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Monday, July 18, 2011

Why Most Gurus Aren't

I don't know what I was was thinking when I became a branding consultant. I had no idea it would get this involved. I mean, I totally knew that the world had no idea what true branding was about. Most of the planet dismisses brand as little more than identity: a name, a logo - and if you're one of the screaming hordes of lemmings - maybe a social media plan a la Facebook. These days, I find myself spending far more time educating clients as to what branding is, and isn't, long before we even start building their brand strategies.

Sigh.

Unlike what most "gurus" will tell you, brand strategy isn't there to give you a good feeling or even inspire customer loyalty. Brand strategy is there to power a company's financial success. Period. In reality, they may pay it politically-correct lip service to the media, but no management staff really cares how much its end users "value the relationship" if there's no business to be had from it. Let's face it, the only relationship that really matters is between the company and its cash register, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you'll derive those exact benefits from your own brand strategy.

Of course, having become the buzzword of the millennium, branding has been perverted by all kinds of hack, frauds and poseurs, each claiming they know what brands do and how they can make yours sparkle. The only trouble is that when you hold their feet to the fire, none of them seem to be able to connect the dots to the bottom line.

It's easy to publish books or point a video camera at yourself and spout platitudes about relationships, social media and conversations with your end users. What's not quite as simple is providing real tactics in real time that produce real results on a very real income statement. Unfortunately, that's precisely the problem I have with all the various New Age Gurus out there who have more press agents than they do clients.

My own formula for hack detection goes something like this: The number of books, tapes and seminars a "guru" hawks is inversely proportional to the actual number of clients he's helped succeed. So before you fall for the latest buzz-driven hype, make sure you're getting the real thing when you read, hear or hire a brand strategist. Being the humble, helpful guy that I am, I've prepared a little checklist for you:

1. Does the guru have any clients in the real world? You'd be amazed at the number of "gurus" out there who have, surprisingly, no clients at all. That's because they make their livings selling books, seminars and theories that sound great but have never been tested in the marketplace.

2. What results has the guru achieved for those clients? If the results can't be measured in real dollars and cents, you can stop right there. "Raising awareness" for a brand doesn't put bread on the table, Jack. Who cares how many people know or love your brand if none of them are willing to pay for it?

3. How have those results been measured? Don't be taken in by statistics you wish were true. Remember that a company that has one sale on Monday "doubles their sales in less than a week" if they sell just one widget by Wednesday.

4. Are his recommendations based on rationale or socially popular intangible "fun facts," i.e., "All the kids are doing it!"? Are his strategies pro-active, or simply reactions to the latest social media reports?

5. How long does the guru stick around after picking up his fee? Is he a "drive-by consultant" that tosses a ten pound report on your doorstep on his way out the door or does he help you implement his recommendations?

6. What was the guru doing before he decided to become a guru? Anyone can call himself an expert. Hey, Dog The Bounty Hunter passes himself off as a top gun TV star, but before that, he spent far more time as a drug-addled, incoherent loser. That's not to say that people can't change, just that you want to kick the tires before you take them for a test drive.

I could go on, but you get my drift. For every guy out there taking advice there are ten willing to give it to him - most of them at over-priced rates. Be careful out there: what you see -- or think you're seeing -- isn't always what you get. Unless of course, he's a "guru," in which case you know exactly what you can expect.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Never Sign Your Name

"It's probably the reason I'm here today. It probably saved my life," mused the man as he reached for a well-deserved toast to his ninetieth birthday. Here he was enjoying a bright, birthday afternoon in the comfort of his own backyard garden, musing over a decision he'd made roughly seventy years earlier, which turned out to be of huge consequence. Sitting among four generations of family and friends, I once again marveled at the seeming randomness of life. Some people make it. Some people don't. Sometimes, it seems as if life is just one giant crap shoot.
Then again, it may just seem as if life is a giant crap shoot. In reality, the closer you look, the more it appears significant events have less to do with luck than genuine, strategic thought.
"There were forms, official registration forms, you were supposed to fill out so that the government knew who you were and where you lived," man continued. "But something about them didn't seem right. So I just never filled mine out. And from that point on, I made sure to never sign my name."
The forms themselves were fairly benign, not that much different from what you and I fill out every day on the internet. Your name, where you live and various personal data that's supposedly guarded to protect your privacy. Of course, there were other personal details, but nobody paid much attention to them. And because the forms were distributed by official-looking people posing with official-looking authority, most people filled them out completely and promptly, complete with their signatures on the bottom line.
"I knew it wasn't right. Something just felt wrong," repeated the man.
It wasn't too long after that, returning from his job in another town, that the twenty-something man discovered there was no more family to come home to. Everyone was gone. Family. Friends. Even strangers he knew by face but not by name. All of them vanished, never to be heard from again.
All of them had one thing in common: they'd filled out their forms and signed on the bottom line.
Realizing the gravity of his brush with fate, the man grabbed what he could and left his home town, his country and whatever history he'd grown up with. By way of Swiss refugee camps and liberated France, he eventually made his way to America. He never looked back, pursuing a life, career and family the result of that one, single determination:
"Never sign your name."
It makes you think about what you do with your own personal information today. Who has it? Who owns it? What will they do with it? How smart is it to fill out that form and sign your name?
When the man tells me his story, I realize how quick thinking not only saved his life, but by even greater odds, is responsible for my own.
The man is, after all, my father.