Monday, August 24, 2009

How Exactly Is This a PR Crisis?

Okay, so the CEO of Whole Foods recently spoke his mind in the Wall Street Journal about the proposed healthcare reforms. Blah, blah, blah. And now customers are up in arms – protesting and picketing and boycotting and twittering and joining Facebook pages. Blah, blah, blah.

Apparently John Mackey had the audacity to remind Americans that healthcare is not a birthright. Agree or disagree, he still has the right to free speech. And so too do the customers and union members and anyone else who wants to pile on. Hey, this is still America, land of the free, home of the brave. Everyone has rights.

But how in the name of the Liberty Bell is this a "PR Crisis"?

According to BBC News:

Seemingly caught off-guard by the unfolding PR crisis, Whole Foods sought to distance itself from its chief executive's comments.

"We've had a lot of emails and phone calls and people coming into our stores to talk about it," said Libba Letton, spokeswoman for Whole Foods. "Our top priority is addressing their concerns."

But public relations experts criticised the store for bungling its response.

"You have two choices: you either take a proactive approach and wade right in and sort it out or you sit back and wait," said Erica Iacono, executive editor of industry magazine PR Week. "The company seems to be taking a wait and see approach and hoping it goes away. It's a mistake."

By the way, not to accuse the BBC of being sensational, but Erica Iacono is the only "PR expert" referenced in the story. And nothing personal, but how exactly is Erica Iacono an expert on this matter?

Regardless, none of that matters. In fact, none of any of this should matter.

Mackey spoke his mind and now the marketplace is speaking its mind and the chips will fall where they will. I mean really, what do the protestors and the twitterers expect? Do you want Mackey to recant? And if he does, will those words be "real" or calculated? And then you have to ask yourself what you really want: the truth or something else?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

When You Think Retail, Think John F. Geisse.

We know Sam Walton. We respect Jim Sinegal. We admire Sol Price. But there was another retail giant – a true pioneer – who is too often forgotten or overlooked in today's crowded marketplace: John F. Geisse. To know John Geisse is to love him.

Father of 10, dutiful husband to wife Mary, hardworking man, devoted citizen. That is John Geisse. Of course he also founded and launched the Target stores, the Venture chain and The Wholesale Club (which was sold in 1991 to his friend Sam Walton and became Sam's Club).

In as much as I helped write John's obituary, I could tell you a good portion of the story of his life, but I prefer to focus instead on a single chapter - the chapter I know best - The Wholesale Club years.

I first Met John Geisse and his son Tom when they visited Cleveland in 1982 to discuss the opening of their second membership warehouse club and their first unit in Ohio. They were looking for an agency to help them make connections and build awareness and generate traffic. But really, John was just looking for someone he could trust.

Somehow our paths crossed. I was only 26 at the time and John was barely 60, though he had more energy on his worst day than I had on my best. John Geisse was full of life and it showed in our first meeting. As he revealed to a group of us what the membership warehouse concept was all about – a new retail idea formulated by Sol Price on the west coast – we were already drooling at the opportunity to be involved on the ground floor of a business that was sure to succeed.

And it wasn't that Mr. Geisse was so convincing, though he was, it was that he was so passionate, so invested, so involved. He loved the very idea of what he was doing. Having opened his first unit in Carmel earlier that year, he was ready to explode his idea across the Midwest. And sure enough, over the course of the next eight to nine years, we worked our way through Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois, opening more than 30 100,000-square-foot membership warehouses. In less than a decade, John Geisse had created a billion-dollar business.

And John was there every step of the way. Scouting locations. Meeting with civic and business leaders. Meeting with the media. Meeting with prospective business members. Meeting with the community. Preaching the gospel of The Wholesale Club. But nothing was more important to John Geisse than his customers. He was a showman and a businessman creating a nationally recognized and respected retail operation. Still, he never took his eye off the prize.

I recall one particular grand opening, which John Geisse always presided over, like a pastor leading his flock. Shortly after the speeches and the ribbon-cutting, the doors were opened and the curious flooded into the store. John was giving a tour and interview to a reporter of the daily newspaper when he spotted out of the corner of his eye a new member attempting to remove a 20-pound box of detergent from an overhead shelf. John cut off the interview in mid-sentence and ran to the aid of the customer, never even bothering to introduce himself as an inductee of the Discount Hall of Fame or the founder of this company.

In truth, John Geisse never really cared so much for the accolade as he did the pure fun of making someone smile.

Sam Walton once said of John Geisse,"I have never known anyone else that I respected more for many things, including integrity, morality and the way he cared for his associates."

John Geisse died at the age of 71 nearly two decades ago. It was his illness that forced him to sell the business to Sam Walton, his close and trusted friend. I think of John Geisse often. He was more than a great man, he was a good man.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What Happens When Everyone Becomes a Shill?

As bloggers and Twitterers become the new "celebrities" tapped by organizations to drive messages to the masses, when do they cross the line and become the very shills they once so willingly and joyfully persecuted?

Here's the answer: Immediately.

There is absolutely NO difference between bloggers, Twitterers or public relations professionals who for various reasons (cash, gifts, ego) represent a product manufacturer or service provider. And it happens every day.

Procter & Gamble does it all the time; bringing bloggers and Twitterers into its headquarters or hosting events and showering them with product samples... and more. Take this recent story from the New York Times...

"To harness the viral marketing of social media, Procter & Gamble sponsored an event last week before the BlogHer 2009 conference in Chicago to present its updated Swiffer Wet Jet cleaning mop, which will be shipped to stores around Aug. 1. The company was the title sponsor of the Swiffer SocialLuxe Lounge, billed as a pampering party. More than 500 BlogHer participants stopped by on Thursday afternoon, which offered makeovers, a blogging awards presentation and stations to recharge phones and hand-held devices."

Roche recently held a Diabetes Social Media Summit at its headquarters. The company flew about 30 bloggers into its Indianapolis headquarters for a day and a half long event. Rachel Baumgartel, a Diabetes blogger who did not make it, offered these thoughts:

"I admit it. I was invited. I chose not to go, mainly because of lack of vacation days after family obligations and BlogHer. A little part of me questioned the intentions of this pharmaceutical company and the money spent on such event. You see, I used to be an administrative assistant at a medical device manufacturer and was on a planning committee for a marketing tour for directors of nursing, purchasing managers, and other hospital administrators. I know how much money is spent on these type of events. Even with corporate cafeteria lunches, it's still a pretty penny - a pretty penny that should be used to bring down the cost of test strips."

Earlier this month, PepsiCo, parent company of the Mountain Dew soda brand, rented out a bowling alley to throw a "taste test" party for its new "Ultraviolet" diet soda. And the guest list had been amassed not for its red-carpet potential, but Twitter influence. Here, CNET reports:

"Not only do Twitter's uber-chatty twentysomethings want everyone to know exactly what they're doing at the trendiest bowling alley in Brooklyn's trendiest neighborhood, but their friends will probably listen -- they, after all, want to know what's going on.

And savvy brands have found that even if profits aren't clear-cut, they can use that Twitter buzz to keep up a loyal following -- even with a small base -- rather than to broadcast a brand's hashtag all over the Web and hope for profits."

Here's what Merriam-Webster says:

Main Entry: shill
Pronunciation: \ˈshil\
1 : to act as a shill
2 : to act as a spokesperson or promoter

Here's what Harry Chapin says:

And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He'd grown up just like me

My boy was just like me

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little boy blue and the man on the moon

When you comin' home son?

I don't know when, but we'll get together then son

You know we'll have a good time then

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Don't Guess. Test before You Invest.

Yeah, I know, you've heard this a thousand times. But are you listening? Are you hearing?

Now more than ever – with the economy crimping budgets, the number of strategic options exponentially growing and the demand for measurable results ever increasing – testing is mandatory.

And yet...

Marketers continue to invest meaningful dollars into campaigns they are uncertain will work when they could just as easily test them first. Print advertising, radio advertising, TV advertising, online advertising, direct mail, e-mail, publicity, blogger relations, even trade shows and events – everything can and should be tested before diving headfirst into the water.

Because what worked yesterday, may not work today and may not work tomorrow. We are currently living and working in a period of unprecedented "media" change. Virtually every day brings a new channel, a new opportunity and another way to spend (and potentially throw away) money.

Consider your own experiences over the past year. Should our organization have a Facebook account? Can social media work in our B2B environment? Can we use Twitter to market our products? Is newspaper advertising a bad investment? Should our CEO write a blog? Do enough people follow traditional media to justify a publicity campaign? Can we still build brand with online advertising? If we do PPC, do we still need organic search? Are trade shows going the way of the dinosaurs?

And on and on and on. And the answer is: Yes, no, maybe.

For many organizations, budget limitations can severly hamper their ability to establish and maintain a truly diversified marketing mix (they can't do everything). For others, budget is not an issue at all. But for both, the quality of your investment will determine the value of your return.

There is a better way: Test first, act second.

I'm a living sunset
Lightning in my bones

Push me to the edge

But my will is stone

'Cause I believe in a better way

Fools will be fools

And wise will be wise

But I will look this world

Straight in the eyes

I believe in a better way

I believe there's a better way

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What Do Consumers Really Want?

Once upon a time, the answer to this question was: "What day is it?" Now it is more like the weather in Chicago: "Wait a minute, it'll change." Most consumers want whatever they can get; in a perfect world, they want everything – great product, great price, great service, great delivery, great warranty, plus free stuff just for being a customer.

If you are a product manufacturer or a retailer, this order would seem to be tall, but potentially achievable... until you start adding in the extras: Do you have it in another color? Do you have it in a smaller size? Can I get this with an alternate energy source? Is this available in an environmentally friendly version? Can I take it home today and return it a year from now if it shows wear and tear?

Consider the electronic book or digital reader. Not so long ago (like today), Kindle was the only real choice for consumers who wanted to read an electronic book. As it turns out, most of the current consumers are business people. It is kind of pricey because there is no real competition and because volume is still relatively low (supply and demand). And you have to buy it through Amazon (not a lot of flexibility here).

And just when sales start to pick up, Apple leaks that it will soon have its own hip version of the e-book reader. And then Sony jumps into the ring with equally cool, but cheaper versions. And suddenly consumers have more options - size, price, appearance, functions, availability, brand, etc. - than they ever could have hoped for. And the story is all over the media and all over the Internet. And consumers are blogging and tweeting and texting and getting themselves all in a lather. A tsunami wave of excitement will fuel huge sales, and everyone will soon be sporting e-book fanny packs and shoulder slings.

But back to reality. There currently is only one option available (Kindle) and most consumers have no idea what a Kindle or an e-book reader is. And once they find out, most - especially in this economic environment - will deem it to be unaffordable (at least until it becomes cool and a status symbol).

In short, even though they don't know it yet, consumers will soon want an e-book or digital reader and everything that goes with it. That's the way we roll in America.

Which reminds me of the last line in the final scene of The Candidate, when Bill McKay (Robert Redford) realizes that he just won the election that he isn't sure he really wants: "What do we do now?"