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Your ‘Brand’ is the One Sentence People Say About You Behind Your Back

This post was originally published on LinkedIn, where it received about 15,000 views and was shared socially roughly 2,000 times.

Not too long ago, Lululemon was a revered brand. Now it’s not, and sales have declined accordingly. Not so long ago, Apple could do no wrong. Now people wonder out loud if it’s innovative anymore. With constant connectedness and infinite information, consumers have never been so fickle about their choices.

According to the American Marketing Association, a brand is the “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s product distinct from those of other sellers.” That sounds like something from orientation day at Sterling Cooper Draper Price. What does the term “brand” actually mean in practice?

A brand is essentially the one sentence people say about you behind your back. This practical “street” definition based on actual human interaction applies equally well to people, products, and companies. For example, someone might describe Lululemon to their friend as “absolutely the best place to buy yoga gear, ever” or they might say “people say Lululemon great, but I’ve bought a few things and they fall apart, totally overrated.” Someone might describe you to their professional acquaintance as “the smartest person in New York on things related to creativity in advertising, you must talk to them” or “too cerebral and academic, I’m not sure they’d be the right fit for your advertising company.”

That one sentence means a lot. It may be the difference between buying a $1300 suit from Ralph Lauren or a $500 one from Suit Supply, the difference between buying brand-name Tylenol or generic CVS pain reliever, and between you being considered to keynote the a major industry conference or not. These single sentences constantly being transmitted between couples basically mean everything.

A side effect of this is that even well-established brands “can never coast on past performance,” as James Surowiecki recently wrote in The New Yorker. This is not only because people are better informed than ever, but also because they can transmit their learnings easier than ever as well, not only in person but on social networks and through older but still powerful tools like email and message boards. This applies to people’s personal brands too; it is very easy to spread negative and even false information about people using all the social and mobile technology at our disposal.

The good news, especially for people, is that brands can be modified through your activities. For companies and products, that means branding and marketing activities. For people, it means your own personal actions in the community. For example, many people currently identify me with the technology industry, because I recently worked at Microsoft for almost four years. That’s somewhat fair, but I’m trained as a scientist. How would I get more people to think of me and “brand me” as a scientist? Simple: By bringing it up in conversations with people, by writing about my skills and interests, by tweeting more things about science, and so on. It’s gradual. You have to coax people to a new position over time – a year or two, perhaps.

If you accept that your brand is the one sentence people say about you behind your back, it’s worth thinking about what things people are saying about you right now. Write down a list of reasonable things people might say about you to their professional contacts when asked. Are you happy with those? What would you change? How might you begin that process? Your brand is not completely in your control, but you can do a lot to positively influence it and update it over time.

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How HBO’s ‘Girls’ Missed the Social Media Marketing Boat

This post was originally published on Huffington Post TV on May 7, 2012. It caused quite a bit of discussion amongst ‘Girls’ fans.

Despite all the hype about social media, apps, and other technologies that are changing the world around us, the media and entertainment industries are still fairly traditional.

Take HBO’s new and controversial show Girls. Yes, I watch it. I’ll leave it to others to decide if it’s “good” or “biased” or “realistic” — but I think it’s significant.

For background, the show follows four young 20-something girls as they struggle with their lives in New York City. They deal with jobs, boys, their weight, and other issues in a very frank manner.

In the show, the lead character Hannah Horvath (played by the show’s creator, Lena Dunham) tweets raw thoughts about what’s happening in her life and what she’s feeling. On screen, you can see her previous tweets — they’re intriguing. She’s baring her soul.

Those tweets appear to be confined to the 30 minutes of camera time the show gets every week. The first thing I did when I saw her “Twitter account” on the show was look up the character on Twitter. Unfortunately, she doesn’t exist.

There is a dormant Hannah Horvath account. (If HBO is smart, they control it.) There’s also a nonaffiliated Hannah account, which mainly repeats stuff from the show; most likely it’s controlled by a fan.

When there are so many young women talking about how realistically Girls depicts their lives (Emily Note has a wonderful blog about this here), what a shame that HBO and Lena Dunham — with her apparent insight into young women’s lives — didn’t take advantage of this and expand the Girls universe beyond the show and into the digital space.

Here’s what I would have done if I was planning marketing for Girls. I would have had an official Hannah Horvath account, tweeting in character. First, her tweets would appear in real time with any tweets in the show — In other words, during the show, the character would tweet about what’s happening to her. This extends the experience of watching the show live with friends. Fans could even tweet back to the character with support, criticism, or other comments.

Then, in the 10,050 minutes per week that Girls is not on television, Hannah would continue to tweet in character. Not as a marketing campaign (”Are you ready to tune into Girls tonight? Live tweet us your thoughts at @GirlsHBO!”), but as the character. Is she having a good day today? Did she have another bad job interview? What does she think of a fellow character, like her repugnant mother who cut off her financial support? Did she finish a chapter in the book she’s writing? This would extend the character beyond the actual show.

Sound weird? Not really. Star Wars, for example, has done this for years with innumerable paperback books which are all controlled and internally consistent, but which extend the universe far beyond the six films that were made. For example, someone might write an entire book about how the Millennium Falcon was constructed; another book might be about Princess Leia’s home and what she’s doing post-Return of the Jedi.

But we can take this further still. There surely are millions of 20-something girls who have questions about their lives. This includes girls who don’t even watch the show. Why can’t Hannah, in character on Twitter, have a hashtag like #BrooklynGirlProbs and reply to girls with their questions? Why couldn’t HBO build a private discussion board or social network to convene girls around the issues on the show and allow them to support each other?

Finally, in the offseason (Girls will be renewed, so there will be time between seasons one and two), the character could still be active. Everything’s controlled by the show, so nothing that shouldn’t be given away would be, but why couldn’t Lena Dunham and her team write light material which keeps you engaged in the Hannah character while you anticipate the next season? The answer is, they easily could.

This isn’t just true of Hannah of course — I’d love to see something similar with, say, Barney from How I Met Your Mother. But this really works well for Girls because of its realism; young people probably identify more with Hannah and her friends and their problems than say, Blair Waldorf and hers or Barney and his.

There are of course other ways for HBO and Lena Dunham to leverage social media to expand the Girls universe. I’m curious to know what kind of phones the characters use. If they all have iPhones for example, why couldn’t the girls have a private Path network among just the four of them (which only 146 fans can also join at any one time)? Do you realize what a FRENZY that would create? What a great contest to run through their Facebook page.

I’d also love to see a Pinterest account for each of the girls, reflecting what they’re thinking about, fantasizing about, and so forth. Maybe Allison Williams’ character is fantasizing about that sexy older artist she met, for example. Would she pin photos of him, or examples of his art, or quotes about how he makes her feel inside? I don’t know, but I have to admit I’m curious, and I’m just some 30-something guy drinking a cup of coffee and blogging in my pajamas.

Presently, there’s a gigantic gap between the cutting edge possibilities for leveraging social media for storytelling and the professionals actually in charge of telling the bulk of mainstream stories — Hollywood and the entertainment industry. It’s a conservative place. But I see great opportunity for those who want to disrupt their status quo.

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My Philosophical Review of the Audience Conference

Loren Feldman. 1938 Media. Audience Conference.

That’s about as much of a summary as you’ll find about the Audience Conference held in New York last Friday. That’s because there were no open laptops allowed during the performances. There was also no Wi-Fi, no video streaming, no tweeting, and no blogging. Something akin to omertà joined the members of the Audience Conference together.

This bond of silence was at the core of the Audience Conference, and it goes against everything that technology and Web 2.0 events normally stand for: openness, transparency, and participation. You would be hard-pressed to find any information anywhere on the web about any of the Audience Conference content. Tweets during the event were generic (“just arrived at the Audience Conference”) and posts after the event were vague (“loved the conference, got to meet Calacanis”). Nobody knows what happened unless you were a genuine member of the audience.

Many other features of the event were also unfamiliar. There were no sponsor booths, banners, and signs all over the place, the speakers had no slideshows, internet connections, or videos to keep us interested, and there were no press or even questions from the audience allowed. No problem.

Read the rest of my new post, “Quarantined Conferences: Claustrophobic Technophiles or Attentive Audiences,” at O’Reilly Radar today!

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Microsoft Public Sector: The Bright Side of Government?

My colleague Steve Lunceford from Deloitte called my attention to a new Facebook Fan Page that Microsoft Public Sector (government group) started, called “The Bright Side of Government.” From an initial glance, it looks pretty cool. First, there are a lot of nice features, including YouTube videos from Microsoft principals, and links to local and state governments using emerging technologies in new ways. There’s a theme to the page that’s greater than the Microsoft brand. And there are some links to other sites like Twitter and LinkedIn where people can connect deeper or converse with the people behind the site.

In the recent past, I’ve been somewhat critical of the Federal government’s Facebook Fan Pages; perhaps this “cause branding” tactic is something that Web and Public Affairs folks in the government should look at. For example, rather than have an EPA “Fan Page” (Who’s truly a fan of the Environmental Protection Agency? How many people wake up in the morning excited about new environmental regulations or inland waterway policy?), have a page devoted to news and information, and yes, fandom, over a larger movement: “Green for America, Green for Everyone” (or whatever).

Second, there is a call to action on the Fan Page. At the time I looked at the page, the status update stated: “Is your city/county/state/agency on Facebook? Share it with us so we can add it to the Bright Side Stars tab!” One of the biggest challeges I’ve faced as co-chair of the Government 2.0 Expo is finding local government success stories in the realm of social technology and new media; The bright Side of Government may become a resource people like me who are trying to plan well-balanced and thoughtful events in the Gov 2.0 space. People and groups that develop unique resources and generously give them to the community develop strong brand engagement with their communities.This isn’t a fair post, because I’m not looking at other companies. Who else in Microsoft’s sector (Intel, Apple, Cisco, Google…) has something similar, or worse? What about brands more generally, how does this effort by Microsoft Public Sector stack up?

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Why Don’t Social Media Companies Have Good Blogs?

For all the talk of how every person is a brand that needs a blog, how
marketers need to be part of the conversation, and how even the White
House needs to be more authentic and transparent and participatory, it
strikes me that one major group of organizations is not really like
that at all – the social media companies.

Why aren’t companies like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, StumbleUpon,
MySpace, YouTube, and so forth blogging? Why don’t they have short
podcasts or vlogs that are must-watch and generate lots of word of
mouth? Isn’t that the “new marketing” I keep hearing about? I guess
Kevin Rose of Digg has Diggnation; I’ll give that credit as a
corporate-branded video blog. But where are the others? Seriously,
how much would people love a once-a-week post from Zuckerburg? Or
someone walking around Twitter with a Flip doing quick interviews?

No, I think the people that control the very tools that empower us to
be open and transparent communicators are themselves largely closed
and obscured from the public. What are the implications of that for
us? And who am I missing? Which social media companies have truly
informative, transparent, valuable blogs for their communities?

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How To Win Dates and Influence Girlfriends

In 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote a book called How To Win Friends and Influence People. I have serious doubts about whether this is the best way to go about trying to be an influential person, but I have to admit that this is the best dating guide for men I’ve ever seen.

Below follows the summary, which can be found here (http://3.ly/OhF). Men, imagine while you read this that you are on a first date. You may not feel very honest or authentic after doing all this stuff, but I guarantee she’ll think fondly of your time together.

“How To Win Dates and Influence Girlfriends”

Part One
Fundamental Techniques in Handling People

1. Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.
2. Give honest and sincere appreciation.
3. Arouse in the other person an eager want.

Part Two
Six ways to make people like you

1. Become genuinely interested in other people.
2. Smile.
3. Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
5. Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
6. Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.

Part Three
Win people to your way of thinking

1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
2. Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”
3. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
4. Begin in a friendly way.
5. Get the other person saying “yes, yes” immediately.
6. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
7. Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.
8. Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
9. Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.
10. Appeal to the nobler motives.
11. Dramatize your ideas.
12. Throw down a challenge.

Part Four
How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment

1. Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
2. Call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly.
3. Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
4. Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
5. Let the other person save face.
6. Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement.
7. Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
8. Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.
9. Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest.

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Match Message to Medium: Talks Are Bigger Than Tweets

Learn one thing about Twitter: it is a unique medium of 140 character
or less communications. It’s like the haiku of the real-time Web. If
what you have to say is often longer than those 140 characters, maybe
you’re using the wrong medium.

Dig this. When you’re at a large conference with (say) 20 people live
tweeting every interesting sentence from every speaker, are you
thinking about your audience? I seriously hope not, because you’re
often delivering them a bundle of jumbled thoughts. And when you start
retweeting each other, and then people not at the conference start
retweeting *that* everything stops being real-time and becomes
wrong-time. We don’t yet have filters and interfaces that can make
sense of this stuff.

Dig this too. There are alternatives. While celebrations of YouTube
and Twitter happen at dedicated events, you’re overlooking less-used
social technologies with great features, like Viddler and Posterous.
Look at my last few Posterous posts: they were from a conference I
attended. But instead of burying my nose in my BlackBerry for two
days, I listened and took notes, and when I saw something worthy of
250 or so words, I wrote a short post for Posterous and pushed the
info to Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, Xanga, Plurk, and more. What’s up.

Experiment with Web 2.0 technologies. Think about your audience. Do
what’s valuable for your community. Engage.

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Talking With a Real-Life Branded Avatar

Almost a year ago, I wrote a popular post for Mashable.com called Do Brands Belong on Twitter?, which turned out to be a controversial topic. The main thrust of my argument against brands with no names or photos attached tweeting was that it was very impersonal – brands have coupons, not conversations.

Well, I have more evidence for my argument, because last night I had the pleasure of meeting a branded avatar – in the form of a restaurant waiter. I was having dinner in the downstairs wine bar of the new J&G Steakhouse in the W Hotel in Washington, DC. My friend and I had a pleasant-enough waiter, but I knew there was something a little off with him. Sure enough, when discussing side orders to share, I asked if the potatoes au gratin were something really special, that we should try.  He replied, “Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] puts his heart into every dish at J&G Steakhouse.”

What? I just want to know about some potatoes! That was the funniest line, but the waiter’s demeanor was like that all evening. I commented to my friend that the experience was like ordering food from a PR firm!

Contrast that with Cyril Renaud, whose New York bistro Bar Breton I visited once, to get a hamburger (an amazing one, by the way) – he saw that I tweeted about the place and wrote me, and we’ve kept in touch a bit. He’s very authentic, and kept me thinking about the place long after I’d gone to it.Nobody likes talking with a nameless, faceless brand – on Twitter or in real life.

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Public Diplomacy 2.0

Tero Ojanperä wants to rule the world. Well, perhaps the September cover of geeky Fast Company magazine goes a little too far with that pronouncement. But despite all the media buzz about Apple’s iPhone and the fact that nearly everyone in Washington has a Blackberry attached to their thumbs, those two devices combined account for only three percent of the global phone market. Nokia, on the other hand – the company that Tero Ojanperä  is the Executive Vice President of Entertainment and Communities for – owns nearly 40%. If he who controls the medium controls the message, Nokia might very well control the future of mobile text, video, music, and other things you want to have on-the-go. And this in turn may affect international diplomacy.

But such global ambitions do not happen without good public relations and influencer outreach. Fast Company describes Ojanperä as a Warhol-meets-Bond-villain businessman wooing music industry executives at a fashionable Tribeca hotel. But this kind of public-outreach-meets-global-domination is certainly not unique to corporations. In fact, governments and empires havehad the lead on that score for centuries as they fight for and strive to maintain influence in the world, and Finland is no exception. Thanks to a new “sister city” marriage of Washington and Helsinki, a program called Invitation to Helsinki brought some District influencers to meet counterparts and exchange knowledge. With backing from Finland’s U.S. Ambassador, this brainchild of the Finnish Embassy’s cultural counselor Pekka Hako blossomed into a collection of relationships that may last far beyond the week-long trip that people like Government 2.0 Club co-founder Peter Corbett, Georgetown student body president Patrick Dowd, and political communications expert Blake Zeff took.

Read more about Diplomacy 2.0 in my full-length article at Washington Life magazine.

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Putting the Public Back in Public Relations: Crooked Monkey Style

T-shirtI hadn’t heard of the popular t-shirt company Crooked Monkey until I was invited to an exclusive party they recently held. You see, even though they get great press from actors wearing their shirts in movies and magazines talking about their fashion styles, Crooked Monkey is based in Washington, DC not widely known as the fashion capital of the country. And they wanted to do some local brand building.

This wasn’t just any party. Sure, there were attractive guests in a cool setting with great drinks and music all the usual stuff. It was what they did differently that made it the most memorable event Ive been to in a long time.

Lets start with how I even found out about the event a secretive email from someone I didn’t know telling me that my friend recommended me as a guest for the event. This is somewhere in between Facebook and Eyes Wide Shut.  Then, a request for my home address, to which was mailed a package containing an envelope with a paper invitation, and also a sparsely decorated white t-shirt, which I was required to save for the party two months later and bring with me to gain admittance. Finally, a bag of tart banana candies finished the package.

Further inspection revealed that the event was on a Sunday night (no night is safe from parties!) at a secret location to be given to us later. Keep in mind that I dont know the person behind the party, nor the other guests, and now also not the location. Still later I discovered by email invitation that the event would be in a warehouse in a not-so-savory part of Washington, DC and that we MUST bring our white t-shirts because wed be doing something with them on the night of the event.

When the day of the event came, I really couldn’t stand not knowing anything! I texted the contacts I had for the event to ask questions, but they revealed little. I emailed some socialite friends to try to figure out who else would be there we knew it would be all tastemakers of different sorts, but no one really knew who was going, which was exciting. I used Google Maps to investigate the location of the warehouse. I stressed about what one wears to such events (I think I chose well!).

Even the party itself was very engaging. An artist created a mural from our white t-shirts that we used for entry right in front of our eyes. An old-fashioned photo booth let us take pictures with each other, and the photo strips had (what else?) a Crooked Monkey logo on them.  Even the name of the event Photoshoot at the Warehouse gave the party an active quality.

Do you detect a pattern here? Crooked Monkey kept busy, elite attendees who get invited to tons of events mentally engaged with their event for weeks. They made us part of telling their story. They got us to talk about their brand before, during, and after the event.  And in the end, the event delivered with a cool venue, outstanding bar, fun atmosphere, and lots of fashion.

Photoshoot at the Warehouse is a great example of putting the public back in public relations and brand engagement. How great? Im writing an entire post about them – and I dont even like wearing t-shirts!

This post originally appeared on Brian Solis’ PR 2.0 site.

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