4 Reasons Big Bird is Still Cool After All These Years

Who would have thought that the “Saturday Night Live” performer getting the most laughs this week would be Big Bird?

But there he was, all 8 feet of his yellow plumage, seated next to “Weekend Update” segment host Seth Myers, yawning because he was up way past his 7 p.m. bedtime and nearly stealing the show from guest host Daniel Craig.

Big Bird suddenly became the talk of the U.S. presidential campaign last week after Republican Mitt Romney suggested withholding federal support for public broadcasting. Romney promised he had nothing against Big Bird, but the damage was done. The next day, from Sesame Street’s Twitter account, Big Bird tweeted, “My bed time is usually 7:45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7! Did I miss anything last night?”

Big Bird was retweeted more than 12,800 times and has been the talk of social media and news programs ever since.

How is it that a puppet from a children’s show manages to remain so cool and so relevant — not with kids, but with grownups — after more than 40 years? The answers provide some good lessons for brands everywhere.

  1. Stay true to the brand. Big Bird doesn’t try to be something he’s not. He, like all the Muppets from “Sesame Street,” remain in character — and more important, true to their characters — no matter what situation they’re thrown into. It would have been tempting for Carroll Spinney, the main inside the bird, to knock off a few double entendres or attempt some “grown-up” humor, given the setting. Instead, he kept it clean: “I’m a bird! Tweeting is how we talk!”
  2. Know your audience. Big Bird’s appearance on “SNL” wasn’t geared to children, most of whom share a bedtime closer to his. He knew his audience was the parents of those kids, many of whom grew up watching him on “Sesame Street” themselves. He also knew his audience would never forgive him if he delivered a line not in keeping with his character.
  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously. The whole reason Big Bird’s appearance worked is because Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit production company behind “Sesame Street,” has a good sense of humor about itself and was willing to play along — as long as the brand’s integrity remained intact. That’s the sign of a strong brand.
  4. Remain relevant. “Sesame Street” has managed to do so after all these years, even with many of the same beloved characters. A child-like 8-foot bird that’s active on Twitter? Now, that’s hip.

Pardon My Pessimism About Solutionism

While watching the Olympics on television over the weekend, I heard a word that actually made my ears hurt. It’s not even a word, really, but one of those manufactured collections of letters that companies – or, more accurately, consultants – try to pass off as a word.

Solutionism.

You read that right. What is solutionism? According to Dow Chemical, it’s the new optimism.

Yeah, I don’t get it either.

“Solutionism: The New Optimism,” it turns out, is the new B-to-B marketing campaign Dow is rolling out to position itself as helping to solve some of the world’s problems. It’s part of Dow’s “Human Element” campaign (which, actually, is not bad as far as advertising campaigns go).

Clearly, this new tagline was invented by highly paid marketing consultants. We know this because there are more clichés packed into those four words than you are likely to find anywhere else.

“Solution” is an overused word in press releases and advertising. Confession: I used the word as part of the name of my communication consulting business. In my defense, however, I decided upon Holland Communication Solutions in 2000, when it wasn’t quite as ubiquitous as it is now. Still, if I had it to over again…

Adding any “-ism” to any word is also a cliché. Just like adding “-ize” to turn nouns into verbs.

And “the new” anything is the new black. It’s not so new anymore.

Beyond the clichés, I’m not even sure what the tagline is trying to communicate. That Dow is an optimistic company? That finding solutions to problems is an optimistic act? That Dow has stopped inventing new chemicals and begun inventing new words?

I just hope the folks at Dow feel they got their money’s worth. Because you can bet a lot of money went into inventizing that new word.

3 Ways to Connect Employees to Your Company’s Brand

One of the best purposes of employee communication is to help connect employees of your company to its brand and products, if it makes stuff. People who understand what their company does, what it stands for and what it makes are more likely to be engaged in the business and therefore commit more of their discretionary effort to it.

Besides, employees can be your brand’s best representatives out in the marketplace, in the community and among customers. People who have a deep understanding of their company’s brand are more likely and better able to articulate it to others.

Here are three ways to connect your company’s employees to its brand:

Familiarize employees with your company’s products/services. It’s interesting how many companies never do this. People come to work every day, but sometimes don’t have a clue about what the company really does. I began my corporate career in a plant that manufactured printed circuit boards. Many employees knew a lot about those printed circuit boards, but knew little about how our customers used them — the end-products that the boards went into. Part of the reason might have been that the end-products weren’t all that sexy (power systems for telecommunications equipment, for example). But when one customer used the boards in one of the first “picture phones” (this was the early ’90s), employees became excited and proud of the products they made. Help employees understand your company’s products and services. Depending on what the products/services are, it might be difficult to make them sound exciting, but employees need to know what your company does for customers.

Tell stories about the company and its brand. One of my last gigs as a consultant was to research and write the history of a well-known consumer product made by one of my clients. The idea was to publish a booklet that employees, especially the sales force, could read to help them tell the brand’s story to retail customers and consumers. The project manager, who worked in marketing, said in order to understand where the brand is going, employees needed to understand where the brand had been. That makes a lot of sense. As it turns out, the brand had a rich, colorful history that would generate a lot of pride among its custodians today. I’ve written before about the power of storytelling. People remember stories and it helps connect them to a brand in a way no other form of communication can.

Ask for employees’ ideas on how to build and extend the brand. Most companies that make products have employees in research and development whose full-time jobs are to innovate new products that strengthen and extend the brand. Wise company leaders ask employees at large for their ideas and suggestions. After all, employees likely use their company’s products. With robust employee communications, they understand the products very well and they know where the company’s growth opportunities exist. So they are in a good position to generate new ideas. Who knows where the next great idea will come from?

Employees are too rich a resource to squander when it comes to communicating your company’s brand, products and services. Educate them, then enlist them as brand ambassadors. You might be surprised at how willing they are to play that role.

VCU Football: Undefeated Since 1968

I’m ecstatic about VCU’s run to the NCAA Final Four. As a graduate of VCU’s School of Mass Communications — which right now is the university’s third-largest undergraduate degree program — I’ve never been so proud of my alma mater.

A lot has been written about VCU in the last week as a curious sports-watching nation has discovered this Richmond, Va. gem. The fact that VCU doesn’t have a football team has largely kept it off the map. What kind of school is VCU? What kind of people study there? What kind of culture does it have? What’s it known for?

A banner spotted by a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter at the team’s send-off to Houston just about says it all: “VCU Arts is proud of the Rams. Good luck in the Super Bowl.”

Here’s All I Can Say About the VCU Rams

I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of something profound to say about the VCU Rams’ victories in the NCAA Tournament and what this Final Four team has to say about communication.

It’s difficult because I’m too caught up in the excitement. Not only is VCU my alma mater (Class of ’85, School of Mass Communications), but I’m also on the adjunct faculty there. This is the farthest VCU has ever made it in the Big Dance and — despite what some naysayers will tell you — we’ve had some pretty good teams in the past.

The excitement the Rams’ success has brought to Richmond, Va., is beyond belief. Students poured into the streets after VCU’s victory over No. 1 seed Kansas. (Police reported no incidents or injuries.) Thousands of fans attended a middle-of-the-night rally when the team arrived back on campus. Folks around the country are getting to know what a great city Richmond is (except for Kansas’ Marcus Morris, who doesn’t know where the city is). Applications to attend our 32,000-student school are sure to spike.

This opportunity is too good to pass up. So here’s the best I can do at drawing out relevant points:

  • Be ready for the next crisis, even if it’s a good one. I wonder if VCU Athletics’ public relations office was ready for the onslaught of hundreds of media calls after the team made it to the Sweet 16 for the first time. When we think of crisis communication, we usually think about bad things. Good news can also put communicators into crisis mode and the best time to prepare for it is before the good news happens.
  • Remember who you represent. Like it or not, everyday people in your organization can be thrust into the limelight quickly. It’s fortunate for VCU that everyday people like Shaka Smart, Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen take seriously their roles as the face of VCU to millions of basketball fans around the country. The entire team has handled their sudden stardom with grace and humility.
  • Nothing works like teamwork. It’s fascinating to watch the Rams work together during a game. Rodriguez shows true leadership, directing his teammates when he’s supposed to and setting them up for successful plays at the most unexpected times. Rodriguez especially is a selfless player who puts the team’s success above his own. The team’s ability to come together and pool their talents when the chips are down is one reason they’re headed for Houston.
  • The stories you tell can be powerful. Amid all the stories about how VCU didn’t belong in the tournament and how each team they’ve met so far was going to be their last, these guys listened to a different story from their coach. Over and over, Smart has told the story of a team that is capable, confident, prepared and skilled enough to win each game. What story are you telling employees about your organization?

That’s all I’ve got. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to the celebrating.

The Soup Strategy

Today is a rainy, cool day in Richmond, Va. and I’m not feeling particularly well. Nothing serious, just out of sorts.

It’s the perfect day to make a pot of soup and that is what I’m doing. Right now my house smells like Italian chicken soup. All those herbs are getting cozy with the chicken stock in a slow cooker. Later I’ll add the diced tomatoes, mustard greens and egg noodles.

I’m following my late mother’s recipe. Whenever I smell or taste Italian chicken soup made from her recipe, I think of her, so the comfort quotient on this particular pot of soup is sky-high.

Food is a powerful communication vehicle. It’s a folk art, bridging one generation to the next.

As I pondered that fact, I thought back to a visit I paid my maternal grandmother not too many years before she died. Visits to my grandmother’s house always included her biscuits and gravy for breakfast. There was something unique about her biscuits. They had a tender shell to them, not quite crunchy and not at all dry. According to my grandmother, she achieved this distinctive trait by running the pre-cooked biscuits through some form of fat — either liquid Crisco or bacon drippings or maybe even lard.

My mom used my grandmother’s biscuit recipe when she baked them for us, but the result was not the same. Mom’s biscuits were great, but they were quite different from my grandmother’s. So on my visit I asked my grandmother to share her biscuit-baking technique with me so that I might achieve the same delicious success when I baked them.

She sat at the kitchen table and talked me through the entire process. Step by step, I did everything she told me to do, exactly as she told me to do it.

My biscuits didn’t turn out anything like my grandmother’s. Nor my mother’s for that matter.

I was disappointed, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the shared experience among my grandmother, my mother and me. What matters are the memories, the connection and, yes, even the values evoked by the experience of using a recipe that was handed down from my grandmother to my mom, and from my mom to me.

In my work as a communicator, I often am called upon to carefully craft messages so that they convey exactly what my client wants to say, whether it’s a marketing piece, a speech or an employee communication. Words are important; they carry a lot of weight. But what the audience will remember most is the shared experience, the connection that you make, the values you emulate through the communication. That’s why a face-to-face event is such a rich communication tool. That’s why branding is defined as the experience a consumer has with a product or service.

Call it the soup strategy or the biscuit factor or something. If we can get our audiences as invested in some organizational goal as I was in wanting to replicate my grandmother’s biscuits, we’re really getting somewhere.

Want Valuable Market Research? Just Listen

I had a great time talking with the Charleston, S.C., chapter of the American Marketing Association yesterday. They didn’t know me from Adam and it was a packed house — a testament to the interest around my topic of marketing on a shoestring budget.

I shared 25½ ideas for marketing without spending a fortune. (The presentation was geared more toward small businesses, but even big corporations could apply the principles.) Right up front, I addressed the issue of using social media because there is the perception that these tools don’t cost anything (the reality is social media done right requires an investment of time and sometimes money).

Recently, Ragan.com ran an article by marketing and digital technology consultant John Jantsch in which he argues that social media really don’t matter anymore. “Undeniably,” he wrote, “we have a new way of doing business and marketing, but this new thing isn’t ‘social media,’ it’s simply a focus on engaging customers. That’s all there is to it.”

Essentially, his point is that you can hire all the social media gurus you want, using all the latest technology, but ultimately what works is a marketing strategy that focuses on knowing what customers want and need.

I couldn’t agree more, which is why many of the tips I shared yesterday focus on getting to know your customers and potential customers. I suggest things like taking customers out for a beer and asking them 20 questions and taking advantage of real-life social networking opportunities to listen to what customers say when you’re not trying to market to them. I encourage businesses to be remarkable in the free things like how they answer the phone and by sending hand-written thank-you notes. I endorse content marketing, which is all about providing valuable information and resources in order to build trust and credibility with the market.

The most valuable market research is just listening to customers. While many marketing plans begin with thinking about what our products can do, the great services we provide or how qualified we are to be the customer’s choice, they should start first with knowing and understanding our customers, their problems and issues, and what they want from a product or service provider. Powerful brands and strong marketing plans are built by closing our mouths and opening our ears.