lauder sent 10 bottles of Advanced Night Repair lotion to a photo shoot on the International Space Station (“ISS”), if all went accordingly to plan, and the images will find their way into social media marketing.

The New York Post reported comments the company’s president made about it at space industry forum:

“I’m a risk-taker. That tends to basically come with ideas that are a little bit, you know, outside of the normal, traditional ways of doing marketing.”

Three cheers for Lauder on the stunt. Of course, it will be forgotten a zeptosecond after the images appear on Twitter, and it won’t sell a bottle of lotion, but it sure beats the typical cosmetics industry nonsense claims about doing actual science.

That’s what NASA should be doing instead of hosting photo shoots.

Turns out NASA has a department — commercial spaceflight development — dedicated to helping businesses to find reasons to use its launch and orbiting capabilities. It let Pizza Hut to “deliver” a pizza to the ISS astronauts and announced plans to ship Tom Cruise there for a film project.

I’m not sure NASA could do a better job of making itself irrelevant if it tried.

The fundamental problem with using space as the backdrop for marketing or moviemaking is that it’s unnecessary. Computer graphics can more than compensate for limitations of gravity and scenery. You could have told me that the outer space scenes in Brad Pitt’s Ad Astra were actually shot in space, and my reaction would have been a yawn. Make believe has nothing to do with real.

It also attaches NASA to the silliness of make believe.

Remember, we Americans have paid for the research, development, and execution of every launch of living things into space since the US strapped a rhesus macaque to a V-2 rocket in 1948, and we’re paying for upkeep on the ISS. 

Exploring space is incomprehensibly complicated, extremely dangerous, encourages and yields vital technology innovations, and is otherwise incredibly important for the future of America and all of humanity.

And seeing the ISS as the set for a face lotion tweet is supposed to inspire us, let alone prove a return on our investment?

Er, yup, according to the director of NASA’s commercialization initiative, who said at Bloomberg: “We need to expand people’s perspective on what we can accomplish in space.” The initiative is also supposed to earn money to fund future exploration (Lauder paid $128,000 for the photo shoot, which is 0.000005 of NASA’s 2020 budget). Space tourism is under consideration, too, perhaps pending Tom Cruise’s Tripadvisor review.

There has to be a better way.

There’s a lot of research that goes on in space, most of which is focused on solving space-based problems like growing food in zero or low gravity. Why couldn’t some or more of that be focused on products that are sold and used back on Earth?

The vacuum and low/lack of gravity in space should allow for unique execution of processes. I’m thinking mixing chemicals, testing combinations, things like that. But my imagination is limited by my training as a marketer, so I’m the guy who would have come up with the photo shoot garbage.

Couldn’t the scientists and engineers at NASA do better than me and imagine hundreds of things that could get done in space that are impossible to do on Earth (or at least fundamentally different enough to offer the potential of some commercial cachet)?

Why couldn’t Lauder figure out how to do real science and find some way its revitalizing syrup achieves a special quality if mixed in space, and then sell bottles infused with it at neighborhood grocery stores”

Forget tested or assembled in China. Why not brand things as coming from Space?

There’s also the proud tradition of consumer technologies spun off from NASA innovation, from transistors and Teflon to Tang. You’d think the commercial spaceflight development folks would be trolling the last few years’ worth of development for ideas that could end up in some new consumer product.

There’s also the not inconsequential go-forward projects to consider, whether going back to the Moon or landing on Mars. Why aren’t categories of commercial partners working to “mainstream” technologies developed on those journeys?

I guess I don’t want to be entertained by actors or cosmetics companies in space, and I worry that encouraging this kind of stuff is going to make it harder for NASA to argue for funding dollars down the road. 

I want to be inspired by NASA doing meaningful, real things, even if that meant creating a successor to Tang.

That might even warrant a photo op.

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Wait, The Cloud Is A Thing?

IBM has announced its carving off its tech services business because it sees the future in cloud computing and AI. In this New York Times article, Ginni Rometty, IBM’s executive chair and former chief executive, said cloud computing, enhanced by artificial intelligence, “is now IBM’s enduring platform.”

I can just imagine the management consultant presentation that delivered this conclusion, backed up by reams of wildly costly “research” and interviews required to reach such a shockingly novel insight. IBM probably paid through the nose for it, as have all of its large competitors (most of whom have already been told the same thing).

I just don’t understand it.

For starters, at least some of the blather is a cover story for IBM’s plan to spin off its technology services business. Such spinoffs underly many of those management consultancy projects by promising that they’ll allow businesses to “focus” on core activities. There’s a trend cycle in business management that oscillates between favoring conglomerates and pure plays; we’re in the waning days of the latter, considering any of the cloud market leaders IBM supposedly emulates are vast conglomerates, so the same consultants will be advocating for combining businesses before long.

It’s mostly short-term financial jujitsu intended to make it easier for equity analysts to market stocks to their clients.

The longer term trend is real, though: The New York Times article cites the established fact that more and more companies are outsourcing IT and computing needs to Big Tech conglomerates. The assumption is that IBM’s business serving customers that operate their own IT shops somehow impedes it from competing/working with the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.

But there are dark clouds on the, er, cloud horizon, from regulatory scrutiny to the emergent discomfort many consumer have with its propensity of sharing private data with evildoers. The evolution of smart tech “at the edge” of networks is moving to make incessant reliance on the cloud unnecessary. Businesses may decide that having to rely entirely on one Big Tech company in order to function may not be such a good idea.

Oh, and every company is going to fight harder and harder to grab the data necessary to educate the AI the will run those cloud services, followed by the companies themselves and then the entire world.

IBM supposedly hopes to somehow finagle its way through this mess and help companies plug into any cloud provider, which sounds like a promising positioning strategy considering how things are going to change, perhaps wildly, in the mid and long-term.

I would have thought its services division enables and differentiates that thinking.

As a communicator, making the case for working with client IT departments to transition into the future would have been a huge and fun challenge. Conversely, the book on promoting AI and cloud computing has already been written, so there’s not much new that’ll come from that choice. 

Its management consultants should have been tasked with providing a better explanation.

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Trust Isn’t Free Anymore

We used to take trust for granted, and we depended on that unmentioned certainty. Then the Internet blew it up. We need to reclaim it.

Traditionally, our institutions did little to earn trust. They asserted it and people gave it, presuming that governments, news media, academia, financial institutions and markets, even religions had some internal makeup that informed their judgments and substantiated their authority. Raw power, whether over our lives or afterlives, was a core component of that authority: people trusted them because people were afraid not to.

Trust wasn’t a cost to them, only a benefit. That’s a textbook example of a market externality.

The Internet changed that dynamic when it provided visibility into institutions and made data on their actions more accessible.

It turns out that behind the walls of institutions are individuals, each with her or his own biases, agendas, and imperfections. They, like brands, have rules and rituals attached to them, but they rely on people to live them. That means institutions can make mistakes and do things for the wrong reasons. They can and do lie. There’s no reason to implicitly trust that they’ll do otherwise; in fact, we’ve learned to trust that there’s probably some ulterior motive, whether unconscious or sinister, behind every institutional action.

Because that’s how we view one another.

Suddenly, the cost of trust has skyrocketed and there’s no clear path to affording it, let alone reclaiming it.

As a business communicator, I run into this conundrum every day. Clients have things to say but lots of stakeholders simply don’t trust their authenticity, accept their relevance, or believe that they’re true.

My firm is constantly experimenting with ways to overcome these challenges, and I can share at least three promising tools:

First, stop declaring victory. Every press release or social announcement that touts an accomplishment is inherently untrustworthy, because everyone knows or suspects that 1) The story is more complicated, 2) The word/image choice is intended to persuade more than prove, and 3) Every milestone leads to the next. This is a particular chronic problem in the B2B space, where companies declare an endless stream of firsts, bests, and mosts as if the broader context and associated truths can be swiped to the side with a flowery executive quote filled with buzzwords.

Companies earn trust by sharing what’s left undone as often, and as honestly, as they highlight their achievements. 

Second, process is everything. This isn’t the same thing as “radical transparency,” which is a wet dream of the digerati that has no basis in lived experience. But it’s true that stakeholders today want visibility into how things get done, which is how companies can reveal the why of what they do. This means sharing accomplishments and disappointments; in fact, the latter can be far more trustworthy than the former. It’s also content that usually comes with uncertainty, suspense, and humanity…all qualities of meaningful communications. 

Companies earn trust by letting stakeholders into ongoing, imperfect, and incomplete processes.

Third, never talk alone. I grew up in a world where media interactivity meant yelling at the broadcast TV screen; now, stakeholders have the ability to react (vet, share, rank, respond) often before content is made available publicly. It never ceases to amaze me or my team that companies act as if these conversations are somehow after-the-fact or that their content has any inherent meaning apart from this engagement. Instead, why not involve stakeholders in the content: For instance, make an announcement to employees and position that as the news, or share something with another stakeholder group (or critic) and announce it. 

Companies earn trust by acknowledging conversations that decide its validity, not simply throwing out content in hopes of influencing it. The mechanism is the message.

Like the costs of pollution, the cost of trust is no longer outside the purview of our opinion or financial markets. The genie is out of the bottle: Everyone knows that governments know one thing and say another, auditing firms miss things, news media can’t be wholly objective and academics sometimes don’t know what they’re talking about, markets do not treat all participants equally or fairly, religious leaders are human beings, not saints, and brands weren’t invented to stand for things but rather sell things. 

We business communicators need to understand these costs and figure out how to address them.

Trust isn’t free anymore.