Everything Speaks McVolumes

Brands are not "positioned' in stone. Brands are organic not static---growing, shrinking, evolving all of the time. Contrary to common belief, the term "brand management" does not adequately describe how successful companies build brands. "Brand management" today is more synonymous with "cat herding" than with brand-building. Why? Because companies don't control the ultimate fate of their brand...key customers do.

What is a "key customer"? It is that individual who can directly influence the sustainable success of a business. By definition, "key customer" describes a group much larger than simply "those who consume/purchase a product or service"---the focus of most brand managers. "Key customers" consist of a company's employees, strategic partners, customers/consumers, influencers, analysts, and even investors.

A wonderful example of the organic nature of brands and the value of "key customers" is provided by this week's battle between two venerated and trusted brands, McDonald's and Merriam-Webster. In the world of brand-building, everything speaks. McDonald's may have spent millions launching its new tagline, but in the end of the day Webster's addition of "mcjob" (meaning "low paying, dead end work") into the official english lexicon could have long-term ramifications for the strength of McDonald's brand as it gradually erodes meaning for arguably McDonald's most valuable key customer franchise, its employees and franchisees.

"McJob" was first coined by the Washington Post in 1986 (OED), popularized by Douglas Coupland in his seminal work, Generation X, and has become part of the American lexicon. Webster didn't invent the word, "mcjob", it simply legitimized the term by adding it to the latest version of its dictionary. In doing so, Webster fulfills its brand promise of being a trusted authority on the evolution the English language. Unfortunately for McDonald's, one company's brand-building efforts can erode the brand of another. What is remarkable is that in the case of "mcjob" that brand erosion will occur to a brand that exists in an entirely different industry.

Rightfully so the new CEO of McDonald's is not taking the inclusion of "mcjob" in the dictionary lightly. Certainly recognizing that Merriam-Webster cannot delete the term "mcjob", he is making the best of a bad situation and publicly standing up for his valuable internal constituents--a stand that employees and franchisees will both respect and appreciate:

"It is a slap in the face to the twelve million people in the restaurant industry" --McDonald's Corporation CEO Jim Cantalupo (The Register)

In addition, a handful of McDonald's loyalists have attempted to rectify the situation on their own by posting new definitions for "mcjob" on on-line dictionaries:

A job that allows elderly people to reenter the workforce, trains more young people than the armed forces, provides steady income to families, and offers work to mentally and physically challenged people. A place where leadership and pride are encouraged and advancement opportunities are limitless. -Catherine 11/09/03

However, in the end of the day McDonald's is reaping what it has sewn from an organizational perspective. "Mcjob" is more than a simple definition in a dictionary, it is a commonly held perception among the public, McDonald's key customers and others. Trust, integrity, honesty, prestige--these are all attributes that corporations like McDonald's invest hundreds of millions of advertising dollars to add to the tapastry of meaning that is their brand. Merriam-Webster's most recent entry, may have pulled a thread from McDonald's tapastry, but McDonald's employment practices molded the perception in the first place. Words can mold meaning, and meaning can be an infinitely valuable asset for a corporation (just look at what Barista has done for Starbucks). However, brand-building is less about advertising and coining terms and more about an organization-wide understanding that "everything speaks" and in many cases actions speak louder than words. (First published by Peacock Nine...here.)

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A Three Mile Moment For J&J

Now is a Three Mile moment for Johnson & Johnson. Sixty people have died. The FDA is on its case. Its greatest success story of 2003 is on the ropes. And shares in J&J have rebounded slightly from their lowest point in over a year. Sure it may be the "world's largest and most diversified health care company" consisting of pseudo-latinate corporations such as Ethicon, Centocor and Cordis among others, but in the end of the day Johnson & Johnson most powerful perceptual position is less about biotech and more about its role as protector of the "mother-baby" bond. General Robert Wood Johnson intuitively understood this and drafted J&J's famous Credo to insulate J&J's unique focus from the fuzzying effects of multinational delusions of grandeur. The credo has been revised over the years, but the principals remain intact. The credo provided a gameplan to then Chairman Charles E. Burke during the Tylenol Scare nearly twenty years ago. Today's Chairman & CEO of J&J, William C. Weldon is the newest keeper of the credo and he is faced with an issue that may be even more dangerous to the long-term viability of the company than that faced by Burke. Arguably his most valuable constitency (physicians) has been given reason to doubt J&J. We believe that Weldon missed an opportunity live the credo and pre-empt the FDA report by taking the bad news public himself. What could have been framed as the responsible actions of a confident company, has been characterized in the press as just another example of the careless profiteering so common among "big companies". Weldon's next move will be just as critical. Will he make a public mea culpa and take the defective stents from the market (as any responsble mother would do and his credo demands) or will he be influenced by his financial stakeholders (Wall Street) and follow in the footsteps of Coke and another great brand killing moment of late? Only time will tell. We hope that he lets the credo be his guide.

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Culture Pay-off

Today we came across two articles that both speak to the power of internal branding. One, in the Wall Street Journal speaks to the value of Walmart's house band and the collective passion of its 4000 store managers. In short, Wallmart may be one of the most cost conscious companies in the world (ex. managers share hotel rooms) but when it comes to its customer-focused culture, it has realized that there is no better investement opportunity.
Additionally, an article in Advertising Age asks, "Are McDonald's Employees Really 'Lovin It'?". This brief article provdes great insight into the value of "internal branding". We believe it. Great companies are built form the inside out, not the outside in. And although the process isn't flashy, the likes of Fed Ex and UPS have proven that employees that "live the brand" are an invaluable source of sustainable competitive advantage.

Highlight: Share performance of companies with high employee trust levels outperformed companies with low trust levels by 186%.
The three key to success is (1.) determining a compelling focus for the company that MEANS something to both internal and external stakeholders (2.) aligning the employees attitudes and beliefs with this new focus first..and then manifesting this focus via external means (marketing, advertising, product development, services, policies) and (3.) MEASUREMENT putting internal and external measures in place that enable the leaders of a company to gauge whether or not they are "moving the needle". After all, nothing measured...nothing gained:
Highlight: Corporations on Fortune's Most Admired Companies list increased stock appreciation 50% over their peers after instituting employee measures.

Business leaders have to not only ask themselves if they understand where their external customers are "coming from" but they also must create a culture similarly values what their internal customers are "all about". And of course, these business leaders and their companies have to have the prescience to MEASURE their success via stakeholder-centric measures, rather than simple sales measures and employee retention rates.

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