How to build a better customer experience in the Internet of Things

“The Internet is running out of IP addresses.”

This was the blunt assessment of my networking lab professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology ten years ago. It turns out that the largest network of all — the capital-I Internet — was never designed to accommodate the sheer volume of devices logging onto it. In the early 80s when the internet protocol was developed, no one considered an Internet of billions of devices for a network that was used only by higher education and government. They almost certainly didn’t conceive of a network that would require addresses for household appliances. Why would my thermostat, security system or bottle of prescription medication need to be connected to the Internet?

But my, those wheels of progress do turn quickly! The future has arrived, bringing with the “Internet of Things” — a universe of devices with all the software, sensors and network connections that promise to make our lives better, but what kind of experience is this providing? What can companies do to bridge gaps between these technologies and people who have yet to adopt them?

Surprise and delight with the power of data
“Knowledge is power” or so the saying goes. In the era of the Internet of Things — where devices collect data every hour of every day — that statement couldn’t be truer. One company that is uniquely positioned to rise to the challenge of understanding all this data is Google.

Ranked as number 15 on Tenet’s Top 100 Most Powerful Brands of 2015, Google is an old pro in the tech industry for gathering reams of information and turning it into something useful. Just look at their main product: their search engine dominates the market to such an extent that the company name is used as a verb. But now, Google has turned its attention outside of the World Wide Web.

With Google’s acquisition of Nest — known for its self-programmable thermostat — the search giant did more than buy a company that manufactures amazing temperature controls. They purchased permission to enter our homes and help themselves to the “data cookie jar”. Google can now, unintrusively, collect data on our behavior as we go about our daily business. Combined with the aforementioned expertise in understanding that data, this acquisition is a natural fit that has endless possibilities.

Think about self-monitored home security systems. Such systems could learn your daily movements, monitor your Google Calendar to determine when you’ll be away and connect to your Android device to send notifications in the event suspicious activity near your home is detected. Taking that to the next level, it’s easy to imagine a self-securing home, one that locks itself as you leave for work in the morning. Perhaps the system could unlock the door for your teenager who once again misplaced their key or open the garage in order to accept that Amazon Prime package. These are just some examples of how the Internet of Things can delight customers and, potentially, win over those reluctant to embrace it.

What about customers who are uncertain of allowing data to be gathered about them in order to make this magic happen?

Maintain trust through transparency
In the age of domestic surveillance, drones, and customer data breaches, the idea of an Internet of Things collecting personal data can feel intrusive for many late-adopters. Yes, these new technologies open up the possibilities for an improved life, but at what cost? Customers will — quite rightly — have questions they want answered, such as:

  • How much information is being collected?
  • What are they doing with the information?
  • Are they selling my personal data to others?
  • Is this all safe and secure?

These questions are real and need to be addressed so as to make it easy for customers to adopt new ways. The path that companies can take to get ahead of any negative perceptions is through the often neglected, but always recommended, principle of transparency.

Companies specializing in the Internet of Things must always be clear about what these technologies are doing for their customers, and what those customers are providing in exchange. By setting easy-to-understand expectations early, customers won’t be unpleasantly surprised later. Privacy and personal data are understandably, sensitive topics for consumers, so invest the time and effort to foster trust with your organization and your connected devices.

Trust is an important aspect of your communication, but it shouldn’t end there. An overall engagement strategy, or lack thereof, can have a lasting impact in the faith customers have in your company and its devices.

Read the full article on Branding Magazine.

Why B2B Brands Should Embrace Social Media

Social media is, without question, the epitome of how digital has transformed the way we communicate. With broad reach and instant effect, social networks have grown to afford their users a tremendous amount of power. This can be seen in how social media users can influence, both positively and negatively, the public perception of a brand. In an attempt to shape the narrative, companies across all industries were quick to embrace social networking, with one glaring exception—businesses whose customers are other businesses.

Save for business-oriented social networks such as LinkedIn, many B2B companies hold the misconception that social media isn’t an appropriate or necessary space they need to occupy. But the truth is, the impact of social media reaches wide and deep for every organization, no matter of the customers. Social media provides its users instant and free access to some of the largest audiences in the world. As such, it’s a key instrument in any marketer’s toolkit.

Still not convinced that your organization should move beyond LinkedIn? Here are four more reasons why your B2B brand should embrace social.

1. Social media can boost your B2B brand awareness
Commercial real estate giant CBRE is a great example of a B2B company taking full advantage of Instagram as a photo-sharing site. Filled with images of commercial buildings and photographs of urban skylines, the CBRE Instagram account was slow to attract a following. But in the two years it’s been online, CBRE has managed to amass over 5,100 followers. With an average of 150 likes per posting, it’s a following that also shows regular engagement.

CBRE isn’t the only B2B business to leverage the social to build awareness. Global shipping giant Maersk Line also maintains a healthy Instagram following, using photos of container ships and transport vehicles to illustrate how the goods we purchase traverse the oceans before they reach our stores. Beyond Instagram, General Electric uses Pinterest—wrongly perceived as a network for sharing recipes and fashion—to highlight how their company’s innovations “move, power, build and cure the world.”

By bringing your B2B brand to the attention of your audience, you increase your B2B brand exposure and draw sustained attention to it in a unique and interesting way.

2. Social serves as an avenue to promote thought leadership
Social media gives you a public stage from which you can share knowledge with a broader public. For businesses, this represents an avenue to distribute an organization’s latest thoughts or ideas, important company updates and positive press.

For example, Cisco, the company known for its networking devices, is networking with hundreds of thousands on their Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. Using hashtags such as #InsideInnovation and #InternetOfEverything, Cisco distributes thought leadership pieces, website content and videos to an audience that—through likes and follows—they know are receptive to their brand and the messages they promote.

With the exception of Facebook, the organic social reach of these promotions are only as limited as the number of people interested in your message, and how often they log into the network of their choice. And not to be minimized, we need to look at the potential to extend your reach through social sharing and paid promotion.

3. Social provides an opportunity for brand engagement
B2B marketers must remember that they’re not just targeting a faceless business entity with their communications. Rather, what they’re looking to do is to engage with people who are, in some way, attached to a business. These are human beings with emotions, looking for the partner who will make their jobs easier and will set them up for success. Companies that offer business services, such as logistics or software as a service, are well positioned to use social media for brand engagement in this manner.

One such example is Salesforce, whose Twitter account also doubles as a platform for customers and employees to engage with the brand. When an individual tweets using the @salesforce handle, it’s likely to receive a response from the marketers supporting the Salesforce corporate account. Positive or negative, there is an open dialog between the brand and its clients.

This type of two-way relationship represents the quintessential B2B brand engagement that social media offers to businesses.

4. Social may have an effect on your SEO
There is still some debate on this, but many search marketers believe that social signals—likes, retweets, follows or other audience interactions with your social posts—are a ranking factor in search engine optimization. Google representatives have denied that they use social signals as a ranking factor, but webmasters are quick to point out that data curated by social networks remains too rich to ignore. Social signals have the potential to illustrate the popularity and trustworthiness in a particular social media user or piece of content. Thus, it’s somewhat unbelievable that the world’s largest search engine has said they place no special value towards this data—and I myself remain a skeptic.

Every brand has, at one point, struggled when taking the leap into social media. It takes time and effort to build an audience, craft compelling content, and find a voice in a wider community made up of millions. But the B2B brands that I’ve mentioned as examples above prove that, done right, social media can make up a rewarding part of your marketing toolkit. If you’re still not convinced, or unsure where to start, I’d invite you to learn more about Tenet’s digital marketing capabilities and our thoughts on the connected customer. After all, your business isn’t just marketing to other businesses—you’re marketing to human beings like yourself, all hustling to connect with one another in an ever-changing digital landscape.

Six Tactics to Boost Your Email Marketing Strategy

In digital marketing — a space now overwhelmed by sexy social networks and innovative ad tech — there’s a misconception that email marketing is a thing of the past. However, despite the rise of other avenues of digital communication, email marketing is far from dead. In fact, according to a 2013 study by the Direct Marketing Association, email marketing provides an average return on investment of 4,300%, making it a direct digital marketing tool that is second-to-none.

But not all marketers are using email in the most effective way. Some have been slow to keep up with how it’s evolved with the technology we use today. Others, due to time constraints or the hope that newer channels would displace email, never executed their email marketing properly in the first place.

As in everything in life, there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach email marketing.

1. Build an audience, open to hearing your story
A successful email marketing campaign requires a captivated audience. If you’re starting from scratch, or your subscriber base is low, there are a multitude of strategies you can employ to build your email lists.

Popular amongst them all is the “give to get” approach. You give out a little bit of your knowledge and you get the right to court your potential audience. In B2B, this normally means sharing your thought leadership in exchange for people opting in to regular email communications. For B2C, marketers have found great success at list building through contests and product giveaways.

Twitter’s lead generation card affords users a way to subscribe to email marketing lists directly from their timeline.

Social networks have also rolled out tools designed to opt-in users directly from their social timelines. Combined with a paid social media campaign, marketers can take advantage of soliciting opt-ins from targeted demographics.

Finally, employ a double opt-in procedure for your email signups. By asking a new subscriber to confirm permission to add them to your list, you receive verification that the email address provided wasn’t fake, and that your new recipient will be engaged.

2. Keep that ever-burgeoning database under control
Deploying email campaigns to poor quality lists can bring on very negative consequences — anywhere from being banned by ISPs to legal issues. Proper, routine maintenance on your email lists isn’t just optional — it’s required.

Begin by asking yourself some elementary questions: How did you build those lists? When did you last use them? Do you have permission to email the folks who found their way unto your list? For some jurisdictions and regulated industries, it’s a legal requirement to maintain information on the time, date and sign-up method for each recipient on your list. Bear in mind that when you do have permission, it goes stale after a period — generally six months to a year depending on deployment frequency. Performance metrics can signal if a recipient is no longer interested in receiving your emails.

But before you repeatedly hit the “Delete” button, there are alternatives for you to consider. A solid maintenance tactic to use on questionable records is to compile them into a one-off email campaign. Then, very simply, ask these contacts if they are still interested in hearing from you periodically. This respectful outreach gives you confirmation that you still have a live audience, as well as an opportunity for renewed engagement and sustained valuable communications.

3. Encourage feedback
Marketers too often neglect to provide a clear, direct way for your recipients to deliver feedback. An odd oversight when you think that this feedback mechanism is built into your email already — the reply button. When marketers send messages with a no-reply address, they unknowingly build a barrier between themselves and their audiences who have no direct avenue of communication. This misstep could cost you the goodwill of your audience, making your email vulnerable to spam filters. Ultimately, this could hurt the image of your brand as one that merely talks to customers, rather than engaging them in a dialogue.

If you don’t already have a reply-to email address set up, create one and make sure you’re set up for a proper monitoring. For example, at Tenet Partners, we send our newsletters from a dedicated email account, diligently monitored by our marketing team. It’s integrated in our customer service ecosystem, enabling us to quickly respond to requests for more information or unsubscribes, as well as complaints.

4. Develop your email messages for mobile
According to email testing and tracking service Litmus, a whopping 53% of all emails were opened on a mobile device in 2014. That is a 500% increase since 2011. Without taking measures to adjust your emails for mobile, you’re not giving due consideration to a large part of your audience.

But how do you adjust emails reliably for smaller screens? The solution is responsive email design.

Just as the web affords mobile users with experiences designed for smaller screens, email has the same potential — using the exact same code. Take a look at how Tenet’s Take 5 email transforms from a desktop to a mobile experience.

Tenet’s Take 5 email employs responsive design techniques to increase font size, remove white space in the body copy, and replace images with cropped mobile-specific versions that do not rely on scaled down images and logos.

Some great effects can be achieved with responsive design, including but not limited to:

  • Replacing images with mobile-friendly versions, rather than proportionally scaling down desktop images.
  • Font sizes can be increased to adjust to a smaller screen.
  • Entire blocks of content or superfluous images can be removed.
  • Multi-column templates can shift to a single-column layout that flows on a vertical viewport

Another consideration for mobile — build your calls-to-action to account for tactile responses. Your recipient is going to use their fingers to navigate your email rather than a mouse, so craft calls-to-action large enough to be tapped on by a human finger. And don’t make people guess. Someone using a smartphone lacks cursor hover states to fall back on for hints on what is clickable and what is not. Try to avoid vague image-based calls-to-action and stick to text-based links and buttons.

5. Be respectful of your subscriber’s inbox
We all know how painful a stream of unsolicited messages can be. Make sure your recipients don’t see you as yet another spam email.

You can avoid this by respecting why your subscriber signed up to receive email marketing from you for a particular reason. If you give them what they want, you will create the foundation for a positive sender-recipient relationship. Don’t send along material that you believe your recipients might find interesting, even if it’s tangentially linked in some way to what you know they’ll find interesting.

Another way to demonstrate respect for your target audience is the right cadence for communication. When is it too much and when is it not enough? When intervals between touch points are too short, the annoying factor might go way up. On the other hand, prolonged absences might cause subscribers to forget about you and wonder whether they signed up for your emails in the first place. Take a close look at your email reports and analyze your engagement numbers. Low open rates are an indicator of fatigue, while high unsubscribes or spam complaints may mean you’ve taken too long to reach out.

6. Segment your lists and implement marketing automation
Another list management tactic is to divide your lists based on the recipient data you’ve collected. This process — commonly referred to as segmentation — recognizes the diversity of your audience and affords you the opportunity to deliver tailored messages that speak to the needs and desires of a subset group. For example, a financial services company could create a data segment using information on company size. That could lay the foundation for an email campaign that offers small business loan information to organizations with less than 50 employees.

Segmentation also pairs wonderfully with another advanced digital marketing tool — marketing automation. What marketing automation can do is help you identify what phase of your sales cycle a potential sales lead is in, and then automatically deliver an email marketing campaign to move the sales process forward. A popular B2C example is shopping cart abandonment, where users who fill their online shopping carts without completing a transaction are encouraged to do so with a reminder email — one that usually contains a coupon or discount code to make that push ever stronger.

For B2B communication, sales leads that express interest in your products or services on an initial sales call can be funneled into a drip email marketing campaign, one that monitors and adjusts for the behavior of your lead over time. Done properly, these emails can look as though they’re being sent from a sales representative, when in actuality they’re deployed from your marketing automation software — an ideal solution for large sales forces.

When what is old becomes new again
While email is one of the oldest forms of digital communication we have, age doesn’t equate to obsolescence. It’s a medium that has evolved, as text based emails have given way to HTML layouts that adjust to multiple viewports. And while social networks and messaging apps are growing in popularity, they still represent a fraction of the audience you can potentially reach. If your goal is to build a foundation for your digital marketing, email marketing represents a lucrative engagement opportunity that marketers should never pass up.

Tapping the Power of CoreBrand Analytics, Pt. 2

Tenet Partners is centered on our belief that powerful brands have one thing in common: Effective, strategic brand management. At the core of that belief is the vital importance of true objectivity when it comes to making sound business decisions.

Since 1990, Tenet Partners℠ CoreBrand Analytics has set the standard for reliable corporate reputation data and insight. 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of Tenet Partners CoreBrand® Index, a unique dataset based on rigorous quantitative research conducted annually among 10,000 opinion elites and B2B decision-makers. This landmark study on corporate reputation diagnoses the health and trajectory of 1,000 companies across 50 industries and assesses the brand value and ROI of their marketing initiatives.

Our CoreBrand Analytics practice empowers C-Suite officers and other functional leaders with quantitative information and measurement tools necessary to understand their brand’s performance, the competitive environment they operate in and prescriptive guidance needed to drive success.

Following up on my last blog post, here are another five important business issues and related reasons why Tenet’s CoreBrand Analytics can help your C-Suite improve its decision-making. CoreBrand Analytics…

*1. Predicts Market Shifts Ahead of the Curve *
Confident, game-changing decision-making is about uncovering marketplace needs, and knowing where competitors and the market are going before others do. This is best informed by asking the right questions among stakeholders that matter most to your organization, creating predictive models that provide actionable answers and conducting ongoing measurement to gauge success and make course corrections as needed.

Prior to the arrival of game changers like Amazon and eBay, IBM was busy re-engineering how business would be conducted in the 21st century. Together with our colleagues across all IBM business units, Tenet Partners went to work to communicate IBM’s revolutionary vision, across markets, industries and geographies. The overall culture had to change from an insular position of “producing products to sell and that the world would, unquestionably, buy” to one that took the time to focus on clients’ emerging needs and what problems they were looking to solve. Tenet was there to help IBM take its first steps into what we know today as content marketing.

*2. Uncovers Competitive Advantage and Drives Innovation *
By measuring the equity of your brand versus competitors on dimensions that drive business value, the C-suite gains important intelligence for maintaining and creating new, innovative areas of competitive advantage.

*3. Informs Mergers & Acquisitions and Strategic Alliances *
The market for M&A in the US in 2014 was robust when measured by both total transaction value and volume and it appears that 2015 could turn out to be another banner year, perhaps among the strongest in recent history.

M&A can be tricky because cultural attachment to preexisting business entities can be quite strong and politically charged. By taking emotion out of the equation and objectively assessing the value and contribution of all brands involved, leadership can strategically deploy those brands for maximum impact. Tenet’s Brand Equity Valuation (BEV) can be used to determine which corporate name has the greatest worth when deciding which name to use post transaction. Our BEV approach examines corporate brand in two complementary ways – Dollar Value and corporate brand as a Percentage of Market Capitalization. The Dollar Value approach ensures that the brand is properly accounted for in M&A activity while the Percentage approach enables executives responsible for managing the brand to see how effectively it is working over time to build value for the company.

Tenet Partners worked closely with Zurich Re when acquiring Hartford Steam Boiler. Extensive research among stakeholders yielded insights that objectively informed the decision to maintain the HSB name in the US given its strong brand equity. Walking away from the HSB name, as originally intended, would have resulted in a significant decline in HSB’s revenue.

*4. Creates Licensing Opportunities for Incremental Revenue Streams *
A highly regarded and valued brand attracts compelling, synergistic partnership opportunities. Quantifying the brand’s dollar value opens the door for new revenue streams and predictable growth through licensing efforts. Licensing is a great way to earn significant income from the brand itself while extending its marketplace presence through collaborative affiliations. Examples of licensed products for powerful corporate brands include Apple licensing its name to Bose for its Sound System iPod docking station and Caterpillar licensing its name to a variety of manufacturers of apparel and footwear, toys and other lifestyle accessories.

*5. Defines the Value and ROI of Corporate Citizenship *
We know from our brand valuation work that being a good corporate citizen can have a direct impact on business results and market capitalization. Quantifying the impact of sustainability, philanthropy and other goodwill efforts can make CSR a data-driven business decision vs. one based purely on good intentions.

Tenet’s Sustainability Leadership Report pioneered the comparison of real vs. perceived sustainability performance. The report benchmarked and segmented 100 leading companies tracked in the CoreBrand Index database into four performance segments, outlining the marketing implications of each. Moreover, the study illustrated that social factors are twice as important as environmental and governance factors in determining perceptions of good corporate citizenship, reaffirming that sustainability is bigger than just being “green.”

I hope these business opportunities and their connection to data-driven decision-making resonate with you. I welcome the opportunity to start a conversation about how Tenet can put CoreBrand Analytics to work for your organization. Please reach out to me at

Download Tenet Partners 2015 Top 100 Most Powerful Brands report.

Telling Your Brand Story It’s Not What You Do, It’s Who You Are

One of our firm beliefs here at Tenet is that the strongest brands speak to customer outcomes rather than what a company actually does. At a conference sponsored by Fortune magazine on July 15, 2015, Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris echoed this view when he said “we’re a science company, not a chemical company” in the context of reinventing the brand.

This focus on what the company enables its clients to do is a key part of the brand story we’ve been helping IBM tell so successfully for many years. At the turn of the 21st century, IBM was undeniably all about hardware, software and services. But as time passed, the company shifted the discussion toward the end result, and the offerings became more of a whisper than a shout.

This fresh approach came to full fruition with the highly successful Smarter Planet initiative. It continues today, with CEO Ginni Rometty declaring that “Big Data is the world’s natural resource for the next century.” IBM has successfully made the transition from technology vendor to a smart company that finds answers.

A similar story has played out at other leading brands. Apple is one of the best examples. When Steve Jobs returned to take the helm, his key insight was that Apple is not truly a technology company; rather, it is a lifestyle company. As with IBM, the technology is the means to an end. Recall that just before Jobs came back, Apple was mired in an unproductive “chip war” with PC makers, trying to differentiate based on technology. Centering the brand on its products wasn’t working.

One of the first killer offerings under Jobs was the iPod. At the time, it was easy to overlook the fact that what made the iPod a game-changer wasn’t the device: It was the ecosystem that Apple built around it. iTunes fundamentally changed the way people think about content and how it fits into their lives, and there’s been no turning back ever since.

IBM, Apple, and now Dow, all reached a critical conclusion: that in an era of maturing technology, the widget doesn’t really matter as much as it once did. What you can do with the widget does. That’s a powerful lesson indeed.

Back to School 2015

Back-to-School is typically the second largest shopping event for retailers. However, many analysts are predicting weaker sales in 2015. Which retailers will perform the best and score an A+?

By now, many of us are well in the throes of back-to-school shopping. Children will be soon be lamenting the end of summer and parents are anxiously awaiting the big yellow bus so they can get their lives back on a regular schedule.

If it seems as though retailers have been advertising for back-to-school since the day school let out back in June, you are right. That’s because back-to-school typically represents the second largest retail sales season, with 2015 sales predicted to top out at $68 billion inclusive of grades K through college. While $68 billion is quite an impressive number, it does represent a 9% decrease from last year. With the National Retail Federation (NRF) convinced that many retailers will be called to the principal’s office in September for poor performance, retailers have significantly turned up the dial on advertising, in addition to offering steep discounts and staying open extended hours in order to prove them wrong.

Further complicating the issue is that retailers are finding it challenging to measure actual sales performance, with the lines blurring as to what constitutes back-to-school from both actual purchasing behavior and the varied types of retailers who are vying for our attention. Regarding purchasing behavior, back-to-school typically represents a finite period of time—the four weeks prior to school starting. Now, consumers are shopping back-to-school all year round as they purchase laptops, tablets, smartphones and the various necessities used for everyday conveniences when needed. They are also replenishing supplies throughout the year, avoiding the need for major restocking before school starts.

Why the shift in behavior? Electronics and technology have impacted our lives as both we and our children rely on multiple devices to keep us connected everyday—not just during the school year. Additionally, the ease, convenience, heavy discounts and free shipping offered year-long from unconventional back-to-school retailers such as and an increased emphasis on e-commerce from Target and Walmart make shopping only a click away.

Given this shift in purchase behavior and in the types of retailers who are competing for our dollars during this critical back-to-school sales season, I thought that it would be interesting to take a closer look to see which retailers are actually making the grade. Based on my own personal experience just this week shopping for two college-age children, I was expecting that Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Walmart, Staples and Costco to be the top performers. After all, I have the receipts to prove it.

Tenet Partners recently released its Top 20 Most Powerful Back-to-School Retail Brands Report, which is based on the performance of those retail brands tracked in its CoreBrand® Index (CBI). While I was scanning the list of the Top 20, it was quite apparent that the back-to-school retail landscape is comprised of retailers in all shapes and sizes with apparel, shoe, book, office supply, big box, mass merchandiser, club, eyewear and e-commerce brands all competing for our share of wallet (or backpack). Most of the retailers I expected, with the exception of Costco, made the list with some passing flying colors while others struggled to make the grade. Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart and Bed, Bath & Beyond have the strongest BrandPower grade scoring above 60., with a BrandPower score of 59, is demonstrating the strongest brand momentum and could soon become head of the class. Many of the traditional back-to-school brands such Staples, Office Depot and Office Max, while making the Top 20, are struggling to make the grade.

I was quite surprised to see Barnes & Noble occupy the #1 spot. While on the surface it certainly makes sense for a bookstore to be on this list, one would think that the many challenges plaguing this retailer would have a negative impact on its performance. That is until I read more about what is contributing to its success—innovation. Barnes & Noble is being quite smart about its future business model, which includes the spinning off of its college bookstore business into Barnes and Noble Education; fueling its ability to expand its presence across many college campuses as well as its digital presence via new technology platforms and apps geared toward Millennials. I was equally surprised to see LensCrafters make the Top 10. Here again we see innovation as a key ingredient behind its powerful performance. LensCrafters is placing an increased emphasis on the in-store customer experience by using advances in technology to uniquely engage customers.

It seems that the key ingredient to being a powerful back-to-school brand includes the use of innovation to establish strong connections with customers. It also includes using technology to enhance the customer experience through digital and mobile applications as well as having a strong e-commerce platform that connects customers (24/7). Providing a wide product selection, offering customer customization, frequent discounts and convenient shipping (not only free shipping, but direct shipping to college dorms) also proved to be key strategies for getting high marks.

Are you surprised by any of the retailers on Tenet’s Top 20 Most Powerful Back-to-School Retail Brands list? What brands are missing? Where is your favorite place to shop for back-to-school and why?

What’s Your Tribal Brand?

With the recent rumors that Apple will be announcing the release of a new iPhone sometime around September 8th, I’m reminded of the customer journey I experienced with Apple and the iPhone, one that has changed my technology buying behavior forever and led me to becoming a member of the Apple brand tribe.

The journey to becoming part of the Apple brand tribe began with my purchase of a G4 PowerBook in 2005 at the flagship Apple store on the Mag Mile in Chicago. It was there I found myself in a retail environment unlike any I had seen before, with products readily accessible in an open, modern and comfortable place. Then there was the purchase process, with customer service and sales handled by geeky hipsters in T-shirts that felt more like friends than salespeople hawking a product. Finally, there was the actual product experience itself, with the PowerBook packaged in a really cool, well-designed, attractive package that you reverently explored as opposed to simply tearing open. True confession; I saved the packaging my G4 PowerBook came in for years just because it felt like I should.

But what really converted me to being a full-fledged member of the Apple brand tribe was getting my first iPhone, the iPhone 3G, in July 2008. In what has since become a custom of iPhone releases, I lined up outside the Apple Store early in the morning and, along with hundreds of other people, and waited for hours to get my iPhone. Instead of simply buying a product, I felt part of something much larger. Complete strangers talked easily to each other, sharing their Apple experiences, and discussing the things they had done with various Apple devices. It was there that I became fully immersed in the Apple brand tribe.

As the new iPhone release approaches, it just so happens that I’m due for an iPhone replacement, and while I will definitely get the iPhone 7 (or iPhone 6S, depending on the rumor you believe), I don’t think I will go stand in line outside the Apple store for hours; my current iPhone still works fine, so there’s really no rush. But, it will be interesting to see the news reports of people who do, and to see just how large and committed the current Apple brand tribe is.

It also begs the question: what other brands come to mind that you can honestly say meets the definition of being a tribal brand, like Apple, and which ones are you part of?

They Googled It

“Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.”

So says Larry Page, and for the most part Google has lived up to that idea to greater or lesser degrees of success. And now the universe is weighing in on Google’s new logo and its role in communicating the future direction of the company. Was it the right move?

To cut to the chase, I like it, as do most of the design-types out there that are publicizing their views. The move toward simplicity obviously makes sense, creating a stronger and more consistent experience across devices and platforms. Maintaining the primary colors and playfulness extends both visual and attitudinal aspects of the brand that we’ve come to know and expect. Some people are criticizing certain details of the typography (which is to be expected) but I for one am happy to see the last of the former awkward & fussy serif logotype.

But even amongst the typographic detractors, there is a universal agreement that the system borne out of the new identity is terrific… the ability for the brand to engage, guide, delight and surprise users as they move through a range of experiences and applications is truly “Googly”.

But there is one aspect of this that still leaves me a little… disappointed? Perhaps too strong a word, but given the quote that I used to open this piece, I was waiting for something a little more unexpected. I first heard that Google had changed its logo by someone popping into my office and telling me. I instantly got an image in my head, and when I looked it up, the real thing was remarkably close to what I envisioned. It was almost… obvious.

The move to simplification for tech brands is certainly not new, and many major players have been flattening, simplifying, “de-serif-ing” and moving away from distinctive typography for years now when it comes to logo evolution. Think eBay, Yahoo, Facebook, Dropbox, YouTube, etc. But when you look at them together, they are starting to become a bit homogenous. So while I can’t knock what they did (for all the reasons I outlined above) I was perhaps hoping that Google, of any brand, could find a way to check all the application optimization boxes and still surprise us. Maybe next time.

The ABCs of Googles New Landscape

Google recently announced a strategic shift in their organization, effectively reorganizing all of their business units under a new corporation: Alphabet. Looking into just how many business units Google had, and how diverse their spread of companies are, I’m intrigued as to just how each business unit will take advantage of this new structure. And just how does Alphabet stack up compared to other cross-industry holding companies?

Many news sources are sizing up Alphabet as similar to Berkshire Hathaway, with its cross-industry business units and subsidiaries. From Internet to health, energy, technology, social media and travel — there is incredible potential for this new organization and corporate infrastructure to pull in new talent, flesh out endeavors and do for various industries what they’ve already done for online search.

For units like Google itself, and well-established brands generally with “Google” preceding it (e.g. Drive, Glass, Maps, Hangouts, etc.), it’s pretty safe to say those will be well maintained under the new structure. And as Andrew Bogucki discussed last week, Google itself recently updated their visual identity to mixed reviews and opinions on the new style and font choices.

As for the less visible units though… the Calico’s, the Pixate’s, the Makani’s…how will those fare in this new Alphabet landscape in regards to marketing and communications resources, talent, and funding?

Just recently, the first announced company under the Alphabet umbrella — Life Sciences — may be a peek into just how the new corporate structure will handle industry specific endeavors. Life Sciences appears to be combining Google’s Calico, with efforts to create smart contact lenses, utilize nanoparticles, and create baseline studies on the human genome. I’m curious to see if they’ll take a similar route with their energy industry efforts.

And, as there were Google-named units, will there be Alphabet-named units in the future? Time will tell, but if Life Sciences is any indication, we may be seeing more industry spanning companies soon enough.

I may be alone in this, but with the current layout, I’m now equating Google to Berkshire Hathaway in scale and to Apple in ingenuity. Berkshire Hathaway’s depth and breadth across industries is incredible. And Apple has evolved the tech industry with the iPod, iPad and iPhone. Google redefined the search engine industry, and has the ability to do so in healthcare (Calico) and energy (Makani).

As a frequent user of Google-fied brands (Mail, Drive, Maps, Hangouts), I’m all for Alphabet becoming a multi-industry brand curator influenced by some of Google’s main tenets.

The NFL An “Untacklable” Brand

Is there really such thing as an “untacklable” or unstoppable brand? After two decades as a brand consultant, my gut reaction is, “of course not, any brand can meet its demise through mismanagement, malfeasance and a host of other activities whether in or out of control of the leadership”. Although, not so fast…

It seems as though the NFL’s offseason (or in season for that matter) is beset with ever growing scandal each year. From a commissioner who is perceived as anti-labor to domestic abuse, animal cruelty, drug abuse and more by players. Organizations who hold their municipalities’ hostage in negotiations for facilities. Teams accused of outright cheating, which many thought would be the death sentence for the league, challenging the very integrity of the game.

All of that said, anyone who thought that the NFL would suffer any financial impact from any of this, clearly has never set foot in an NFL venue on game day. The fans, the truest example of fanatics, will not be deterred. Full disclosure, I am a big fan of the NFL, in particular the Pittsburgh Steelers (who have had their own issues), but nonetheless I am fascinated by the resiliency of this brand which has faltered so grandly and on such a public stage yet is immune to any financial repercussions.

The cause of this could be the very structure of this brand. It really is a composition of many brands, the league itself and its 32 teams. It’s this structure that allows fans to adopt an attitude that, “it’s my team vs. the NFL, the other teams”. It allows people to rationalize their passion for the team and absolve themselves of any guilt. It’s a case where fans can say, “the league has its problems, I’m just glad that isn’t what my team stands for”. For example, are Tom Brady and the Patriots cheaters, does Ray Rice deserve a second chance or should he be scorned forever because of domestic abuse and the gruesome images that we saw on that video. The NFL has made commercials to address the fact that domestic violence is wrong, but shouldn’t that just be common sense? In spite of this and other episodes of domestic violence, the female fan base continues to grow. What about Adrian Peterson? Michael Vick? Civic pride and passion for your team allows people to overlook the shortcomings of their favorite team.

As a Steelers fan, it has been interesting to watch the reaction to Michael Vick as he’s been welcomed to the team. While he was not brought to Pittsburgh without some rumblings, some of the fans that screamed the loudest when he was first reinstated to the league aren’t screaming so loud these days.

In the final analysis of the success of the league, TV ratings, which lead to the all mighty dollar, none of this appears to matter. Ratings for the NFL kickoff game on NBC just keep getting stronger, up 5% from last year and 9% from the year before that. I think ultimately, the NFL is about competition, story lines, passion and drama. Far from damaging the brand, I think these things make it grow. It has been ingrained in our society, the Super Bowl is a national holiday. It may not be “unsinkable”, but it’s hard to imagine the crisis that would derail the NFL. I’m not making a value judgement on whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’ll leave that up to the individual to judge, it’s just the reality of it.

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