Lessons from retail: avoid jargon

While I’m between full-time employers, I’m working a part-time job in big-box retail this holiday season to earn a little Christmas cash. I’m also learning some value brand lessons, including this one:

Avoid the jargon – Every industry – and brand – has its own jargon. When used with people in the know, it speeds communication and delivery of the brand promise. When used with a new employee, however, it can create confusion and, in extreme cases, brand disconnect.

In my big-box retail job, I’m often asked to replenish products on the retail floor. The manager once asked me to replenish the “KCK” which, only when I asked, did I learn was the “Kohl’s Cares For Kids” stuffed Dr. Seuss figures (100 percent of the proceeds goes to children’s charities!). When I picked up the hangers at the POS (“point of sale”), I was asked “are you the somethingsomething 27″ which is a sort of second-in-command manager on the shift (I said I didn’t know, but I didn’t think so). And I’ve been asked to “fill or kill” “towers and tables” which means to replenish or remove the specialty sale displays that we put in the ailes for seasonal merchandise.

In each case, I had to ask for further explanation. When I thought I knew the answer, but realized I didn’t, I had to guess. Imagine for a minute that the employee wasn’t as willing to take risks or ask questions as am I. Would the use of jargon hinder or help the situation? Would the employee be able to quickly and efficiently demonstrate the brand in the presence of employees?

I’m guessing it’s going to hurt communication and, potentially, the brand experience because of a delayed or – in the worst case – incorrect response by the employee.

Brand happens, and by taking a few extra seconds to use everyday language when engaging new employees, you can speed comprehension and let employees get on to the task of creating a great experience for your customers.

Are there terms and phrases that mean only something to you as an insider? If so, how to you welcome in new employees and arm them with the tools to embrace your brand?

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Engage everyone in brand management

>The doorbell rang, earlier tonight and a neighbor, wearing a harness filled with a little baby, asked me to come restart her mower. When I arrived, I quickly started the mower and proceeded to mow the lawn, not wishing to see the tiny mom with the tinier baby struggle with the mower. Within a few seconds, I started wondering how she had accomplished the one trip around the lawn before the mower stopped. Pushing the mower was shear torture. I rested at the end of each trip around the yard, wondering why it was so difficult. After completing about one-quarter of the yard, I stopped to rest, and commented that I’d never used a mower this hard to push. As she started to walk over to see what my problem was, I realized what my problem was: it was a self-propelled mower, which I had not yet engaged. With the simple push of a lever, the mower practically did the job itself.

I laughed at myself, and then soon realized my experience was a metaphor for brand failure with some of our clients. Like the self-propelled mower, all the great brand management in the world does little good if the employees don’t know how to use it, don’t embrace the brand or don’t own it every day.

My coworkers and I have been discussing this very issue lately, and realized that the failure of many of the brand management advice we give clients is directly attributed to the lack of follow through at the client level. When we include brand training at the front line, company-wide presentations and ongoing training, many clients say they’ll avoid that cost and do it themselves.
Like picking a budget printer who has no contact with the designer or letting your in-house help desk team build the corporate website, internally launching the brand with only in-house resources is a recipe for disaster. In most cases, clients who come to us for brand management consultation and support don’t have the team in-house to define the brand, let alone present the brand to the people responsible for owning the brand. The same outside viewpoint that discovers these clients’ brands is also the best prepared to communicate that effort internally.

Even worse: someone completely outside the brand discernment process steps in at the last minute – without benefit of the lengthy, sometimes painful and always beneficial discussions – hijacks the process and the brand comes out the other end looking like its been through a mower.

The best way to attack the brand job: get many people involved in the beginning – the like-minded and the people most likely to puke on your ideas – in the middle and at the end, then let them get to work. It’s a whole lot easier to get the job done that way.

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Does your brand smell funny?

>First story: A few nights ago, I wandered into the kitchen for a little late night snack and some unfamilar, unpleasant odor hit me. When I asked my wife if she smelled it, she said she thought she smelled something earlier, and that it might be in the refrigerator drip tray. Now I didn’t even know the refrigerator had a drip tray, so I proceeded to remove the little grill at the bottom of the fridge as my wife instructed, and then slowly pulled out the most disgusting puddle of hellish liquid this side of The French Quarter. Holding it as far away from my face as possible, I carried it outside, to the curb and then flushed it with the hose for a full five minutes. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect something that vile to be within feet of the food I eat. When I returned, my wife informed me that the water comes from the self-defrosting fridge and that she has to empty it two or three times a year, particularly with the humidity is up and the water doesn’t evaporate.

Second story: I walked to lunch the other day, and at a fairly busy intersection on my route, I waited for a light. A guy on a nice looking motorcycle approached the red light and I thought to myself, “now there’s one of the good motorcyclists. He’s wearing a helmet, long pants, good boots: he’s representing us motorcyclists.” No sooner had I completed my thought did he blow right through the light and make a right turn without even the slightest pause. In all 50 states of the union, it’s legal to make a right turn on red after a complete stop and yielding to all oncoming traffic.

Both stories are very representative of what happens in many organizations: the marketing or sales or management staff think everything’s going fine, everybody understands the brand and everybody’s living it. Then something starts to smell or someone blows through a stop light: someone ignores a rule, cuts a corner, shuts down early, blows off a customer and all the goodwill goes down the toilet. This is not an ongoing, low grade fever of failure that the zombies bring on: that kind of defect in the brand is pretty apparent. I’m talking about the occasional blip on the screen that goes unnoticed and unchallenged.

I like employees are your first line of brand defense, brand warriors unwilling to give an inch when it comes to protecting the reputation of their brand, unwilling to go to sleep on the job, unwilling to let the drawbridge down after hours.

And when one employee doesn’t do the job, it’s up to the others to let ’em know, hold them accountable. If employees are fully versed in the brand, are trained how to support the brand, tested to ensure they can protect the brand and empowered to defend the brand with every ounce of their being, they shouldn’t be surprised when a co-worker holds them accountable.

Without that level of commitment by everybody involved, a little stink can bring down the brand.

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Wrong too many times to hide

In my last post, I wrote about truth. I think truth is often a casualty in business, a victim of ego. Few people are willing to admit the truth when it makes them look bad, or has the potential to look bad. I’ve been wrong too many times in my career to put my ego before the truth.

In my third job, I was the communications director for a dairy association. My expertise was writing newsletters. In this case, my main responsibility was to explain the value of the dairy check-off – a USDA mandated expenses dairy farmers paid to support generic dairy advertising. My secondary job was to promote ice cream, milk and other dairy products. Now, I’m a suburban kid through and through, always living in middle class neighborhoods in between the tough inner city and the hard working country. While I learned to appreciate the very hard work of dairy farmers and others involved in production agriculture, I did a lot of on-the-job training.

One day, while doing a radio interview promoting June Dairy Month, I delivered ice cream to a morning radio personality. To add a little fun, I also gave him an inflatable cow that was used in grocery store promotions. I told him “It’s not too difficult traveling with an inflatable cow. He packs up real easily.” Without missing a beat, the DJ said, “Uh, Mark. Aren’t dairy cows female?” I can’t remember my response but just remembering it still makes me laugh.

Another time, on the same job, I was taking ice cream to yet another radio station – DJs love ice cream in the morning – on an incredibly hot St. Louis summer day. I had the ice cream in a cooler and it was starting to melt, so I ran into a restaurant near the radio station and asked the manger for some ice to keep my ice cream cold. He looked puzzled, but gave it to me anyway. As I walked out the door, he asked “You know that ice is frozen at 32 degrees and ice cream melts above 0 degrees?” I said, “so?” That’s when he told me that by putting ice on the ice cream I actually helped warm up the ice cream and made it melt faster!

Again, I laugh about it today, but I never put ice in the cooler with my ice cream!

I wonder if the guy who thought up new Coke can laugh about it today. Or the person who designed the Edsel or the Cadillac Cimmaron. What about the team that developed the Martha Steward version of The Apprentice?

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A truth about truth

>It was in my second job, as an editor of a company publication for a large insurance company, that I first learned the power of truth. And what people will do to avoid it.

I was writing a typical article about a committee’s marketing planning efforts. I asked what the team was doing, who was on the team and when they expected to finish the work, and I got a blank stare from the manager who was my source. She said she didn’t want to put a date out there because the team might held accountable to that date.

That’s when I first learned the truth about truth: it’s a moving target.

And I think that’s why so many brands are so bland. Company’s say one thing and act entirely different. There’s no accountability to the brand.

And sometimes, there’s not even a good attempt at being truthful. I was also the editor of a safety magazine for the insurance company, so I got to write articles about propane explosions, vehicle accidents, grain elevator accidents and other things that drive the cost of agribusiness insurance through the roof. On one particular site, the grain elevator manager told me to get on the manlift to go look at the site of a fire at the top of the building, then squeezed himself alongside me, saying “the insurance company doesn’t like it when we do this, but it’ll be okay this one time.” I didn’t bother to remind him I WAS THE INSURANCE COMPANY!

It was clear from my vantage point that the marketing effort was never going to be successful and that operation was an accident waiting to happen. Or was it the other way around?

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Everybody has a story

>As an editor of a small trade magazine, I learned that everybody has a story. Even though I was a freshly graduated communications major, it was my job to figure it out.

I stumbled across a job at a small publishing firm in Collierville, Tennessee after I graduated. I was trying to return to the Memphis area because I was born there and through it would be an interesting place to settle down. The mom-and-pop publishing firm posed unique challenges because mom didn’t get along with pop, and would drop in every few months to mess up everything in the name of “this is how we’ve always done it”, and then leave in a huff for us to clean up. In between these visitations we would work hard to create three pretty good trade magazines covering the upholstered furniture, casegoods furniture and building materials industries.

We got good at finding stories because the publisher would sell an ad, and then send us off to write a story that would say something nice about the advertiser. When I’d ask what the story is, he’d tell me to “find it when you get there.”

On one visit to a manufacturer – I cant’ remember which one – I spent 30 exasperating minutes interviewing the plant manager only to realize that they were doing absolutely nothing that was newsworthy. Finally, almost all hope gone, I asked to take the obligatory tour of the plant, hoping that something would pop up.

And it did. The plant manager stood up from his desk and grabbed a cordless telephone to take with him. This was 1984 and cordless phones were expensive extravagance…and newsworthy. This manager would keep in touch with his plan supervisors via the cordless phone; a sort of high-tech management by walking around. It was a great story that simply appeared.

Another time, I was to interview the vice president of La-Z-Boy. It was the biggest interview I’d ever done, and I was a little nervous as I was lead into Pat Norton’s leather-and-wood-filled office. A large man with pinstriped suit, Norton came out from behind a huge wooden desk and kindly invited me to have a seat on the luxurious leather sofa and asked if I minded if he had lunch brought in for us. I said no, and he quickly asked “what would you like on your hamburger?” This high-powered, highly paid executive was a regular at the local Wendy’s, and he often had the juicy burgers brought in for guests. He ordered up two Norton specials, a specific combination of meat, cheese, pickles, etc. that he was known for. It was a great story, and it was the highlight of the article that focused on the humble, kind, soft-spoken vice president of one of the country’s largest furniture manufacturers.

I’m still looking for stories today. As part of the brand strategy process we use at my firm, we ask a lot of questions and challenge our clients to be truthful about who they are and who they want to me. It’s the first step in producing brands that are different, inviting, relevant and truthful.

And I learned how to do it at my very first job more than 20 years ago.

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A tale of two tours

>On the recent trip to Colorado, I had the opportunity to see how two organizations use their manufacturing operation as a brand building tool, and realize that there are more than one way to tell a story.

First up was the Coors plant in Golden, Colorado. I’m a huge Coors fan and really looked forward to seeing the plant and tasting the samples! When we first arrived at a well-signed parking lot, we quickly got on a small tour bus that covered several blocks of Golden. The driver told us a few things about Golden but we couldn’t here it over the bad public address system.

We soon arrived at the plant entrance and were assigned tickets – labels from the various Coors-produced products. What a cool idea! When the “Zima” group was called together about 10 minutes later, we gathered together for a brief explanation of the process and those under age 35 had their IDs checked for the sampling room, and given a paper band to wear on their wrist.

You can’t always get close to the actual process, so the 20-something cutie that gave our tour, would point out points of interest through a window, and then stop at a video display to show the details in a produced segment of two to five minutes in length. This happened several times before we arrived at a long hallway lined with product displays. The tour guide briefly touched on each product – including original Coors, Coors Light, Coors Non-alcoholic, Keystone, Keystone Light, Keystone Premium, Killian’s Irish Red, Blue Moon, Zima and the recently acquired Molson brand products from Canada.

Then, we moved into the tasting room, which was spacious and staffed with enough people to handle the groups of 10-15 people quickly and efficiently, serving up almost all of the brands available from the brewer. The surprise: we were offered full 16-ounce glasses, limit three. I don’t know about you, but if I drank three of those in 30 minutes, I wouldn’t be able to drive out of the parking lot, let alone leave Golden (not that it would be a bad thing to be stranded in a tasting room of a brewery)!

Then, as with any good plant tour, we exited through the well-appointed gift shop loaded with everything-Coors, back onto the bus and back to the parking lot with a friendly “did everybody have a good time?” from the driver.

The tour was polished, but not overly so. We went down some narrow corridors and steps. I saw elevators, but they seemed off the beaten path and not very user friendly. The nooks and crannies proved that the tour came after the plant, not the other way around. Overall, it was a good use of the company’s brand management investment, in my opinion, and it helped expose me to some other Coors-owned brands that I wasn’t aware of.

On the way through Denver a week later, we toured the Hammond’s Candies factory tour in Denver. It was a much different kind of tour, but every bit as valuable to the brand. Our group was given tickets and asked to wait in a parlor-type room, and unlike the brewery tour, the free samples were on a small counter on one side of the room, along with some historical displays and newspaper clippings on the walls. Kids were encouraged to wear a paper hat just like the workers wore in the factory.

When we were called to begin the tour, a young women with a thick accent asked us to sit on benches in front of a large screen TV, where she used a remote control to start up a DVD explaining the company’s history and the process. The opening image had burned into the screen, leaving a ghostly image behind throughout the film. After asking if this was anybody’s first time throughout the plant (about 10 of the 20 or so people in our group had been there before), she escorted us into the factory and used a microphone to explain the process of making candies by hand that we were seeing through large display windows. She was very pleasant, but a little hard to understand. And she was very engaged, not afraid to answer questions by addressing the person asking the question specifically.

At the end, we were, once again, directed to exit through a retail show room where we could purchase myriad products we had just seen manufactured, including discounted items on the “oops” table that didn’t meet the company’s standards for custom-made orders or weren’t’ exactly the right shape.

This was not as slick as the Coors presentation, but every bit as effective. Above each station in the factory hung a low-budget but neatly printed sign that described the job being done there. The process was quaint, as were the barber poles, candy canes and other sundries they sold. I was a little surprised, however, to see a small selection of non-Hammond branded items – including Gummy Bears and Necco Wafers – for sale in the store. We also saw assorted chocolate covered raisins, peanuts and other items that we had not heard mention of.

The tour, however, was a very good use of marketing funds, again, in my opinion. The evidence, to me, was the number of people who had already been on the tour had come back for another round.

The brand point: if you have a manufacturing operation, figure out a way to get your customers closer to it. Use explanatory graphics and or a video to tell the parts of the story that can’t easily be told in person. And get connected to your customer!

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Me dost think thou protests too much about soccer

>I’m backtracking on my earlier post that soccer’s got a brand problem. If we use Kathy Sierra’s love/hate model, I think soccer – specifically soccer in the U.S. – will be just fine. MLS fans are showing up, teams are starting to make some money and the soccer-haters are besides themselves.

Did you see them come out of the woodwork in the aftermath of the Men’s National Team 0-3 drubbing in their World Cup opener. They fell all over themselves announcing that this proves that soccer will never make it here.

I think all it proves is that soccer is hated by a certain group, to the point of distraction. I think many baseball, basketball and hockey fans are coming unglued with the amount of publicity the sport has gotten and can’t stand sharing the spotlight. Why would they be so vocal?

I watch the standings and will catch a few innings of Cardinals baseball game on TV, but I really don’t care for the sport; I don’t understand its nuances. The NBA is a snoozer until the playoffs for all but the most rabid of fans. And hockey on TV has never been a draw because you don’t get the added benefit of the crowd that is every bit as important as the action on the ice. But you don’ hear me or others slamming those sports in message boards or on blogs. I just don’t care much for them.

To me, they’re like Brussels sprouts, South Park and beauty pageants: they don’t make it on my radar.

Soccer, on the other hand, is on the radar of many sports fans. And during this period of time every four years, the rest of the American sports landscape gets nervous that soccer, someday, may actually reach its potential here, too.

Update 6/19/06: It seems that a lot of people are taking notice. Check out the ratings…soccer during the day on cable is beating out hockey finals on broadcast in primetime!

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Photo: Reuters

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Maybe it was just that time of the season

>We were munching down on our $3.95 piece of chocolate cake in a small bakery along the Blue River running through Breckenridge, Colorado last week. Eating didn’t slow us down from making plans for our next meal, and we asked the cute chick behind the bakery counter if a certain restaurant was any good. She gushed, “Yes, it is.” and nothing more.

That’s the kind of less-than-friendly responses we got from people in this tourist-dependent mountain town. The website says that friends are welcome, so it was quite a shock to see the brand disconnect between the communication and the reality. Perhaps it was simply that time of the month, er, season – they must have been dog-tired from the winter ski season and hadn’t yet geared up for the summer season that, by the closed attractions, must start around June 15th.

The front desk guy at the time share resort that had invited our friends to visit treated her like the guy behind the glass at a hotel that rents rooms by the hour. When he couldn’t find her reservation, he told her “sit down over there and I’ll got figure out the problem.” When my friend relayed this incident to the salesperson showing her the resort, the salesperson replied “that’s because you aren’t an owner.” I wasn’t there so I don’t know if this was said in jest as a bizarre sales pitch or if she really believed it, but it, too, was shocking. She was more important than an owner: she was a prospective owner!

We received the opposite treatment from a man in the tiny town of Fairplay, a burg on the other side of Hoosier Pass from Breckenridge. It was a small mountain town that catered, I’m sure, to workers and residents more than the occasional tourist who stumbled into town. We were considering driving over Boreas Pass, and when we pulled up to ask directions and get some feedback on the safety of crossing the pass in our gas-sucking family minivan, he was quite friendly, telling us that it was a nice drive, not a bad road because it had been regraded two years ago. Then he gave us perfect directions to two different parks in which we could have our picnic lunch.

It was a completely different experience. Two contacts with locals divided by a mountain, and a world apart.

The town of Breckenridge and the entire area was beautiful. Clean. Easy to get around. But, based on our experience, the Breckenridge brand warriors need to get everybody on the same page.

This is a great picture from The Korky on Flickr…I lost my camera somewhere along the way 😦

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I met a zombie in Ogallala

>We managed to survive a six-day vacation across three states without once stopping at the Golden Arches, but we did meet a zombie at an Ogallala, Nebraska Wendy’s.

It was a clear summer evening, and darkness hung in the air as we entered the largely empty Wendy’s restaurant to get a late night meal. After standing at the counter for a couple of minutes, Wes stepped up, looked at the cash register and then yelled at someone in the back, saying “You didn’t sign out at the register.” He then turn to us and asked us if he could take our order.

I should have said, “I doubt it” and moved on. It took 15 minutes to get two rather large orders of burgers, chicken nuggets, fries, baked potatoes and a drink. They had no chicken nuggets, but it would take about three minutes, we told us. After ordering baked potatoes, he said they didn’t have any potatoes, then he said it would take two minutes to get some more, and asked us if we wanted to wait.

After several other missteps, he started to tell us his tale of woe; how he’d been there since 10 that morning, went home for an hour before returning, and how two others had called in sick and they only had one person preparing food. And there was a manager there because I saw her void part of the order he screwed up.

This wasn’t Wes’ fault. He was tired. He was overworked. It was his manager’s fault and the owner’s fault and Wendy’s fault. They didn’t prepare him to own his brand. They didn’t empower him to treat people right, no matter the time of day. He didn’t know or care about the Wendy’s brand; he was just earning a paycheck.

Mike Wagner calls these types of workers zombies, and they can ruin the good work of a brand owner. Wendy’s has a lot of minimum wage workers but I’ve never seen one this willing to stab the brand in the back, all because of lack of sleep.

Ogallala Extra: We also stopped in at a small grocery store and had a great brand experience. It was late so one of the two entrances were locked, as is common when stores are open late. Although we would have appreciated a “use other door” sign, we were greeted by a sweetheart of a cashier who smiled warmly while checking us out, let us out the locked door when we asked about it, and then held it open for another confused late-night shopper. I can’t remember the store name or the employee’s name but I’ll go back if I ever get to Ogallala.

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