Thursday, September 27, 2007

Changing the World One Step at a Time

Every day, we have the opportunity to work with technology companies that, in some way, are changing the world. And, in fact, when we work with them, we really try to focus on how (in their small way) the companies are changing the world. This is very exciting job!

As I have watched the coverage of the Myanmar (formerly Burma) protests against long-standing oppression, I am moved by the fact that the reason we know what's going on is because of the confluence of many small technology advances through the years: the citizens of Myanmar have been able to transmit images and news to the rest of the world because of cell phones and the Internet. It's awe-inspiring to realize that these communications breakthroughs are the result of small steps and contributions from many companies like those we have represented through the years. In this case, it all means that because of many inventions -- often arcane and unheralded -- democracy is being given a chance to emerge (we hope!).

What is the message here? (Of course, there are many messages about the actual political situation in question -- but that is not my focus.) The point I want to make is "think big". When looking at your invention and its place in the world:

  • Be realistic; but
  • Draw the line between your small breakthrough and what it could mean in the long term.

The resulting perspective, in addition to having the potential to make a good story, is likely to provide insight into your positioning and long-term vision.

After all, with all but a few exceptions, most of the really big changes we have seen in the world because of technology have come because of small things that change the world one step at a time.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Tale of Two Responses: Apple and Southwest Airlines

This has been a fascinating week for those of us who communicate for a living. Two companies, Apple and Southwest Airlines, both of whom are famous for nurturing their customer loyalty, were called upon to issue public responses to actions they each took. Apple handled it very well; Southwest failed.

This is ironic (though I imagine not particularly unique) because, of the two companies, Apple has had a long history of being less flexible and closed in its strategy; alternatively, Southwest makes a business of being flexible in the way they deal with customers.

Here’s a version of the situations as I understand them:

  • Apple announced a price reduction of the iPhone to $200; loyal Apple customers who had bought the iPhone at the original much-higher price balked at such a deep price cut so soon after the product’s launch; Steve Jobs initially brushed this customer response off; and later -- within the same day -- Apple issued a fairly comprehensive apology to its loyal customers and offered them a rebate. (Here’s one news story.)
  • Southwest Airlines pulled aside a woman who, it claimed, was too provocatively dressed to travel. The woman took her embarrassment public, including showing the outfit, which few people found offensive (though many note that the top is tight and the skirt short – like lots of other travelers these days).(Here’s one news story.). Southwest Airlines' repeated response to press inquiries has been one version or another of “we were right.” Here’s Southwest’s own Blog response.

It seems that though both companies are superb at building and maintaining customer loyalty, Apple has shown superb communications skills (as they have often for a long time) and Southwest failed to use some pretty basic communications skills effectively.

One of the first tenets of “crisis” communications is acknowledge the problem/mistake quickly and take action to repair things. But, while Apple did just that and turned a potentially customer-loyalty-damaging situation into a win (both perceptually and financially), Southwest took a situation that could have been minor and turned a molehill into a mountain.

Yes, I know that you might argue that Southwest is taking a “family friendly” position and broadcasting it; and hence, seizing a big opportunity. Maybe that’s the correct way to view their actions, though I am a frequent Southwest traveler and I don’t get the impression that their customer loyalty approach is as much about family values as it is about flexibility.

It will be quite interesting to see how these two sets of actions play out over time.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Vertical Integration and Communications

I had the wonderful opportunity to tour the Carver Boat factory in Pulaski, WI last week. It was fascinating for a variety of reasons. But what struck me most was that our host repeatedly went to great effort to reinforce the benefits of being vertically integrated (predictability, reliability, and quality assurance). This was such a different perspective from what we in technology companies have come to value; and it was quite provocative. As you know, the "Dell" model, outsourcing, fabless semiconductor companies, etc. are today the rule, rather than the exception, in the technology world. And if you choose to make an exception to that rule, you will raise a lot of eyebrows.

But, this very interesting and unusual perspective sparked some thinking about a conversation I had last week with a large company that is working to remake its image. It's not that this company is or is not vertically integrated; rather, I was struck with the fact that at Roeder-Johnson our view is that most companies (particularly large companies) fail to understand the tremendous importance of "vertically integrated messages".

If you have read this blog before, you probably can guess what I mean by the new term "vertically integrated messages". In short, it is a phrase that implies that messages need to be consistent throughout an organization rather than piecemeal. And that vertical integration stems from a clear understanding of the "essence" of an organization, how it manifests in each of its parts and the whole, and how this essence can be communicated in such a way that the language stands separately or together for each of the parts as well as the whole.

I know, some of you are probably saying that this is not a realistic view in today's transparent communication environment. But we disagree. Sure, today you certainly can't control every word ever mentioned about your company; but if you have a clear vision of who you are, and then proceed to manifest it throughout the company -- not just in some superficial messages -- the market will figure it out. As a matter of fact, we contend that if you really do have a clear understanding of your vision and you execute it well (including in your communications), the market will do a better job of understanding you clearly than when we just had to rely on the far more limited distribution of a few short words to get the message out.

What does this mean practically?

  • From what I can tell, the Carver Boat Corporation has done a great job of this: they know who they are, implement it through their execution, instill that vision clearly through the organization in lots of ways, and then they communicate it clearly.
  • The large organization I referenced must really work to understand the essence (or "high concept") that it has built through the years, manifest it in all they do, and then talk about it clearly. (By the way, I felt the company understood this.)
  • If any organization tries to just posit a position that is not based in reality, the market will figure it out.
I would never have guessed that a visit to a solid, midwestern company where boats are built would so clearly underscore one of the key tenets of communications!

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