Starbucks Race Together and the Starting Line

I was lucky enough to see Howard Schultz talk about Starbucks’ Race Together initiative at a small gathering not too long ago. While I was already a supporter of the company’s brave foray into the issue of race, I became an even bigger fan after witnessing Mr. Schultz’s passion and personal commitment to a cause he clearly views as important, and genuinely holds close to his heart.

While I laud the effort, I also think it is important to point out that there has been a problem with the execution and the manner it was launched into the mainstream. Execution always matters, but in an effort of this magnitude, sensitivity and complexity, it will be the difference between success and failure. For one thing, it is absolutely imperative that this effort not come across as a glib and disingenuous marketing campaign. Nor can it afford to be ‘perceived’ as an altruistic effort designed to generate sales and foot traffic for Starbucks. I know it is not, but I may be the in the minority.

For starters, there are very few companies and brands in the world that could even attempt to raise an issue so loaded and so sensitive, leave alone try to convince the world that it is coming from a selfless place. The Starbucks brand has built a strong reputation for authenticity both with the respect with which they treat their partners (employees) and the amazing benefits they offer. They also have a history of actively supporting the communities they do businesses in. They were one of the early companies to join RED to help fight AIDS. During the recent recession they partnered with Opportunity Finance Network to help put people back to work. Diversity and inclusion have always been more than a motto and mere words on a vision statement to this company. Recently, they launched a major initiative to help US veterans. They sponsored a star-studded concert this past Veterans Day, and Howard Schultz has even co-authored a book “For Love of Country” that shines a light on these brave men and women by sharing their personal stories. Starbucks has also pledged to hire at least 10,000 veterans and military spouses by 2018. This is a company whose social outreach has always gone above and beyond writing cheques. They have never been afraid of rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty on issues they believe are important to society.

However, unlike all their past efforts, there is one stark and crucial difference that they need to recognise with Race Together before they can create a blueprint for how to execute it. Free undergraduate college degrees (recently announced for all employees), helping fight AIDS, supporting Veterans and every other social initiative Starbucks has undertaken are very easy for people to get behind in ways that instantly make them feel warm and fuzzy, be it through personally getting involved or by simply buying a cup of coffee. Race Together is different.

The topic of race pushes people well outside their comfort zone. There is no warm and fuzzy here – only guilt, grimace, shame, embarrassment and gross discomfort. Whether you have witnessed a racist act and did nothing to stop it, or have been humiliated because of the colour of your skin and felt like you did something wrong – most everyone has had a personal experience with race. Yet, this is not a subject that families discuss at the dinner table or even with close friends. It is something we bear witness to and experience, most often in silence.

For this reason, I am confident that none of the traditional tactics will work here. In fact, the message will fail to resonate as long as it is delivered in a top-down manner. What I mean is that USA Today inserts make this feel like a marketing campaign. Writing it on cups (while well intentioned) made it feel forced and gimmicky. You cannot force people to talk about sexual abuse publicly; and most people feel the same way about racism. One final point on this; I believe that as long as Mr. Schultz and/or his board and senior executives are seen to be the public “voices” and faces of this campaign, they will struggle to lend it the authenticity it requires. I have no doubt that Mr. Schultz is genuine about his desire to start this conversation and for all the right reasons, but he is still a wealthy and successful white man and this fact matters in this conversation (even though it should not).

My suggestion to Mr. Schultz is to turn his current executional strategy on its head – stop trying to deliver it top-down. By this I mean think about Race Together less like every other traditional corporate PR and communications effort, and imagine it like needing to build a grassroots movement – one that can only be built bottom-up.

For me the video Mr. Schultz showed us of an impromptu town hall meeting (he held at Starbucks headquarters last December) did more to provoke thought and evoke a sentiment about this topic than anything else Starbucks has done thus far. And it was not Starbucks’ voice that caused this emotional stirring, but the voices of the everyday people sharing their very personal stories.

By sharing starkly different experiences about simple, mundane, everyday acts that most of us go through without batting an eyelid – it brought to life very vividly the different Americas we still live in today and experience differently based purely on our skin colour.

Hearing a black mother say that one of her greatest daily fears is making sure her child does not wear brightly coloured clothes to school has a power that no advertising or PR agency can ever deliver in a campaign. It is raw. It is authentic. It is where Mr. Schultz should begin building his brave and much needed conversation about race in America, all while ensuring that Starbucks Corporation and his voice are always in the background, creating the safe zones, providing the platforms and championing everyday voices until one-day they light the spark that will get everyone speaking out, across America.

Has LinkedIn Lost Its Relevance?

For now there is no question that LinkedIn remains the go to platform for business and working professionals. It is often said that you will no longer be able to find employment without a LinkedIn profile; a whole industry of so called LinkedIn profile builders has also mushroomed around it. People who charge serious money to help navigate the platform’s features; everything from creating a profile to claiming to help you get higher search rankings and better visibility with prospective employers.

In the early days, I found LinkedIn an extremely valuable tool for professional networking. It was the best way to connect with friends from school and college, on a professional level, and with people connected to your industry. It was a tool for networking and making valuable and relevant new connections through the small degrees of professional separation we all had but never knew how to tap into. And it was the greatest way to showcase your background and professional experience, without geographic limitations, or the far more cumbersome and time-consuming alternative of physically mailing or dropping off a CV to each and every prospective employer.

Today, it is a vastly different network. For one, everybody and their uncle has a profile. Tons of random people are now able to click a button and ask to connect with you for no rhyme of professional reason; from banana farmers in Bolivia to bakers in India. I cannot count the number of times, when I ask someone why they want to connect, they tell me they accidentally hit the button or had no real reason other than finding my profile interesting. A large number of people seem to feel that by just connecting with as many people as possible, it will help them boost their career prospects and/or search rankings. I for one cannot fathom this logic because it does more damage to their prospects, if they serially invite friends of friends and random strangers to connect for no legitimate business reason.

When LinkedIn first introduced the InMail as part of their premium offering I was excited and willing to pay monthly fee to be able to reach out to people I wanted to do business with and vice-versa. It offered a professional method that did not entail having to go find common connection to get a soft introduction, or simply email someone cold. However, this feature has also turned into spam marketing of sorts. While I do still get a number of legitimate emails, I get many more from telemarketing and lead generation companies looking to sell me databases; they now just as unsolicited as those pesky tele-marketing calls we get at home.

LinkedIn is now trying to become a publishing platform; taking a page out of Amex OPEN’s book. Unlike OPEN theirs was originally a closed platform. In order to publish content you had to be classified an ‘Influencer’; and unless you were the likes of Richard Branson you were not be granted this rarefied title. I guess they realised pretty quickly that being successful did not mean that people were good writers, or able to offer meaningful content on a routine basis; at least not enough to keep it fresh and interesting for the rest of us non-influencer minions. LinkedIn has since learned this lesson and opened content posting to everyone with a profile and an internet connection. Sadly, this step in the right direction has also been rather catastrophic.

While I laud the decision to be democratic, the problem is that not everyone who has something to say has something of value to say. So while I am not suggesting that they close the doors and once again allow only super successful people or great writers to post; I do believe they urgently need to find some method to curate the vast volume of mediocre and useless content that now invades our streams every hour. The point of this curation is not to play judge and jury but to find some smart crowd sourced way to weed out the utterly useless content that only bubbles up and gets eyeballs because of sensational and provocative headlines with the content rarely ever delivering on the argument suggested.

I have found the vast majority of ‘popular’ and ‘recommended’ posts lack substance. They simply offer a provocative headline, based on recent high-profile events in the news, to bait the reader and then at best offer an extremely tenuous (and most often nonsensical) connection to the subject matter they are sensationalizing in their headline.

Recent examples of such posts are one that used the iCloud celebrity photo leak to try and link Jennifer Lawrence’s decision to bare her breasts in Vanity Fair to faulty PR and marketing decisions. Another was about sexual harassment in a CVS store that tried to make a link to sexual harassment at the workplace (which is a serious issue that this article made feel less serious). The same author just recently posted an article about the Uber PR fiasco and then halfway through started talking about the issue of rape with no relevance to her argument.

I have nothing against provocative or controversial points-of-view but the problem is that none of these articles come close to delivering on their headline’s premise; they are merely sensational for the sake of sensation. Sadly, these have overwhelmingly become the posts that seem to garner the most attention and get recommended in the Pulse stream.

If LinkedIn wants to be regarded as a destination for business-related, thought-provoking content, then this is doing nothing to further their cause and in fact damaging their credibility. It has seriously reduced my opinion of both the articles and the quality of the posters. It seems that publishing on LinkedIn is designed purely to drive eyeballs and offer no other real business insight or value; a BuzzFeed for business.

I am not suggesting that this is the end of LinkedIn by any means but that its value proposition for people like myself will erode over time if this level of ‘clutter’ and ‘noise continues to grow without substance. Even forum posts and discussions have started to suffer the same malady with people consistently asking deep and penetrating questions like “Would you rather be a good person or a good CEO” and “How do you define power in one or Two words?” As a result, I have started to drop my membership to many of these professional forums and groups on the site.

It is also not just me they should fear losing but the fact that they are about to face some serious competition for the first time; with Facebook announcing the launch of a “at work” professional network and WeWork (shared workspace for startups and freelancers) also planning to launch a networking site that would allow their physical entrepreneurial tenants, all over the world, to connect online. I suspect LinkedIn is about to get a run for my eyeballs!

Why Ron Johnson’s JC Penney Experiment Failed

Ron Johnson is credited with delivering two of the most successful retail models of this century as the man behind Target and Apple Stores. So what went wrong with JC Penney?

It seems that Johnson decided to ignore his own tenants and instead chose the path that many other corporate leaders seem to follow today – he simply changed the most superficial aspects of the JC Penney brand – the logo, colours, slogan and physical retail environment and delivered it via a shiny new ad campaign. He completely forgot to change the things that matter more and are responsible for delivering a successful brand experience; the company culture, internal and front-line employee’s buying into the vision and having the training and commitment to deliver on it. And I believe another thing he missed or underestimated, before rolling out his re-invention, was the core JCP customer appetite for the pace and extent of change.

Many corporations still believe that advertising and marketing can compensate for lack of a quality product or a great customer experience. It is a shortcut that will ALWAYS fail. This is an age old battle we in the advertising industry have fought with clients who do not want to spend the time or invest the money to build a truly great brand. They want quick, easy and cheap ways to a successful brand. There is not one. Advertising campaigns can only sell what already exists; they cannot create what does not. In fact, I would argue that you end up damaging your company and brand more by making promises that your product and customer experience do not deliver. In the end, customers are less likely to forgive or try you again. The man who at both Apple and Target was the antithesis to this fast and easy way seemed to succumb to external pressures with JC Penney and try to deliver a massive turn-around in a few quarters rather than over a period of years.

With every brand re-invention you have to start by answering two fundamental questions; what still works for the brand and should be carried forward, and second how far can you move forward without losing your most loyal customers; while ensuring you gain new ones. This is not about finding the best possible compromise but it is about ensuring that you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and lose your most valuable customers by creating something that is so alien to them, so unfamiliar that they no longer have an emotional connection with the brand. Also, you have to be cognizant of the fact that old brands have a long history and bring with them baggage, so you have to move them forward and update them in ways that do not allow you a totally clean slate, like Mr. Johnson had with Apple Stores. Perhaps, Mr. Johnson decided to try and re-invent this old brand like he had a clean slate, without understanding what worked and what his most loyal customers would not be willing to live without, at least in the short-term. As a result he alienated his most loyal customers before he had the time to attract a new customer.

Mr. Johnson should have spent his first year simply unveiling his vision with internal management and employees with an aim to start building support, passion and committed to delivering this vision to customers; while taking time to study JC Penney’s brand history and better understand their most valuable customers. All this much before any shiny new ads and re-designs hit TV channels and store shelves. One thing I will say in his defense is that Wall Street is responsible in large part for creating an environment of quarterly results mentality; where CEO’s are under tremendous pressure to deliver growth every few months. This is simply not the way you can ever build a successful company and brand. It takes time and years of investment and management commitment to create the likes of an Apple, Amazon, IBM or American Express. That said, there will always be external pressures and corporate leaders also need to push back (on Wall Street and investors) so they can take the time to bring all the stakeholders on board with their vision, before leading the way in executing it on far more realistic timelines.

Will the #Apple fall far from the tree?

First, I want to wish Steve Jobs the best and hope his health improves.

I guess we all knew this day would come. The board, the shareholders, the employees, the analysts and the evangelists; it’s just that we had all hoped it would be much, much later.

Whether you are a fan of Steve Jobs or not, what nobody can dispute is the fact that he single-handedly turned a fledgling company and tired brand into the world’s most envied and admired; one that is now on a path to become the world’s first trillion dollar company. However, what is most fascinating about the Apple story is how he achieved this. His vision, passion and workaholic nature are well-known but Jobs took this to another level entirely. It is said that he was involved in every decision right down to determining the type of wire that will secure MacBook’s in the Apple stores – that is both incredible and insane. Jobs’ is the only CEO I can think of who seems to go against conventional wisdom in every sense and still come out on top, every time. He is a classic example of someone who zigs, when everyone else is zagging.

Most CEO’s will tell you that the key to successfully growing your company, after you become a certain size, is to hire really smart people and then give them latitude to operate and a wide berth to do their jobs – and get out of the way. Not, like Jobs, remain involved in every minute decision; like what glass to use on the staircases of your retail stores. We know Job’s remained involved in every decision, even as Apple blew past Microsoft and Oracle to become the most valuable technology company on the planet.

Even more amazing is the fact that while the whole tech world seemed to acknowledge that the old Microsoft “proprietary” technology model was a failure and no longer sustainable in our new global ecosystem; filled with consumer demand and a need to constantly adapt and innovate in an open source way. So “open” has become the new buzzword for software development and management philosophies. Even companies like Procter & Gamble are now embracing this for rapid product prototyping, development and go-to-market strategies. On the other hand we have Apple who have created a completely closed and proprietary ecosystem for their products – and have been more successful than any other company. It is almost as if Steve Jobs’ philosophy and management style are completely counter-intuitive. This applies right down to the bets Jobs has made over the years. Like launching a tablet when everyone said that there was never going to be a market for a device that was not quite as small as a cellphone and not quite as powerful as a laptop; and we all know how that turned out.

We have been told that Apple has a very deep management bench and that may well be true but when a larger than life CEO like Steve Jobs vacates his position, he leaves a very rare and large hole in a company that few other leaders do.

So the 337 billion dollar question with Tim Cook is; how far will the Apple fall from the tree?

What is a brand?

Some time ago a client asked me to put a presentation together that explained what a brand is, and why it is so important and valuable for a company. So, I decided I to start my presentation by defining what a brand is, and figured that between Duck Duck Go, Ask and Google I would quickly find a great definition. What I did not expect was that none of my searches would offer up a really compelling definition of what I believe a brand intrinsically stands for.

David Ogilvy, David Aaker, The American Marketing Association all had great definitions of what a brand is but none of them really captured the essence of what a brand is, to my mind. I was looking for something more compelling, romantic and effusive; not a laundry list.

David Ogilvy’s definition of a brand:

“The intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.”

The American Marketing Association offered this definition:

a “name, term, sign, symbol, or design or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competition.

My problem with the above and most of the other definitions I came across, was that all of them felt rather cold, functional and utilitarian; none captured that wonderfully important and intangible essence of what I believe to be the most important aspect of a brand – the emotional bond. Especially, in today’s hyper digital age with fragmentation of media, and marketing channels, as well as the myriad choices for consumers; I believe it has become even more critical to focus on this emotional core. So, instead of tearing my hair out I decided to pen my own definition:

A brand is the promise a company makes to its customers. And the unique emotional bond that customers form with the company, when this promise is consistently delivered at every interaction.©