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- Making sustainability reports work for you
- Copyrights & Wrongs 1: Get clients & creatives on the same page
- Copyrights & Wrongs 2: Starting the conversation
- The Case-by-case for sustainability
- Deflate the tire kickers
- What's included in that design fee?
- Six essential questions for the business blogger
- Finding green vendors
It's just bad math, and it makes you look like you're trying too hard.
> Click to Download <
It's begging to be expanded into a full-on e-book, so if there are additional issues or subjects you'd like to see covered, do let me know.
To read about the design thinking that went into the guide, or to order a hard copy version, go here and fill out the form at the bottom of the page.
Case in pointThis is just a simple paint job on a simple delivery van:
One just needs the basic info, a decent painter, and that's that: what could possibly go wrong? Of course, someone with little design experience might not realize that painting an object with moveable parts might result in unaccounted-for scenarios. They may fail to ask the burning question: That looks great on the side of your van, but what happens when you open the door?
So yeah, just think about that the next time you're trying to do something you've never done before. Moral of the post (a.k.a. DIY design tip): account for multiple user scenarios or cough up for an expert who knows what to look for!
[Images from Jalopnik, originally posted to FailBlog]
The result is "Keeping It Real Green: How to Market Your Efforts In an Age of Greenwashing," a short little piece of work written to help organizations connect with their customers without lying, misleading, or otherwise confusing the hell out of people. This is a pretty big kettle of fish to fry, of course, and it was difficult to get everything into such a compact format. But believe me, I tried! There's not a lot of fluff in here; this sucker is a legitimately informative resource for any business, however deeply involved in environmental issues it may be.
If you'd like a free copy of the pamphlet, you can request one using the contact page, or give me a call at (415) 643-0121.
Edited 7/22/09: For those of you who might be concerned about my decision to create a printed piece, rather than only produce a PDF version of the guide, please see the comments. A lot of thought went into this, and I've explained that thought process to a commenter who took issue with my terrible choice.
Edited 8/3/09: The PDF has arrived! Download Keeping It Real Green while supplies last!
- Date: Tuesday, May 19
Time: 11:00 am (full day runs 8:45-2:30)
Location: SBA Entrepreneur Center, 455 Market St. 6th Fl., SF
- 8:45: How I Greened My Business
10:00: What's In It For My Business
11:00: Local Government Support and the SF Green Business Program
11:45: State Support
12:30: Networking lunch
Note: Although registration is recommended, I'm pretty sure you can just show up without registering.
- Bigger envelope means more bang for the buck.
Although it was a standard 9" x 12" manila envelope, I knew there had to be something juicy inside to warrant such a large mailer. That thing was getting opened out of pure curiosity.
- One message, many materials.
Turns out the mailing was intended to get my business on board with San Francisco's "Bike to Work Day." Small plugs for the SF Bike Coalition were cleverly scattered throughout the materials (including a copy of the group's newsletter), but they were all directly tied to the issue at hand: Bike to Work Day (the newsletter, for example, contained a Q&A about the event, among other BTWD features). Picking one message and reinforcing it throughout the mailing kept me from getting distracted, detached or confused.
- Overcome objections in advance.
One of the best aspects of this mailing was the use of social marketing techniques (more on that later). From the opening of the introductory letter to the content of the newsletter, it was clear the Coalition had thought long and hard about what might prevent recipients from acting on their call for participation, and heading these objections off at the pass. The messaging was framed to address common employer concerns, including costs and employee productivity, which made it really easy to be won over.
- Provide the right incentives.
Finally, the Coalition included a ton of materials to help its audience act on its request for participation in BTWD. Don't know the best way to implement the program among your employees? Follow the enclosed checklist. Unsure of which routes to take, or how hilly the streets are? Check out the enclosed San Francisco Bike Map. Need a way to get the word out to your employees? Post the enclosed BTWD poster. Looking for a fun team project? Take the enclosed Team Bike Challenge. Concerned about safety or getting stranded without a car? No worries, just check out the enclosed pamphlet explaining the San Francisco Emergency Ride Home program. And of course, if you want more info about the event or the Coalition itself, read the enclosed newsletter. Thinking ahead has allowed the Coalition to provide the answer to every potential question in advance, making it incredibly easy to participate.
- They knew their behavior goal (employer participation in Bike to Work Day).
- They knew their audience (employers with specific concerns about how BTWD would effect their employees health and productivity).
- They addressed potential barriers for action (not enough information, too dangerous, too costly).
- They included incentives to reinforce the behavior they were looking for (maps, team challenges, emergency rides home, posters).
- They failed to vet their mailing list (although I'm a San Francisco business, I'm not an employer), leading to a lot of wasted paper.
- They included a lot of paperwork, much of which may get tossed.
The package arrived in a standard white no. 10 business envelope. It contained a one-page letter, a semi-gloss, full-color, tri-fold brochure that unfolds into a 12" x 18" poster, and a self-addressed, unstamped reply envelope. What's so wrong with this?
- Concealing the goods.
Why drop coin on a beautifully printed poster-sized piece, and then hide it in a nondescript envelope that makes it look like junk mail? Either gussy up the mailing container, or make the poster a self-mailer that begs to be unfolded immediately.
- Address anonymous.
"Dear Friend" is no way to address someone when you're asking for their money. In this day and age of variable printing, there's simply no excuse. And if your marketing director doesn't know what variable printing is, you've got an even bigger problem.
- So much copy, so little targeting.
The front of this single 8.5" x 11" letter included a litany of member "benefits" directed at all kinds of different people—including artists, art lovers, collectors, and who knows who else. Simply laundry listing your organization's features and hoping readers are willing to pick and choose what matters to them is a great way to make sure nobody pays attention to anything. Pick an audience, and write exclusively to them.
- Features do not equal benefits.
And here's another thing: listing what you offer doesn't explain how your audience will benefit. Don't tell me about your exclusive, members-only parties, tell me how I'll make important career connections and discover new trends before they hit the mainstream.
- Letterhead overload.
I understand the desire to acknowledge a nonprofit's staff, board of directors, advisory committee, and curatorial council members, really I do. But if you're printing this on your letterhead, it means you're repeating this information with every single communication you send out. Why? It might hurt to hear, but you need to ask yourself if the reason has more to do with the staff's needs than your audience's.
That's right, folks. I was invited to participate in a project—a project that was supposed to sell me on donating to this organization—on the day of the submission deadline, effectively making me ineligible. That's not an oversight. It's not a mistake. It's a slap in the face to your audience.
This is not a time for this kind of ineptitude, folks. Tighten up! Don't waste your marketing dollars on what has the potential to be a highly effective campaign by not thinking it through. If you need expertise, then ask. But nonprofits can't afford to be making these kinds of mistakes right now.
"The reality of it is that a small group of employees, (Yes, PR people, imagine that, communications people communicating!), who thought we should be part of the online dialog. The anti-Monsanto crowd seems to feel threatened by this. We felt it was important to start offering counterpoints to some of the more factually challenged assertions about us being spread online." (full comment)Needless to say, the Ethicurian's readers had plenty to say back. What's so intriguing to me about this exchange is not that Monsanto is using social media in their public relations efforts (every smart corporation is these days). And it's not the content of the dialogue (are we surprised that ethical eaters hate Monsanto and Monsanto is indignant that they're hated?). No, what I find so interesting about all this is that Monsanto's PR department figures it can reframe the company by appearing human.
Chris Paton, Social Media Director for the company, is careful to dissociate himself from his company, which is odd given the purpose of his role. He frames himself as an earnest, can't-be-bought free-thinker:
"Myself and the other team members in my area who are starting to participate in the blogosphere, twitter, facebook, etc.. are doing so in addition to their regular workload. It does indeed take some man(and woman) hours to do so. Even more as we're starting to attract attention for even showing up to the discussion and the cyber-pile-on starts up. I don't dispute that Monsanto has spent a good chunk of change on the ad campaign, but I'm not responsible for that, not involved with that, and wish I had a fraction of a fraction of that budget for what I personally think is a more useful effort, engaging our critics in a dialog to see if we can't make some progress...Monsanto has been struggling with their image of a monolithic, international, bully of a corporate conglomerate for years, and their reputation among so-called ethical eaters is only getting worse as our country's food issues gain coverage in the mainstream. So it's interesting to see their public relations department using social media ("a level playing field," Chris calls it) to reframe the company's brand image. Hell, maybe they are just another group of concerned individuals working for what they believe in.
...I'm not an expert on every thing Monsanto may or may not have done. If I make a comment one way or another about lobbyists, funding, cow health issues, etc.. it can be torn apart by people...
...I commend you for being committed to speaking out for what you belive. I'm just disappointed that people cant belive that i'm saying what i actually believe. My paycheck doesnt buy my beliefs or my soul. If i belived that Monsanto was guilty of the things i read online on a daily basis, you couldnt pay me enough to be a part of it..."
It's what they believe in that scares me so much.
(As an aside, is it too much to ask of corporate America to at least attempt a little literacy when it comes to posting online?)
A struggle for research fundingLack of endowment funding is the primary reason cited for why these professors feel it's appropriate to suck from the pharmaceutical teat without disclosing such relationships to the students they claim to be teaching:
"School officials see corporate support for their faculty as all the more crucial, as the university endowment has lost 22 percent of its value since last July and the recession has caused philanthropic contributors to retrench."In other words, the school doesn't have enough funding to support faculty research. So faculty turn to the pharmaceutical companies. But is it appropriate for an institution tasked with teaching our nations' new doctors to allow a commercial industry to secretly underwrite those who teach?
More to the point: is this kind of financial relationship necessary?
An alternative solutionAs the Times piece indicates, the potential conflict of interest, the lack of disclosure rules, and the student and public backlash are all causing real harm to Harvard Medical's reputation. It may even damage the school's ability to raise what little endowment funds are still available.
But what if the school leveraged the need to preserve classroom integrity to shore up funding sources outside of Big Pharma? What if they framed their fundraising efforts with a core message that read something like this:
We need your support to keep Big Pharma out of our classrooms, so our next generation of doctors can be trained objectively and fairly.This would need to be supported, of course, by action. School officials would need to demonstrate that they're taking what internal steps they can to prevent such a tragedy—steps like instituting rules requiring the disclosure of financial relationships to both officials and students (or better yet, limiting or prohibiting financial relationships between faculty and industry).
With proper messaging, this controversy might just be turned around to actually solve the underlying problem causing the whole thing. Sadly, school officials will probably miss this fundraising opportunity and instead plaster a bandage over the controversy. Hopefully, it won't be a Band-Aid™ brand one.
It's certainly been a long time coming. I'd been rethinking the design of roughstockstudios.com ever since launching the first version of it back in 2006 (a full two years after starting Roughstock), mostly because of that voice in the back of every designers' head that insists this could be so much better. While it's not always necessary to redesign a perfectly functional site, I felt I had some pretty good reasons to back up my decision:
- The portfolio was getting dusty.
- It wasn't representative enough of the work I do.
A few design notes for the nerdsI agonized over everything on the new site, from copy to code (and yes, contrary to what I'd ever recommend for my clients, I hand-coded the site myself). Going it alone may not have been ideal, but I wanted to deepen my grasp of CSS, user interface, and narrative design in general. The devil, as they say, really is in the details:
- SFIR vs. image replacement vs. simple font stacks
I knew from the get-go that I wanted to include non-web standard fonts in the site. Web designers are typically limited to the same few system fonts available to the majority of computer users, so you get a lot of Helvetica and Georgia. Initially, I intended to integrate SFIR into the code, so I could replace any text with whatever font I so chose. But there are still accessibility issues (well, functionality issues, really) with SFIR that pushed me towards something more trustworthy.
I knew straight image replacement was out, because I didn't want to sacrifice potential rendering or search engine optimization for aesthetic purposes. So I went with simple font stacking. If you've got Gill Sans activated on your computer, you'll see that for the headlines and submenus. Otherwise, you get plain old Helvetica. It's controllable, and I pretty much know what everyone will see. I believe in keeping things simple—there's no sense in redesigning the site only to discover that every other user will see a completely different rendering of it.
- Pathways and user interface
After legibility, the overall user experience was most important to me. I struggled with the structure of this site a lot; because I'm not just a designer, or just a writer, or just a strategist, I really couldn't rely on the usual constructs for those sorts of sites. Have you seen what most writers' sites look like? (Hint: think the web circa 1990.) Instead, I opted to create a site that (hopefully) pulls you through it; as you move into the site from the home page, you get to know me and my studio better without sacrificing user control.
I still need your feedbackAfter all this, I'm sure I'll be working out what few bugs remain (some blog styling and redirecting issues), making small tweaks here and there, cleaning up the code, and generally working to improve the overall usability of the site. I know, for example, that I will probably be adjusting the "Work" section to improve navigation. So, what do you think of the site overall? Better? Worse? Worth the wait? A few specific areas I'd like input on:
- Do you have preferences for how you like to view work from creative firms?
- Are you encountering any bugs or usability issues?
- Should I not use the word "pee" on a business website?
Update 3/13: The search engine should now be fully functional, as should all the links in the sidebar.
My own website redesign is, without a doubt, the most heinous undertaking I have undertook to date. And at the very same time, I've needed to experience every tortured moment of it.Yes, Virginia, there is a website coming. The Captain doesn't believe me, and it's okay if you don't, either. The delay isn't due to indecisiveness, however, or lack of direction. Oddly, it's due to too much of same.
I so know what I want for this new site that I'm hesitant to just settle on good enough. There are a plethora of advocates in the web 2.0 sphere who insist that you should launch first, and tweak later. But that approach just feels wrong, and if there's one lesson my pea brain has picked up on, it's that in business, if it feels wrong it probably is. Why should I go with this gut feel, though? Haven't I built up too much suspense by not just launching design concept #5 or maybe even design concept #12? Haven't I talked it to death?
Well, my answer is no. One reason I'm redesigning this site is to get past good enough. I chose good enough with this current iteration, so why on earth should I do it again? Plus, I'm sick of good enough. I don't accept it for my clients, so there's no reason to accept it for my own projects.
More important than a speedy launch or eye-catching design, though, is my own slow process of repositioning Roughstock. When I got smashed by a car at the end of '07, I decided it was time to stop screwing around and really lay it on the line. I wanted to morph Roughstock from just another freelancer's attempt at a regular job into a conduit for all the seemingly unrelated skills I've picked up over the years. Those skills are good for something, and I'd been using them for that something. I just needed to figure out the best way to explain that.
See, for most of my life I've been terrible at explaining myself. I've been great at explaining things having nothing to do with myself—I get a lot of "you just seem to get us" from my clients —but when it comes to little ol' moi, it's a lot easier to just do what I do and let others connect the dots. I chalk this up to my bartending years: bartenders are damn good listeners, and we tend to listen while keeping our own crap to ourselves. But let's face it: I ain't bartending anymore (much as I pine for it some nights). So when I got smooshed by a red-light runner, I knew I needed to take more control of Roughstock.
The site redesign has been a huge part of that. I've spent a long time cogitating about what it is I really do for my clients. For the record, it's not just graphic design, or copywriting. There's a lot of discovering, and exploring, and nailing down goals, and planning for the future, and all kinds of other good stuff that goes along with the final deliverables. I've also spent a lot of time admitting that I don't want everyone to be my client. Sure, I knew this from the get-go (it's why I run my own business in the first place), but sometimes it takes a high-speed car crash to make you really know it.
So I spent the first half of 2008 recovering from the accident, while simultaneously rethinking my whole schtick (among other things, of course). And every time I thought I had it figured out, I designed a new web site that you never saw. But it hasn't been until the last few months that I've really admitted to myself that it's not about rethinking a damn thing. It's about getting back to the whole reason I started Roughstock: to help folks say what they mean in meaningful ways. Uplifting, isn't it?
And so I persist. I know I'm getting close to a finished site. You don't, but that's alright. If you sign up for either the rss feed or the Roundup newsletter (sign-up form is to the left), you'll know soon enough.
*Randomly selected number intended to communicate the vastness that is any given body of knowledge.
Reporting Can Impact the Bottom Line—For the BetterOne of the most basic findings of the study, conducted by the Global Reporting Initiative among 2,300 respondents, found that 85% of CSR report readers have a more positive opinion of the company after reading. About a third of respondents also use these reports for decision-making purposes. It would seem, then, that organizations who rely on thought leadership and increased credibility to shore up their customer base would really benefit from such reporting. I'm thinking of nonprofits, consultants and other service-based businesses in particular. But companies seeking capital funding would also stand to gain by producing reports that demonstrate their commitment to long-term sustainable strategies.
Those readers who are spurred to action after reading a company's sustainability report tend to respond with their dollars. Almost 75% of respondents say that reading a company's CSR report makes them want to either purchase the company's products or become a B2B client. That can be a potentially significant ROI, but it's dependent on a few key things:
- The report is accurate and thoughtfully produced.
- Your organization invests in distributing the report as widely as possible.
- You maximize the opportunity by directly engaging readers.
Producing a sustainability report that works for your organizationLike most projects, a sustainability report can be as straightforward or complex as you're willing to make it. But whether your report is a simple two page report or an elaborate multi-page treatise, the process needs to address the specific concerns of your readers.
Define your target audience. Reports geared toward investors will require far more statistics and detail-level information than those aimed at consumers, for example.
Gather accurate information. Knowing what standards to use, and how to accurately measure company initiatives and impact, is essential. Consider asking your audience what issues matter to them before even writing anything down, and think about how those issues dovetail with your organization's environmental and social impact on its larger communities. This will help you create a framework for content. If you skimp on this process, you risk alienating readers and undermining the whole report.
Organize information into meaningful messages. Try to balance your organization's philosophy and policy approach with real-world stories that illustrate those more abstract concepts. While the length of your report will determine just how much information you can include, you should take your cue from the framework you created in the previous step. If you have a particularly green supply chain, for example, you might outline your general purchasing policies, and also profile a specific vendor.
Engage your readers. This is where you capitalize on your report. Respondents to the GRI survey indicated that they frequently want to continue the conversation with the organization in question after reading their report. This could mean including response cards with the report itself, creating an online microsite where readers can join the conversation, or following up with a targeted campaign aimed at expanding the reporting initiative. All of these approaches give readers a specific reason to take the hand you've extended.
Towards a Truly Sustainable StrategyIf the GRI survey gives sustainability reporters cause for celebration, it also reveals a key concern: whatever reporting choices an organization makes, it must converge with an overall business strategy. Successful corporate sustainability rests on an organization's willingness to embrace entirely holistic processes; slapping together a glossy CSR brochure that trumpets your company's recycling efforts ain't gonna cut it. My recommendation is always to start with the why and the what (your organization's long-term values, approach and audience), and use reporting to communicate the how.
By treating the sustainability report as a conversation opener rather than a monologue, you have a better shot of influencing your reader and reinforcing the report's underlying message of commitment. And when your communications become a real-world tool used to engage your audience, it strengthens those relationships at a time when strong relationships can make or break a business.
Shameless Plug™: If you think your organization would benefit from some form of sustainability reporting, give me a call. We can talk about your ideas, and come up with a cost-effective solution that works for you and your audience.
Every customer phone call and email you respond toClearly, the problem isn't that you aren't doing enough. The real issue is that you're not putting enough thought into how you're doing these everyday things.
Every customer phone call and email you initiate
Every marketing campaign you execute
Every blog post you publish
Every forum or social networking message you post
Every time you describe what you do for a living to someone you meet
Every time you deliver a product or service to a customer
Every time you leave your business card somewhere
Every question you answer
Every payment you collect
The Danger of Relying on HabitsWhen you execute the tasks above out of habit, it's easy to forget that they're actually two-sided transactions. You're delivering a message during each task, and the person on the other end is receiving that message. This is true even if you're not saying anything. Filling an order? The package the order is shipped in sends a message. The very process you've set up that your customer has to pass through sends a message—how many times they have to click through your site, how long it takes them to find your phone number, and so on. Even if you're not thinking about the message you're sending, the customer is still receiving it.
Replacing Bad Habits with Better MessagesSo why do we keep perpetuating current habits? You already know: it's simply easier than identifying and transitioning into better habits. And by better habit, I mean something very specific: I mean a message that bridges the gap between speaker and listener, delivered in a way that makes it easier for the listener to understand. This is a process I'm going through myself as I redesign my now mythical website, and I really feel for organizations who are struggling with it.
Developing a thoughtful message, and then delivering it, takes deliberation. But it doesn't necessarily take pain. In fact, when you rely on a specific step-by-step process, it can be almost enjoyable (or, "a wonderful learning experience," as one of my clients once put it). The process looks something like this:
- Identify the message(s) you're currently sending
- Identify the message(s) your market wants to hear
- Take a good hard look in the mirror
- Connect the dots between what your organization provides and what your market wants
- Control each transaction so the agreed-on message gets through
- Measure the reaction to your efforts
- Adjust the messaging as much as necessary until you get it right
The Most Dangerous Habit of AllObviously, developing better messaging habits takes a lot of work and a lot of insight. It can be so challenging, in fact, that most organizations end up perpetuating the worst habit of all—they skip over the discovery stages of the process and jump straight into creating new messages. If you yourself take one message away from this article, I hope it's this: don't skip the discovery.
The discovery, in which you take that good hard look at what you're doing (and what your market really wants you to do), is almost the whole point. It's the process that you've been skipping this whole time. It's what makes the habits hard to break. And if you continue to skip it, opting instead to just churn out some new marketing message based on current assumptions, you're just replacing one bad habit with another. That's a waste of time and money, and a way to miss real opportunities. So take a moment to think it all through. Research. Observe. Explore. Do it on your own, get help if you must, but do it. Because old habits die hard—but not if you kill them carefully.
The Sincere and Concerned Approach
King Arthur Flour knows its brand. The company has been around since 1790, and has always stayed true to its core product. As the oldest flour company selling such a basic food staple, King Arthur has closely aligned itself with the notions of family values, nourishment, and responsibility. These ideals are reflected consistently throughout the company's marketing copy, whether online or off (for example, on the side of every bag of flour is printed the company's money-back guarantee—written as a letter directly from the company's president).
The latest newsletter (shown above—click the image to read the whole thing) is no exception. King Arthur has stuck with its brand identity and framed the financial crisis according to how it actually impacts its customers.
"OK, let's face it: the world is in financial turmoil...To many, it means figuring out new ways to put food on the table. And that's where we can help. King Arthur has been putting bread on American tables since 1790. Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, and countless financial downturns, King Arthur has been a steady, solid presence.The copy is conversational, intimate almost. It addresses the reader as a confidant. King Arthur can get away with this because of the brand it's already built that reinforces this approach. More than that, it can get away with it because all the claims are true.
King Arthur isn't glitzy and glamorous, not the brand du jour. We're just there. Always. To help you sustain your family with good, homemade meals..."
The truly remarkable piece of this e-newsletter is not, however, the style or tone of the writing. The real kicker is that the e-newsletter isn't selling a single thing. In fact, it's doing the opposite—it contains a free recipe for coffee cake, and links to free services provided by the company (free baking classes, a free baking hotline, and the company's blog). This reinforces the email's message: King Arthur is a trusted friend here to help you in a time of need. Yes, we're just talking about flour. But the company has managed to remain human despite such long-running success. Perhaps that's why it's had such long-running success.
The Exploit It For All It's Worth Approach
And in the other corner, we've got an email I received the day before King Arthur sent me their offer of help. It's worth noting to start that this email was an unsolicited spam ad for an e-course on marketing. I'll never understand marketers who insist on using spam to try and sell their junk. The email amounts to a press release from two "intellectual property experts" who share a blog and are now trying to cash in on the current financial crisis.
"The same economic meltdown that is wiping out stock portfolios like a Category 5 hurricane is going to open opportunities for savvy bloggers, both entrepreneurial and corporate, to generate revenue that may have been elusive during better times. Two innovation entrepreneurs have developed a way for bloggers to learn how to thrive even when the market dives.
'These eCourses will help bloggers identify the numerous opportunities around them and embark upon a path of making money from those opportunities,' says Monroe. '...We put these eCourses together to help bloggers develop those skills and game plans so they can sail in smooth waters when many others are still in that Category 5 hurricane.'"
Let's start with the tone of the copy, which uses a hurricane metaphor (and not just any hurricane, either, but a category five hurricane) to raise alarm bells. That kind of fear-mongering is just flat-out exploitative, particularly given the significance of what's at stake for the reader. The rhyming phrases are a nice touch copy-wise ("learn how to thrive even when the market dives"), but entirely inappropriate for the subject matter. Adding levity to a crisis is one thing, but this is just belittling.
Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised by this kind of copy, given the subject matter. The pitch, after all, is written to appeal to the reader's profit motive, pure and simple. But isn't unchecked profit motive what got us into this mess in the first place? Don't get me wrong: selling a course to teach bloggers how to capitalize on the economic crisis isn't unethical in and of itself. These folks are consultants (like me, in a sense), and selling ideas is a perfectly legitimate way to make a living. But how you sell matters as much as what you sell.
These are two dramatically different approaches to acknowledging the financial crisis. Both are legitimate in their own right. The question becomes: what kind of message do you want to send to your audience? Or better still: what kind of message does your audience really want to hear?
I have great products, but my brand is very caught up in me - my background, my sense of aesthetics, and my story. At some point someone else will have to do some selling. So, how do I build my brand as a separate entity from me?
Every (smart) business owner struggles with this as we begin to grow. Service businesses in particular may struggle with this because the service provider is often seen as the product being sold. And many owners play into this by defining themselves by their business. Even if they do recognize it, they often remain paralyzed with the fear of shifting the company towards a depersonalized, profit-driven approach, rather than the values-driven approach they started with.
The key to branding, though, is not to jettison the owner’s value system, but to align it with the needs and wants of the marketplace. As you're realizing, it's not enough to know who you are and what you want for your company—you also need to meet the marketplace on its own terms. This is especially true in economic times like these, when the marketplace can be exceptionally finicky.
Companies who define themselves by their owners, then, have a hard time; it's very difficult to align you as a person with the marketplace, which is about me as a consumer. Most small businesses that brand themselves as their owner find success only inasmuch as they happen to meet people who share the owner's values, personality, and aesthetics. This is an exceedingly inefficient approach that doesn’t scale up very well as the business grows. Typically, owners using this approach max out such a limited market and the business plateaus.
So, in practical terms, what does an owner do to create a brand that can stand on its own, apart from the owner? Having gone through this process with a nonprofit client earlier this year, I can tell you the most effective way to do this is to allow your personal values to inform the brand, rather than define it.
The process starts with a whole mess of research:
- Current brand audit: Take stock of your company, your products or services, the benefits and value you bring to your consumers, etc.
- Current customer audit: Identify and organize your current customer base by as many variables as possible. This includes identifying how your current customers perceive your company.
- Market research and competitive research: You can’t operate in a bubble, so you need to know what everyone around you is doing.
"The establishment has long held that these ‘amateurs’ – students and stay-at-home moms, freelancers and fed-up corporate refugees – are nothing more than a novelty and are not capable of competing with the ‘professionals.’ The establishment is wrong. The Internet has blurred the boundaries between professionals and non-professionals. The underdogs are challenging tradition in industry after industry. They are risk takers. They are true entrepreneurs. The underdogs compete on their ideas and their work, not education, training, and fancy offices. They make things they like and they hope that other people will like them too.The underdogs are a threat to AIGA and the NO!SPEC campaign. There are millions of them. They demand that a level playing field be created to allow them to compete. They demand the democratization of the design industry."Incendiary stuff. He then goes on to say, "We’ve created a level playing field where experience doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is your work." Now that feels like an oxymoron. Most professional designers (including this one) would argue that experience informs your work. But more than that, it disregards the rest of what makes good design: context, relationships, research, and in-depth understanding of the client and their goals.
And this is evidenced by Kimbarovsky's disclosure that "Our overall average across all projects is about $350." For an independent creative getting paid, say $50 an hour (a very low number, given the overhead required to sustain an independent business), this means a 7-hour project. Seven hours for adminsitrative tasks, market and client research, concepting and sketching, production, and revisions. Really? It would take a highly skilled and experienced designer to produce a good-looking and effective logo, website, brochure, etc in that amount of time.
There's a lot more to say about this subject, and I'll explore some of it later in an upcoming installment of Copyrights and Wrongs (first, though, I'll be looking at the contract negotation process).
It seems the industry trade group takes issue with those of us who give a crap about the crap they try to force down our throats. Let's just break down the horrible line of thinking that led to these ads, shall we?
Step One: Identify the Problem
Like any good advocacy group would, the Corn Refiners Association recognized that their single most profitable product—high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—is earning itself a bad name among doctors, parents, and a whole lot of other folks. First came the whispers of "why is it in everything?" including what should be unsweet food items like turkey stuffing, salad dressing and hot dogs. Then came the study that linked high fructose corn syrup to diabetes in children, which is quickly becoming an epidemic (probably because it's in, well, everything).
This is the first thing they did right, from a marketing perspective (I won't get into the first rule of ethical marketing: don't push dangerous products).
Step Two: Join the Conversation
In many cases, companies decide to just stand pat when the rumors start whirling (this approach was particularly favored in the days before the internet gave consumers so much control over brand reputation). But as the rumors about HFCS became the subject of scientific study, the CRA apparently felt it had to step in. They must have figured, "Hey, let's set the record straight!"
What they failed to admit to themselves was that the record was not exactly in their favor.
Step Three: Frame Your Message
Both of the ads the group launched hinge on the concept that facts trump "what they say" any day of the week. Not a bad approach, if you actually have facts to back up your argument. But the ads fail to deliver on this promise, opting instead to bolster several fallacies with facts that are rather inconsequential.
Claim: HFCS is made from corn.So if you're going to frame your message around facts, you better have good ones to support it.
Truth: Yup. (Of course, I don't really want corn in my toothpaste.)
Claim: HFCS has the same calories as sugar.
Truth: Basically, yup.
Claim: HFCS is fine in moderation.
Truth: Possibly true but misleading. Americans' consumption of HFCS has increased 250% over the last 15 years (source), because it's in damn near everything; CRA member companies shipped 23,503,847,000 pounds of HFCS in 2005 alone (source). So when they tell us to consume it in moderation, it's a little bit like waiving a vial of crack in front of a junkie and then telling him to go home. HFCS has also been linked, as mentioned, to diabetes because it messes with the way the body produces natural regulators.
Claim: HFCS doesn't have any artificial ingredients.
Truth: Not exactly true, and definitely misleading. There are synthetic ingredients used in the processing of HFCS (corn starch hydrolysate and glucose isomerase enzyme preparation, to be exact), but the molecular structure of these substances are altered during manufacturing. Furthermore, the FDA itself (notoriously loose when it comes to limiting Big Business claims) does not allow companies to call products containing HFCS "natural" (source).
Step Four: Imply Your Audience is Stupid to be so Easily Swayed By Empty Words, then ask them to believe yours
This is where the copywriting really falls apart. Setting aside the giant conceptual mistake of fact vs. fiction, it is generally a bad idea to portray your audience as being either a dumb sheep or a passive-aggressive, judgmental bitchface. Do the writers even realize that the white mother in the ad above represents the very people they are trying to persuade? She's expressing what the public is thinking—why on earth make her look like such a snot while doing it? Making your audience feel bad about themselves—or worse, self-defensive—is a terrible way to get them to do what you want.
The Lesson: Consider the person receiving your message and be nice to them
Mending a broken relationship with your customer base is no easy task. I can't say I envy the marketing minds behind these ads, given the uphill battle they've been tasked to fight. I'm not even sure I know what approach would work for them at this point. I do know, though, that winning over a naysayer requires a delicate touch. Making your audience look like a douchebag, then asking them to support you? Not so delicate.
The Six Sins of Greenwashing report analyzed over a thousand green claims made by businesses, and found that only one was legitimately honest. The rest committed one or more of the following sins:
- The sin of hidden trade-offs
Focusing on one environmental benefit while ignoring other essential issues.
- The sin of no proof
Lack of third-party auditing to back up any claims.
- The sin of vagueness
Using words and claims with broad or multiple meanings, resulting in an essentially meaningless claim.
- The sin of irrelevance
Making a green claim that is already inherent to the product or service being marketed, as though there's something special about this one.
- The sin of fibbing
- The sin of the lesser of two evils
Making claims within a product category that is inherently environmentally damaging (i.e. no matter what green claims are made, the product is by definition bad for the environment).
In addition to TerraChoice's recommendations, both the U.S. and Canada have issued their own guidelines. Our neighbors to the north go beyond the legal requirements for Canadian labeling compliance, offering fairly in-depth recommendations for businesses who make particular environmental claims. The PDF report is a useful tool no matter what country your business operates in.
Our own government also offers guidelines for environmental claims in advertising. Regulated by the FTC, the bulk of these guidelines are legally binding, although I haven't done the legwork to determine just how frequently and under what circumstances these laws are enforced (keeping up with the marketplace's now ubiquitous green claims would certainly pose a challenge for any organization). An even more detailed guide is available on their site, but be aware that the FTC is in the process of updating these in response to the rise of the green marketplace.
Addressing Your Own Green ClaimsThough boning up on the federal regulations is a must for any business flirting with green claims, it's not just the government's ire you need to worry about. Speaking the truth is essential to ensure credibility among your own customers. So, once you understand what you can and can't say, you ought to take a look at what you already are saying. At the very least, you need to ask yourself:
- Are my claims specific?
- Are my claims clear and understandable?
- Are my claims verifiable by a reputable third party?
- Do my claims accurately represent the purchasing issues a customer might face when buying my product?
- Do my claims provide enough context for the customer to make an informed decision?
Poor font choices aside, experts (thankfully) seem to understand the benefits of legible menus, as well as how best to produce them:
"Allen [CEO of Quantified Marketing Group] recommends using sans-serif fonts and few capital letters. He instructs managers to draw diners' eyes to the most profitable items on a three-panel menu by positioning those golden dishes in three key places: the center of the middle page and the top-right and top-left corners, which he calls the sweet spots. In addition to avoiding bad translations, Allen says chefs should use simple language when possible."Of course, typeface is a fundamental piece of a restaurant's visual identity. As the study shows, it communicates specific characteristics about a restaurant's personality and food. But you don't need to rely on elaborate fonts for the sake of using elaborate fonts. Professional designers understand how to specify and use typefaces with character (pardon the pun) to influence customer perception and behavior, without sacrificing legibility.
If anything, the study makes a good case for leaving typography in the hands of the professionals - otherwise, you end up thinking Mistral is the answer to slow sales.
"We will delete comments which deny the absolutely overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, just as we would delete comments which questioned the reality of the Holocaust or the equal mental capacities and worth of human beings of different ethnic groups. Such 'debates' are merely the morally indefensible trying to cover itself in the cloth of intellectual tolerance."As most of the posters to date acknowledge, the WorldChanging staff is perfectly within its rights to moderate and even delete comments on its site. Yet the way in which Steffen has chosen to word the announcement is so anathema to the stated objectives of the site that it begs the question: what the hell are you thinking? If the producers of WorldChanging are truly interested in "how best to collaborate, how to build coalitions and movements, how to grow communities, how to make our businesses live up to their highest potential and how to make the promise of democracy into a reality," then isn't it a little disingenuous to prohibit open discussion about a scientific theory?
Maybe, and then again, maybe not. According to yesterday's post, WorldChanging's decision to delete such comments is based on the premise that climate change is a scientific fact and, as such, to deny it is "morally indefensible." This is, of course, absurd. It's no different than Christians calling non-Christians sinners and damning them to hell - it makes for a dramatic stance, but casting aspersions isn't really solving a damn thing. Nor is it trying to solve anything. And just to drive the point home, it's not even true.
Let's just say that climate change is a scientific truth and the debate is, in fact, over (you don't hear me arguing). Steffen's position (or is it WorldChanging's? It's not entirely clear, but I suspect we'll get a clarification soon enough) is that denying this physical phenomenon is morally equivalent to denying human equality. But this is an apples-to-oranges comparison; physical science and philosophical constructs are observed and measured on different scales. We could, I suppose, get into an argument about whether or not human equality really is a philosophical construct, but that would lead us to the whole "God-given right" thing, and I would argue that God is himself a philosophical construct. So let's just skip that (or not, you tell me).
Steffen would be much better off simply accusing climate change deniers of being raving lunatics who don't share the same reality as the majority of the population, and prohibit such comments on those grounds. But he didn't take a scientific stand, he took a moral stand. He hopped up on that soapbox and blasted away. Sure, WorldChanging has every right to moderate comments on its own blog. But at some point, an editorial staff needs to decide whether or not such decisions undermine its own credibility. Especially when that credibility hinges on bringing people together using innovative thinking and design models.
The sustainable design model by its very nature must consider all stakeholders when problem solving. And climate skeptics are certainly stakeholders in this environment, whether Steffen and his staff wish them to be or not. That means that if we're going to solve environmental problems - climate change problems - then we need to consider the skeptics as well. By denouncing them as moral sinners and driving them from the fold, we fail to truly address the very issues in which they are so deeply involved.
So if WorldChanging wishes to plug its ears and ignore the skeptics, then as they themselves state, "you're certainly welcome to your opinion." But doing so completely undermines their otherwise important attempts at bridging gaps, deepening understanding, and solving universal problems. And dammit, it gives the rest of us believers a really bad rep.
The big challenge here was creating a look distinguished enough to impress a rather staid financial industry while still communicating the personality and charm of this incredibly focused team of statistical wizards.
Both the letterhead and envelope are printed on 100% recycled paper, while the business card is printed on a heavier stock, 30% PCW recycled paper.
The article touches on the power of graphic design when it comes to the dining experience, noting in particular that menu materials and presentation can directly impact the diner's opinion and actions. I figured I'd take the opportunity to expand on this a little, and point out a few ways restaurant owners can use graphic design to influence their guests' experience.
The Eyes Are Always the First to Digest
While every restaurant must turn out good food, the very first thing guests actually experience is the way a restaurant looks. This includes cleanliness, the floor plan, fabrics and textures, and so on. But it also includes the single unifying visual element of any restaurant: the logo. Think about the specific moments in which a guest - or potential guest - will see your restaurant's logo:
- When visiting your website after hearing about your restaurant for the first time
- When passing your restaurant during off hours
- When noticing your business card on a friend's desk
- When seeing your ad in a local paper
The Menu Is a Tool, Not an Order Form
The point of any menu is to inform the diner of their options, of course. But smart restauranteurs use the menu to guide diners to particular choices. This requires careful consideration of size, item placement, colors, and materials.
Provide the guest with a visual path
Text formatting, colors and layout all serve to pull the eye along a specific path. You don't have to draw a large neon box around your high-margin specials, but consider where you place particular menu items to encourage ordering.
Be honest and clear
Avoid florid menu descriptions that don't actually tell the diner what they need to know. Specific ingredient details are fine, but ask yourself - does my customer come away knowing exactly what they'll get?
Reinforce the food
Menu presentation should reflect your food. If your food is simple and clean, for example, avoid elaborate menu folders or busy prints and textures.
Use Graphics to Build the Experience
Your guests want more than just good food - they want a complete experience that stays with them and brings them over and over again. Remember that list of moments when a potential customer might come across your logo? Consider, too, the moments that your guests will encounter other visual elements, and use them to build the experience:
- Menu (of course)
- Door and window signage
- Drink lists
- Table tents
- Other signage (restrooms, directional signage, etc)
- Check delivery
- Email correspondence
- Business cards
- Print ads
- Coupons and gift certificates
Every time you put a message out to the public - within your doors or without - that communication should reinforce your restaurant's identity. Everything a guest or potential guest sees should serve to enhance that experience, so they remember your distinct look, feel and flavors.
Of course, they have the heavy-duty resources to dedicate to such projects. You can also look at it as an investment in public relations and branding. Nevertheless, that's a huge commitment that speaks volumes about the company.
A few interesting results and their implications:
- Result: "The amount of billable hours a freelancer is accumulating accounts for a large percentage of their overall happiness. This is in stark comparison to hourly rates and net income which have no significant impact on a freelancer’s overall happiness."
My take: When you only charge $30-$40/hour on average (the most common rate range across multiple industries), you have to work more billable hours. It's no wonder, then, that the apparent business is what makes these freelancers happier, as opposed to their low hourly rate or their overall income, which will inevitably be lower thanks to their rate. If they were to raise their rates, thereby increasing their income, perhaps they would then respond that their rates or income influence their happiness. I can't help thinking that this boils down to a crisis of confidence.
- Result: "This survey suggests that the following activities have no noticeable impact on your income:
Your age or your genderThis leads me to the only remaining possible conclusion – it’s all about the skills...I don’t think it would be bad advice to suggest that if your income isn’t what you think it should be or need it to be, it might be time to upgrade your skills and worry less about marketing and diversifying."
Where you live
The marketing techniques you use (emphasis added)
The additional goods and services your offer.
My take: I'm not sure I'd agree with the above conclusion based on the actual question asked: "Where do you find work?" Such a question does not measure the efficacy of one's work-finding techniques (which include referrals, portfolio website, internet job sites, social networking sites, blogs, cold calling, and advertising). It simply measures which techniques freelancers are using. If you don't do any cold calling, for example, you won't get any work from it. This is a major flaw in the analysis, as it sends the message that referrals are the only method freelancers should rely on to find new clients. While I know several freelancers who have been successful over the years relying primarily on referrals, I'm not sure how much job security it actually offers.
How'd they swing it? Simple: instead of relying on the magazine's normal use of cluttered stock photography, they dropped a little cash on a one-day photo shoot. And in that single day, they shot 200 covers. And if you need a before-and-after, just check out what the mag looked like before Pentagram got their hooves all over it:
Trouble is, we're often wrong.
There is a difference, after all, between understanding that a website greatly increases one's chances of making a sale and understanding how to design and build (two separate things, people!) a website that sucks people in rather than drives them away.
John McCain's early dabbling with MySpace is a good example of this: someone on McCain's campaign knew enough to recognize the importance of MySpace among young potential voters, and decided to create a page for the presidential candidate. Only problem was, they weren't experts in MySpace functionality, nor in copyright laws and web design etiquette. So they nicked someone's css design and failed to give credit to the designer. And because McCain's crew lacked the necessary coding expertise, they outright stole the designer's bandwidth, unwittingly or not.
But the designer was an expert. So he swapped a little of his own code on his own servers, which resulted in a very public switch of McCain's political stance:
"Dear Supporters,Fact is, experts are experts because they know something we don't. And when we forget this, attempting to do what they do ourselves without due diligence, it often comes back to bite us in the butt (see yesterday's link to Dani's dissection of off-the-shelf templates).
Today I have announced that I have reversed my position and come out in full support of gay marriage...particularly marriage between passionate females."
One of the reasons we've gotten so turned off by experts—be they editors, designers, doctors or anyone else—is because so many of them (us?) rest on their laurels and don't live up to their promises. Seth Godin alluded to this in his recent post on the importance of editors:
"Great products, amazing services and stories worth talking about get edited along the way. Most of the time, the editing makes them pallid, mediocre and boring. Sometimes, a great editor will push the remarkable stuff. That's his job."And therein lies the moral: know who the hell you're hiring. Know what they're good at, and how they got that way. And make damn sure what they're good at is actually what you want. Because a tall glass of free milk isn't worth it if it turns out to be sour.
"It takes time away from activities that you're already good at, and takes you away from growing your business. When you went into business for yourself, was it because you wanted to learn HTML, SEO or logo design? Unless your business is graphic or web design, the answer is most likely no. Forcing yourself into a situation where you are doing all of the marketing, logo design, etc. for your business not only takes your valuable time away from your business, it forces you to do a lot more work with a lot less results than if you had found the right designer to partner with on your materials."DIY seems to have a stranglehold on popular culture right now. But when you get down to the real nitty-gritty, business success relies on knowing when to get your hands dirty and when to invest in professional expertise. We're all on a budget, but if you're not willing to invest in your own business, how can you possibly expect your customers to?
Words of warning! Not all of these techniques may be right for your business, and almost all of them will be far more effective if you hire the right professional to help. And while that may sound like just a little bit of a pitch, it's also very true.
- Create or update your logo
Benefit: Creates an immediate visual connection with prospects and customers. Sums you up at a glance.
- Create or update your identity collateral
Benefit: Sends the message that you're a legitimate, professional business. Unifies your brand image.
- Define your core values
Benefit: Focuses your business, aids in decision making and strategic planning, and provides customers a point of connection.
- Write a blog
Benefit: Develops a consistent voice for your company.
- Issue a press release
Benefit: Enhances reputation, increases company exposure to the public.
- Update your packaging
Benefit: Creates a cohesive look and association with your company. Can also increase sales.
- Create a marketing budget and feed that kitty
Benefit: Enables you to actually afford to market your business, saves headaches when it comes time to implement your marketing plans.
- Start an email newsletter
Benefit: Keeps your business front-of-mind, educates prospects and customers about your company and offerings, opens the lines of communication between your business and your audience.
- Network off-line
Benefit: Creates real-world connections with prospects.
- Network online (in forums, user groups, and on blogs)
Benefit: Increases public awareness. Builds online connections and resources.
- Conduct a survey with a prize drawing
Benefit: Opens the lines of communication with your audience, solicits useful information for strategic planning, builds goodwill.
- Offer something useful (product sample, e-book, white paper, etc.) for free
Benefit: Builds goodwill, creates demand, engages prospects.
- Write your policies down—all of them (if you don't have specific policies, create them)
Benefit: Minimizes mistakes, creates a clear framework for customers to work within.
- Build/update your website
Benefit: Too many to list! Strengthens reputation, builds legitimacy, informs prospects, offers customer support, increases sales (particularly with shopping cart functionality).
- Conduct a highly targeted direct mail campaign
Benefit: Reaches only those who are prequalified to buy from you.
- Exhibit at a trade show
Benefit: Puts you in direct contact with those who want your product or service; personalizes the business.
- Solicit referrals from current customers
Benefit: Leverages your current customers, automatically establishes trust with prospects.
- Explore a new demographic
Benefit: Expands your market reach.
- Run a print ad in a consumer or trade publication
Benefit: Reach a large audience in one shot.
- Design an easy-to-use product catalog or service brochure
Benefit: Informs prospects and encourages direct sales.
Do you have ideas of your own that can be added to this list? Post them in the comments below and I'll add them as they come.