My dad, Ray Ward, gave the best gifts.
One Christmas, I received a fresh urinal cake in my stocking, wrapped deep in the toe inside a Mad Magazine. And I was nice that year. (In case you didn’t know, these are the round patties found at the bottom of men’s urinals, normally flanked by cigarette butts, chewing gum and shame.)
When I graduated college, dad fashioned me a D.I.Y colonic kit made from random bits and pieces of the commercial restaurant equipment he sold. (Don’t worry; it was a floor model prototype that was never put into real-world quality control trials.)
I sense a theme.
They were great gifts. I asked for them both – in jest – and the stories are worth more than the Nintendo or Millennium Falcon he paid the neighbor’s kid to put together.
Growing up my family believed we were the Parkers and the Griswolds wrapped into one before they became Christmas serial-viewing staples with highly quotable scripts. In fact, my dad grew up hiding under his comforter sometime after dark, listening to Jean Shepherd’s whispered tales of his own family’s idiosyncratic adventures through the crackly speaker of a contraband radio.
Sometime after college and before my own marriage, I held onto those last dimly lit embers of Ward Family Christmas tradition tightly. It probably wasn’t that different than yours. We did stick to cutting down live trees. We received Christmas morning letters from our dead family cat, Tine Tine. And we grew up afraid of Winthrop, the cold and callous Warden of the Christmas Tree Jail, who ruled with a white-gloved, iron fist and intimidating phone calls that sounded a little like the voice of my dad’s bookie, come to think of it. If you dropped an eff-bomb, blew off your prayers or hogged the American Online minutes, you would spend the holiday holed up in one of his cells. Allegedly.
I’m giving dad a lot of credit, but my mom was the Martha Stewart of the North Pole, sans the time in the clink. She had more holiday crafts, collectibles and tchotchkes than a Saskatchewan Cracker Barrel on the day after Thanksgiving. Every nook, cranny, hallway molding and shelf was perfectly adorned with the right holiday touch. I attest to this day, that you could have walked through with a price gun, advertised our home as the Pumpkin Hook Christmas Shoppe, and made enough to retire on a house boat. Mom ruled the kitchen, too. The butter and sprinkles overflowed.
What’s my point? Why am I writing this? As I’ve struggled with the loss of my dad – just about three years ago – as well as the struggle to establish our own family traditions with my wife, 1- and 4-year-old kids and two geriatric mutts, something is clear. Sponsoring a golf tournament in my dad’s name or planning a racetrack handicapping contest would be fun, but not something that would keep his mojo alive in a meaningful way.
What I should – and am – doing is working to make the holidays just as memorable for my brood. Yes, I’m borrowing some pages from dad’s winning playbook, but my wife and I are adding our own touches. Heck, just the other day, The Elf on the Shelf was fishing in the toilet bowl tank upper deck without a permit. I think dad would be proud.
Branding doesn’t need to be a complicated exercise, especially for small businesses. This isn’t P90X; it’s touching your toes, or at least reaching for them in earnest.
You don’t always need an agency retainer and a three-day retreat in wine country to start or reboot your brand. If “Mad Men” taught us anything, it’s that scotch and a smoke-filled room were just as an effective muse as a high-paid brand guru or a $30,000 focus group study. But you do need the smarts and humility to realize you can’t shoulder the load alone.
DIY branding is totally possible – with a little professional assistance. This is especially true when you’re just getting started or are hitting a new phase of growth. If you do rough it on your own, you’re liable to unwittingly stick on one of these common Brand-Aids:
1. Brands, brands and more brands
If you think that the way most small business owners fail in branding their products and services is by under-branding – no positioning, taglines or explanation of why people should care – then you’re wrong. Most entrepreneurs overcompensate for a lack of branding know-how by overdoing it. This takes many forms. Sometimes, it’s introducing a new brand just because a new product or service doesn’t fall into their core vertical, not realizing that there are creative ways to leverage the brand equity you’ve already built. Multiple brands easily confuse customers, especially when their first impression of you includes a mess of assorted logos and taglines. Creating multiple brands is akin to dropping Gremlins and a basket of fried chicken in a hot tub after midnight. More is not better.
2. Speaking clearly
Jargon and industry-speak often look like a handy flotation device when you’re wading through the waters of uncertainty. Finding the right buzzword or hackneyed phrase of the moment will convince our customers that we relate to them, right? Ughm, nope. One of the reasons people choose to work with small businesses is because they’re friendly and accessible. Don’t muck it up with a bloated business lexicon or try to fake your way with a strange parlance or persona. By developing a strong initial brand position, you'll have the guide rails for communicating effectively with your audience.
3. Getting inspired vs. straight-up stealing
How many new product launches stole a page from Apple’s brilliant, minimalistic web streams? Companies copied it down to the black mock turtle neck their CEO sweated through. It’s OK to be inspired by successful companies. But when you reload ideas verbatim, you’re the worst type of thief – an unoriginal one. And if you’re lucky enough to pull it off, it’s only a matter of time before your copycat act becomes its own meme, complete with cuddly kittens romping over toner cartridges.
Asking for branding help doesn't have to mean you're stroking large monthly retainer checks or giving up the keys to the brand (your customer hold those, anyways.) But finding a right-size branding partner to kick the tires with can mean the difference between having a brand that creates real stickiness and one that's your undoing.
‘You forgot to check the new product name on UrbanDicitonary.com?!’ and 3 more spooky marketing tales
In today’s real-time, fully connected environment, marketing can be scary. Heck, marketers can be scary. Some wear scarves and beanie caps in summer – and never sweat! Others memorize “Mad Men” verbatim and get “LEVERAGE” tattooed on their shins. Ouch!!
With greater access to and from customers, most of us are a metaphorical cracked floorboard or black cat crossing away from going back to school to do something truly noble, like becoming a social worker or barista.
Here are a few of the spooky scenarios that keep companies and marketers up at night:
Happy Halloween. And if something scary happens to your marketing this Halloween, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? No, consultants. Again.
The deadline is approaching for a quarterly rah-rah speech to shareholders, or a first-person column in a popular trade pub, or a CEO-penned website letter meant to recruit the best and brightest.
But all you have is an empty page, a taunting cursor and 11 passive-aggressive reminder emails from stakeholders. Plus, you’re a little busy; in fact, your to-do list has its own to-do list.
Hiring a ghostwriter is a great way to both increase bandwidth and help elevate your content. But not every junior copywriter fresh out of college has the chops and maturity for tag-teaming such critical projects.
Here are five important qualities to seek out in potential ghostwriters:
Curious about using ghostwriting services for an upcoming project or event? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
OK, ok, my father was much more than a refrigerator salesman. He was a proud, passionate and multi-platinum manufacturer’s representative selling state-of-the-art equipment to industries with temperature-sensitive needs: restaurants, schools, prisons, laboratories and even monasteries.
But that doesn’t make for a snappy headline. I know headlines and he knew commercial refrigeration – and frankly, I think he would have appreciated the Arthur Miller allusion. Other than that minor flux in skillsets, the genetic differences don’t deviate far from the double helix.
As an entrepreneur, my dad was as respected as he was successful. I’m trying my damndest. As a family man, he was the ultimate sitcom dad with longer hours, superior Hawaiian shirts, a bigger heart and better one-liners – and I’m trying in earnest. My dad proudly wore a CPAP. Check. Premature male pattern baldness. Yep. A desire to play the ponies, roll the dice and double down on a pair of nines. Yes, yes and yes.
As I sit here procrastinating over some paid writing about marine diesel generator sets, digital printing innovation, and concierge medicine on the eve of Father’s Day, I can’t help but think that my dad was also my greatest muse ever.
He inspired this. And this. And countless unpublished columns, pseudo-dirges and muscatel-induced musings during the hardest days. Shit, he may be my crutch now.
Since my dad passed in December of '12, I left one enabling career relationship. Then I bounced from my rebound gig a year later. And I went out on my own, again, just like The Old Man. I realize now there was no way around it. Whether it was a karmic course laid eons ago or sub-conscious strut down the path of high-risk decision-making, it was inescapable. And I embrace it all, through the tough times and downhill glides.
Here I sit on the right side of midnight, listening to the Traveling Wilburys while my 38-week pregnant wife and nearly 3-year-old son work on the sleep routine on the other side of the wall. I realize this is a marketing blog, and I have about 100 words to deliver a clear call to action:
Happy Fathers’ Day, to all dads here, there and hereafter.
Is there any piece of content more neglected and pitiful than your corporate blog?
Just look at the flies buzzing around it and the vultures circling from above.
Remember when you started it up? You had all these grand plans and sincere intentions about sharing best practices, case studies and building a recruitment brand. But now all you have is a seven-month-old post with a picture of Wally from accounting playing Santa at the holiday party. And Wally got fired four months ago.
Here are a few quick and easy ways to inject some life into your corporate blog:
5. Free T-shirts!
Despite working as a movie critic for 10-plus years, where free public screenings are free T-shirts battlegrounds, I’m still amazed at how fired up people get about free T-shirts. Or more specifically, not getting free t-shirts. People hate it when the person next to them is standing within the perfect trajectory of the T-shirt cannon. I once saw a man almost get decapitated by a cotton/poly blend as two attendees wrestled for a youth small “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins” T-shirt at a movie screening. It’s a fact: swag builds loyal brand ambassadors. T-shirts, old pens and mugs. Anything. Use the blog to clean out the storage closet of all your “vintage” dusty giveaways. Just make sure you have an intern who can mail stuff.
4. Compliment your competitors
Without snark. Without sarcasm. God, I know it’s hard. But it makes you look like a good guy and it’s totally refreshing. But you need to really mean it, otherwise we’ll all know. Just be sure that compliment is somewhat strategic, for example, “Great job on developing, [this thing we don’t sell!]”
3. ‘Ummm, people, what should we write about?’
Soliciting user-generated ideas is not desperate. OK, it's a little desperate but your blog needs a slump buster. You might be surprised what your customers ask you about. But don’t be surprised if this quickly turns into a customer service avenue, so staff up appropriately.
2. ‘Working here is pretty cool.’
People want to interact with and support fun companies. It’s why you’ll slap on some deodorant before heading into Wholefoods but will wear yesterday’s pants into Food Lion. Because at Wholefoods, there might be a party – downward trending stock be damned. Just know that the best way to invite readers into your hip corporate culture is not through someone in marketing impersonating the CEO or some anonymous third-person voice. Look for volunteers at all ends of the org chart to talk about why they like working for you. If nothing else, it’s a great way to weed out those harboring secret, pent-up aggression about working for you. Just kidding…
1. ‘Man, we royally screwed up…’
Digital contrition from your own blog – before the trade rags, media and trolls poke you with virtual pitch forks – will draw eyes and respect. Sure, you accidentally released 5 million credit card numbers and SSNs on Black Friday. But you’re sorry. Really sorry. And to make up for it, you’re offering free T-shirts!!!
Of course, if you’re not sure what to write on your corporate blog, you can always take my cop out: blog about ideas for others to write about.
My dad taught me some solid life lessons: always carry cash, make lemonade out of lemons -- and always bet on black. Wait, I think that last one was Wesley Snipes in "Passenger 57." As much as riding shotgun while he conducted rounds as a manufacturer rep for commercial restaurant products totally prepared me for life as a self-employed writer and branding professional, there are some lessons you need to figure out on your own. Here are a few...
1) For the first time since grade school, you have to buy your own pens.
And folders, paper, coffee, staples, stamps, toilet paper, ketchup packets and butter. Anything you used to find in the trusty supply closet or community fridge. Plus, because you can no longer steal these crucial items from work for home use, you need to double down on your purchases. The lesson: if you have entrepreneurial dreams, start hoarding items today and build up a surplus. And claim these on your taxes -- totally, totally legit.
2) Maury Povich's mid-morning televised paternity tests are the siren song of the weak and unmotivated.
Even when the TV is off, I can almost hear... "You are NOT the father," followed by high-fives and sobbing. It's not as calming as my Enya or whale sounds CD white noise, but sometimes you need a little Maury as your muse.
3) It's 5 o'clock somewhere. It's also 4:15 a.m. here -- and there is a deadline to meet sans boat drinks.
If you've ever been jealous of the self-employed because they get to go to Target and the post office during the slow times, realize that the flipside is buying that time back on the weekend, early morning or late night. I desperately need to find a solid third-shift bar outside a large manufacturing facility.
Check back next week, when I explore the sociopathic behavior of the entrepreneurs I share a Wifi connection with at Panera.
Let’s pretend we went to happy hour with five top brands and pushed drinks on them. Sounds reasonable, right?
Not Cosmos or Appletinis; we don’t have deep pockets. We’re talking rail liquor and beer. Again and again.
Because we’re persuasive and able to withstand a bucket of Ice House long necks, we were able to get our guests to tell us the taglines they really wished they could use – if profiteering and corporate citizenship didn’t matter.
Taglines used to have punch. They took chances. They were PG-13-ish zingers. Today they’re lawyered, doctored and sanitized like a Jacuzzi after a Bieber posse skinny-dip-a-thon.
Let’s flip the script…
Swiping away the world’s productivity.
Does the Mother of all Innovation make it easier to crank out a critical business case on an airplane middle seat or search for which “Seinfeld” episodes Keith Hernandez guest-starred in on the hotel gym elliptical at 20/cal hour? I think you know.
We only own one tie.
Enterprise makes their young go-getters dress for prom and then mop up all your crap. Please cut them some slack.
$11, 2 busted Allen wrenches and 143 steps to your next Ottoman.
Fun and semi-ironic fun fact: Lukewarm Swedish meatballs double as excellent throw pillows for dollhouse furniture.
We know your darkest secrets.
Seriously, we know what you like and how you like it… we’re talking about frozen yogurt toppings, you sicko.
1. Old Navy
Outfitting a middle class clone army in hoodies since 1994.
Don’t ask why those jeans only cost $23. And don’t question the denim-coated felines slipping out of the Old Navy basement cat farms, either.
The past few Super Bowls have featured such titillating pigskin action that we haven’t needed the commercials to carry us through the four-hour broadcast. Just one blackout.
And with the two best teams squaring off again this year, maybe advertisers can simply take the year off. Let’s forget about creativity and branding this year. And let’s aim for honest advertising, hearkening back to the irreverent ‘80s comedy “Crazy People,” when mental patients created such straight-forward advertising gems as: "Forget Paris. The French can be annoying. Come to Greece. We're nicer.”
Here are four ads I’d like to see this year…
The recent announcement of WWE's streaming digital video service served as some "sweet chin music" to the haters, doubters and critics who dismiss the sports entertainment giant as no more than a sweaty soap opera starring men who shave their legs.
It's easy to roll your eyes at the WWE. After all, America is hardly over the the wrestling giant's Attitude Era (1996 - 2002), when kids ran around classrooms yelling suck it, doing "crotch chops" and diving off shed rooftops. Add to that a beer-guzzling, jort-wearing, double-bird-flipping brand hero who was more recognizable than the president or pope.
Those were the days...
Today things have calmed down a little. The ladies' divas division still has wardrobe mishaps and the creative team is not above exploiting some ethnic stereotypes for cheap heat. But the WWE took a slight right turn toward becoming "family friendly." Some had to do with wife of the CEO, Linda McMahon, and her failed Connecticut senate run. But more had to do with the one thing that the WWE does better than most brands: taking a temperature check and adapting the brand to survive.
The WWE is rarely tone deaf. Flashback to several years ago, when the recession grew in tandem with a general backlash toward any media content that could be interpreted as offensive. After all, today's headline-making celebrity mis-Tweets were born in a steaming cauldron of phony media outrage containing the shrunken heads of Don Imus, Alec Baldwin and others.
The WWE took the opportunity to build programming and champions that were more PG and family friendly. Just Google "John Cena," who's squeaky clean (but a little less fun) compared to Stone Cold Steve Austin. Or consider the outfit's much ballyhooed support of overseas military, compared to the old XFL experiment, which encouraged third-rate football players and cheerleaders to get jiggy with it. Unlike so many other companies that stand stubbornly on corporate vision statements and static messaging, Vince McMahon and Co. have never been afraid to pivot when it made sense.
Superior fan engagement helps, too. Whether the WWE corporate overseers are developing yet another social media app with huge by-in or they're simply reading the Sharpie-fresh signs proudly hoisted by the folks in the crowd, few organizations work harder to read and react to the pulse of their customer base.
So go ahead and make fun of the WWE. There is a lot to make fun of. A lot. And while the wrestling may be fake, the brand is the real deal.
Note: Yes, I am a wrestling fan. And I even attended Wrestlemania last year. It's real to me!
Mike Ward is the Founder and Chief Brand Driver for Milepost 0 Creative. In other words, he's the only employee. Mike likes helping companies tell stories - or fables, as Aesop called them - as well as reminiscing on his days as a failed stand-up comic, semi-successful movie critic, and cheering for losing sports teams (Go Bills!).