Botulism: not a great promotional platform

I must confess that I am a huge Mayan history geek. I marvel slack-jawed at the craftsmanship of their murals. Their complex communication system humbles me. And how could they be considered a primitive people if they had running water, vulcanized rubber, and successful brain surgery techniques?

For those of you who managed to miss it, the Mayans were part of a cultural zeitgeist in the latter half of last year due to the public’s misunderstanding of their centuries old calendar. Despite the protests of many Mayan experts—as well as planetary evidence provided by NASA—many believed that the calendar predicted the world would end on 12.21.12. A variety of ways to spend the ‘end of days’ sprung up, including travel to Armageddon’s epicenter at Chichen Itza, and, if you could afford it, recklessly spending a fortune.

So when the opportunity arose to exploit the silliness of my fellow man my knowledge of the Mayans for Aria’s annual self-promotion, I jumped on it. Armed with a lactose-intolerant friendly recipe for Mayan chocolate truffles (bonus: coconut oil also has a two year shelf-life) and a healthy dose of wit, I artisaned up 27 gold-lined packages with 1/3lb chocolate each, every one worthy of a spot in a high-end boutique. Not only were the packages pretty, but the chocolate was delectable with just the right balance of spicy kick and dark chocolate goodness.

Delivered on 12.21.12,  two clients reached out to say how much they loved the packaging and that the chocolate was perfect. One client said he initially shared the chocolate with his coworkers but, when he realized how good it was, he hoarded the rest to himself. Seriously, it was that good.

The problem was, something went horribly wrong with the other packages along the way. And by horribly wrong I mean apocalyptically wrong…

It wasn’t until January 7 that I got an email from a client (who is also a friend) telling me that all of the chocolates arrived at his organization covered in mold. Thankfully no one got sick, but so much for coconut oil’s two year shelf-life!

To say I was humiliated would not be much of a stretch. Still, I recognized that this was an opportunity to practice what I preach by turning this catastrophe into a win. So I set to work making it right:

  • To let everyone know that I was aware of the problem, I immediately sent out an email apologizing wholeheartedly to each person who had received a package, moldy or not.
  • I told them I had no idea how this had happened, but that I was ultimately responsible.
  • I committed to sending a replacement gift that was not chocolate within the next two weeks. By providing a timeline I both managed their expectations for resolution and allowed for the fact that our production schedule was already booked. Over promising at this point would have been a huge tactical error.
  • And then I started thinking about ways to follow through which showcased our ability to be nimble in the face of crisis.

Some failures (Hurricane Katrina or the BP oil spill) demand a mea culpa and over the top response to repair damage. Others have their mea culpa cheapened if it is over-the-top (Kristen Stewart). Opting to go with sincerity, we kept the follow-up piece extremely simple, and leaned on one of the heaviest hitters out there for gift support: we developed a wrap for a Starbucks gift card.* And to ensure that the connection was made, we repurposed the illustration and font treatment from the holiday card, restating our apology in an earnest yet clever way.

For anyone who thinks that no response was required and that small businesses don’t need to concern themselves with brand promise, I point to this: These chocolates could have landed at least 100 people in the hospital. Even if it had been one person with “flu-like symptoms” for 48 hours, that would’ve been one too many.

Client response was overwhelmingly gracious and understanding, with one summing up the good feelings our reaction engendered: Nicely done.

Apocalypse avoided. Narrowly.

*Starbucks is in no way endorsing Aria Creative, LLC. However, we’re open to that conversation!

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“New” Social Media Branding: Connecting in Real Time

While Aria has continued to back clients’ social media efforts, our own has remained mostly silent. The reason for this is not because there is nothing to say, it is because all the behind the scenes strategizing has left us with social media ennui.

I recently mentioned this malaise to some friends and was surprised to find that not only was I not alone, but that what I had chosen to do in an effort to combat it wasn’t all that unique either. You’d think that tech savvy people proven to be “good at” social media would simply push through the blahs by doing even more social media on our own behalf. Instead, each of us has pared back our exposure in favor of interacting with potential clients in real time. I want to reiterate this: we look for ways to interact with potential clients in real time.

Each of us have done this in different ways: by joining weekly networking groups, by holding open houses, by sponsoring youth little leagues, and one brave soul by signing up to give a presentation at a regional seminar. What was surprising was that each of us has come to the same conclusion: interacting with people face-to-face gives you immediate returns, a sense of truer connection, and means that the person will be more likely to remember you and refer someone they know to you in the future.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Yes, but social media can also allow you to facilitate introductions and meetings with other people. You can also use it to publicly acknowledge a person/company and hopefully engender some good feelings in the public arena. When done well, social media is an awesome tool.

True, it is an awesome tool, but not the best tool when trying to expand your reach. The best tool is using your savvy to provide a crystal clear in-person experience of your company’s promise on a moment’s notice. And it doesn’t have to happen on the web or in a meeting—you can successfully reach people at any time!

A few weeks ago I was on the beltway driving back from a client meeting when my car started making strange sounds. A quick peek out the window told me I had a flat tire, which I wasn’t thrilled about changing. Even so, I got the car up on the jack…and then couldn’t loosen the lug nuts. Unable to find an available tow company or friend to assist me, I was stranded just as rush hour started. Instead of getting angry I counted my blessings: it was a lovely warm summer day and I had a little more than an hour until I absolutely had to be somewhere again. Things could be much, much worse.

Just as I was embracing the positive, a man on a motorcycle pulled up and motioned to the tire. I said that if he’d simply help me loosen the nuts I wouldn’t trouble him to do the rest. He shook his head, gruffly motioned me aside and then set to work.

I thanked him profusely and said I hoped I wasn’t making him late. His body language immediately shifted, and he looked up at me to say, “You’re not making me late for anything because I’m the one who decided to stop. So many people are too busy to stop and help another human being. Even if I had some place to be, I’d get there late and just deal with the fall out. Besides, I own a landscaping business and work very hard. Helping you here is a break for me.”

There I was, on the side of a busy highway, having the best brand experience I have ever had: I asked for the thing I thought I needed, but Kevin went above and beyond by changing the tire for me. He wasn’t trying to sell me on anything, he just wanted to help me out because he is a decent human being. He talked about how he’s seen other companies run their businesses, and how upsetting it is to see people taken advantage of so often. He was courteous, conscientious, and what’s more, his sincerity was genuine.

And yes, I am going to have him come take a look at my sad yard.

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Is social media really responsible for ‘new’ branding rules?

I recently heard that social media was responsible for the ‘new’ way we look at branding: Instead of locking the brand away in a vault, only to be touched by men in crisp suits, slicked hair and a fifth of whiskey in their bottom left desk drawer, it is now not only acceptable but recommended that companies encourage their audience to tinker a bit with the brand, in effect making it their own. In this manner, the extent of the audience’s brand affinity may be measured. After all, a brand isn’t merely what the company thinks it is, it’s what everyone else thinks it is.

While I can see many places where this is true (power hungry designers/webmasters circa 2000 seem to have disappeared), inwardly I find the importance placed on social media for this result laughable. Anyone who stumbled on fan fiction for Lord of the Rings in 2002 knows the writers were likely writing similar fiction about Dungeons and Dragons ten years before anyone heard of MySpace. Anyone who ever traded mixtapes knows that social media didn’t cause music sharing to happen—Napster and Spotify just made it easier. Anyone who went to a party at any point in the last 30 years where a favorite toy, hobby, or sports team was turned into the party’s theme—in a completely homemade manner, without the use of store bought party supplies—knows that social media was nowhere near this brand investment.

Actually, parties are an excellent place to see devotion to a brand. Take this third birthday party I recently did for my daughter based on her Ugly Doll, Ox (a blue Ox has been her woobie since she was 6 months old, and I have replaced his chewed off arms more times than I can count; we have two back up Oxen as well as a full size green Ox). Anyone who has thrown a themed party knows the planning can balloon out of control, and that there is a lot of experimenting to figure out how to make it look like the real X without actually being the real X. Sometimes a little bit of homemade-ness adds to the charm, sometimes it detracts; finding the right balance is key.

Obviously we wanted all of our guests to have a good time, but we focused our creative efforts on the three year olds by putting all decorations on their sight level, starting with Ox who welcomed them at the front door:

We continued the fun with wayfinding made of other Ugly Dolls, which started just inside the door and lead through the house to the two bathrooms and the party spaces.

We had hundreds of balloons and a stencil of Ox which everyone was encouraged to trace on their balloons of choice. Even the adults were giddy over them—it looked like a jellyfish hideout with all the strings hanging down.

And of course we had a ridiculous number of from-scratch home made cupcakes, slaved over by yours truly. Thanks to my husband’s sure hand for cutting out the Ox and Mr. Kasoogie cake toppers I’d “designed”.

We also made the birthday girl her own crown to wear while she blew out the candles:

One of my most inspired moments was the Pin-the-arm-on-the-Ox game. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go over with the three year olds, but everyone took a turn or two and laughed at where the arms ended up.

As the party wound down, we handed out favors. We started with 15 bags but we were so busy with the party that we forgot to stage and shoot them all beforehand. Inside each of these bags was an Ugly Doll, a bag of buddy food (that’s what my daughter calls jelly belly jelly beans) and a small set of watercolors to paint their new buddy, just like my daughter paints Ox.

The kids were giddy, many of the adults said it was the best kid’s party they’d ever been to, and my daughter was thrilled.

Before you go off thinking that I posted this to prove that I’m some kind of super mom, I assure you that I did not and am not. I posted it to make the following point: I would never in a million years go to extremes like this for something like Polly Pockets or Barbie. It’s because this is a brand that resonates with me, my husband, and my daughter that I (and my husband) put this much time and effort into the planning and execution. We love the Ugly Doll brand!

And we didn’t need social-media-influenced-“new”-branding-rules to encourage us to monkey with the UD brand to make it our own!

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