When you hear the word "never," the questions should BEGIN, not end.
It’s 2010, and I’m standing at the top of a highway bridge next to an eight-foot sign filled with hundreds of signatures of the day’s participants. I’m looking down the steep hill as the last few pink-clad walkers reach the finish line, meeting a television news reporter who wants to ask them about the event, our inaugural "Bras Across the River" breast cancer awareness walk.
I’ve been up since 4:45 am, arriving at the bridge in the dark, and six hours, five hundred attendees, and three media interviews later, I’m covered in sweat and road dust. I reach for a pair of scissors and start cutting down the 1.2 miles of rope used to hang the more than 4,000 bras along the highway.
A colleague of mine says, “Next year, we should hand out bottled water along the route, don’t you think?”
I nod numbly – then freeze.
What do you mean, next year? You mean I have to do this AGAIN? As if it wasn’t hard enough to pull it off once, now I have to repeat it, and make improvements?
It’s every marketer’s nightmare, that flash of fear exploding in your brain immediately following an epic event or successful promotion: “They’re going to expect me to do this again, and keep making it bigger and better. How in the world am I going to do that?”
Marketers often fear wild success just as much as failure. Wild success reveals that you can achieve great things. Wild success raises the bar and creates expectations. Wild success keeps you up at night, wondering how in the hell you’re going to maintain this standard of performance. After all, a marketer’s only as good as her last promotion, right?
Heck no. Here’s how to face wild success fearlessly:
- First, reward yourself. You pulled off an amazing event, so treat yourself. Sometimes I get home, turn off the phone (and hide it in a drawer in another room so I totally forget it), take the world’s hottest shower, and binge watch Disney movies. Chocolate and peanut butter are usually also involved.
Other times I pick up a new shiny accessory or try a new sushi restaurant. Whatever it is, allow yourself a way to wallow in the victory. (You could try something really reckless and take a day off, you know.)
- Next, archive what you actually did. Every annual event or promotion has its own binder on my shelf, where I catalog exactly what I did, who helped and any notes I took. These binders aren’t pretty; they’re full of handwritten reminders, torn scraps of paper, and sticky notes. (I’m always skeptical of marketers whose notebooks are color-coded with spotless cover sheets typed in Arial Bold.) I do this “binder debriefing” within a couple of days, so details are still fresh in my mind.
- Then, debrief others. Hopefully by now, you’re a little calmer and more receptive to feedback. So visit your frontline teams and ask how the promotion went for them, what they liked or hated, how customers reacted, etc. Just listen. I mean, really listen! If something didn’t work, ask them for solutions.
Understand how valuable this step is. It’s a huge morale boost for your staff, helps you recruit future volunteers AND gives you lots of new ideas for next year. (If you have time, debrief any external vendors as well. But seriously, who has that much time?) Put any gems you hear on the front page of your binder, but don’t dwell on them past that.
- The final step? Put the binder on the shelf and walk away. Move on. Put the success in the rearview mirror (and on your resume) and push forward to other things. Seriously, get over yourself and refocus quickly. It won’t be long until you’re taking that binder off the shelf.
Depending on the project, I usually retrieve the binder three to six months in advance. I grab it late in the afternoon, review my notes, and close it. Then I allow all the ideas to swirl around and marinate. After a day or two, my thoughts are loosely arranged enough to start taking small steps toward the sequel.
My sequel guidelines include:
- Reprising what people loved and fearlessly (and unapologetically) throwing out anything that didn’t work.
- Limiting any updates to one, like one new product extension, one new feature at the event, or one new employee incentive.
- Structuring training and launch presentations based on the staff’s feedback, and giving them all the praise and credit for their ideas.
- Reminding the staff of last year’s amazing results, and setting higher goals this time.
Stop fearing wild success. You are more than just your last promotion or event; you are a Fearless Brand Champion. And the next time someone says, “Next year we should……,” politely purr back, “I’ll make a note of it, darling. Now run along and let me bask in my awesomeness.”
Act of Fearlessness: Decide now how you'll reward yourself for your next success -- something shiny, something yummy, somewhere to visit? Whatever it is, let it drive you toward wild success.
If your answer to these challenges is, “I’m sure marketing can think of something," then I hear the distinct sound of pigs' wings.
In over two decades of being a Fearless Brand Champion, CEOs and executive leadership teams have routinely asked for the same two things:
“Can you make us a brand, then create a company culture for us?”
Ignoring the philosophical and grammatical errors in that question, the answer is always the same -- every company, organization and lemonade stand on the planet already has both of those things.
I take a deep breath and quietly explain, “You already have a brand. It’s the emotional and psychological relationship people have with your company.”
He leans back in his chair, nods his head.
“You already have a culture. It’s the combination of all your daily behaviors.”
He steeples his fingers, offers a contemplative “hmmmmm.”
I continue with a few more details and mention examples like Starbucks, Zappo’s and my favorite, Kenneth Cole. Finally he responds, “Yes, but we really need a new look and we need to have some fun around here.”
At this point, this Fearless Brand Champion wants to drop her sword and exit the battlefield.
To be fair, I’ve worked for some of the best CEOs out there. Most of them trusted me to lead the company on a branding and culture journey, and there were some amazing moments when everything just clicked. Eyes opened, light bulbs turned on, and the team totally gelled. (So much so we eventually wore jammies to work.)
This journey takes months or years, and is an ever-moving, ever-evolving thing. Fearless Companies respect this journey. Why else would Starbucks close its doors for a full day – globally – to wipe the slate and start over?
Brand and culture aren’t the same thing, but that’s another story. For now, before you ask for an instant brand and culture, get honest with yourself:
1. What is the current health of your brand or culture?
You, your board of directors, and your executive team cannot answer this question. (Though it can be fun to compare their responses just to prove the point that there’s a major disconnect.) The answer comes from the front lines. Get out of your office and get out there. Don’t talk, just listen.
Do your front line teams show energy, use the same language, reinforce your mission and ask for the business? Are they problem solvers or order takers? Do they go above and beyond for each other? (That last one will tell you everything.)
Do your customers feel good in your space? Do you feel good in your space? If you mentioned your company’s name in the grocery store checkout line, would you get smiles or groans? (Yes, I’ve tried it.)
2. Does your brand or culture mirror the customers you want?
Notice how countless companies are chasing younger consumers? So they give their boring products catchy names, put salespeople in polo shirts and decorate their properties with lime green stripes. Why? Because lime green is trending, silly.
And sales go………nowhere.
If you want younger, you have to see, hear, think, speak and BE younger. You have to hire to it, train for it, reward selling to it and live it.
Whoever your customer is, they must see themselves reflected in everything your company does. Every time they interact with you, they should feel like they belong, like they’ve found their long-lost tribe. This requires a level of authenticity that makes many executives nervous.
3. Is your brand or culture on target, but no one knows about it?
Let me guess: you spent thousands of dollars on a branding consultant a few years ago, did a huge launch complete with fireworks, and now all you hear is crickets. You’re not alone. The truth is launching things is easy; maintaining things is the hard part. It’s also the most important part -- and you cannot do it from your office. (See earlier point about getting out there!)
What you’ve asked for will require endless hours of listening, lots of uncomfortable conversations, getting way out of your comfort zone, and more energy than a caffeinated squirrel. You must fearlessly live, eat, sleep, drink and speak your brand and culture into existence all day, every day. And right about the time you’re sick and tired of doing that, your employees and customers are just catching on.
I salute every CEO fearless enough to start this journey. It won't be easy, and it won't be instantaneous. It will be the most important work you do. So put on your fluffy jammies and get out there.
Not long ago, a potential client flew me across the country, put me up in a nice hotel, and spent an entire day discussing how I could help improve their marketing communications efforts. I toured their facilities, met with multiple departments and was very impressed with their organization. But during a one-on-one conversation with the person who’d be supervising my efforts, I was told, “We need someone who can hit the ground running and produce amazing work, but not someone who’s going to raise hell.”
In that moment, I knew this client wasn’t ready for a Fearless Brand Champion.
Understand that being fearless doesn’t mean being reckless or irresponsible. Fearless Brand Champions are smart enough to keep what’s actually working and establish consistency in brand messaging.
But we are also firm believers in raising some strategic hell.
When I launched Bras Across the River in 2010, I spent two weeks of queasy days and sleepless nights, wondering if it was going to work. No one had ever stretched 4,500 brassieres across a highway bridge, then invited the people of four counties to walk the bridge and engage in a conversation about breast cancer awareness. We don’t say the word “breasts” in decent company in the South, and we don’t want to see thousands of bras hanging in plain sight. It’s as un-Southern as drinking unsweet tea.
During those two weeks, I actually received a one-line email from a media contact who asked, “Is this a real event?” This Fearless Brand Champion momentarily considered falling on her sword.
Now Bras Across the River is an annual event, drawing contributors and attendees from across the country. Several hundred people gather on that bridge each year, decked in pink tulle and feathers, as thousands of bras sway in the Mississippi breeze. Drivers of passing cars honk, wave and cheer us on as breast cancer survivors share their stories with TV reporters and Zumba instructors lead hip-shaking dance routines to warm up walkers. Most importantly, “decent company” now includes men and women unafraid to openly discuss early detection of breast cancer.
Ask yourself: when was the last time you launched a campaign that terrified you? Why did it terrify you? When was the last time you actually followed your gut instinct, even if it was queasy?
Dig deeper: what would you try if you had an unlimited budget? What would your competitors never try? What would make them think you were crazy? Remember, your competitors might be scared, but you are fearless.
Dig inside your organization. What would freak out your board of directors? (News flash: your board is NOT your target market. If you pitch an idea to your board of directors and they think you’re nuts, you’re probably on to something great.) What scares your executive team but ignites your employees and customers?
What ideas are big hits today because someone dug deeper while others kept saying “no.” List all your crazy ideas where everyone can see them. Put oxygen and a defibrillator nearby if necessary.
And never stop asking. Never stop digging. Never be afraid to raise a little hell.
So, funny story. This article was already written when I went to the craft store to grab items for this blog's teaser campaign. I confessed to the cashier that I was not crafty. Not at all. She flashed a smile and said, "They don't tell you this, but the projects you're a little afraid of are usually the best ones." Indeed.