How Best Buy evolves its brand

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How do you keep evolving the brand for a $49 billion retailing giant? At Best Buy, keeping the company brand fresh starts with the vision of CEO Brian Dunn, who addressed 650 Razorfish clients and employees at the 10th Annual Razorfish Client Summit.

At the Client Summit (which I organized), my employer Razorfish challenged marketing executives to succeed by taking ownership of change at a corporate and personal level. The theme of the event was “Evolve.” Brian set the pace for the event by discussing the top five strategies for evolving the Best Buy brand:

  • Meet people where they are. It’s not enough to have a strong message, service, or product. You have to distribute your ideas to where your customers live. Best Buy does so by aggressively using social media, such as the vaunted Twelpforce team of Best Buy employees who provide technical advice to customers on Twitter.  “Too often we rush to try to monetize social media,” Brian said. “Not everything you do is a source of revenue or profit pool.” To be sure, Best Buy is hardly the only big brand using social media; but it’s important when a multi-billion dollar company like Best Buy reinforces its use of social to its peers at an event like the Client Summit.

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  • Don’t be afraid to have a little fun. Brian believes in encouraging a fun, irreverent culture inside Best Buy even though some of his counselors have advised him to adopt a more reserved tone befitting a Fortune 100 company. (His reply: “Tweet me.”) Having a little fun inside Best Buy reflects on the company brand, for instance the use of humor to educate Best Buy customers about recycling.

  • Find the core of your story, and shout it from the rooftops. This is a refreshing message at a time when social media pundits have belittled the importance of effective messaging. Yes, it is important for a brand to have a compelling message — it’s how you share it that matters. For instance, Best Buy relies on authentic testimonials to show that the company cares about its customers.

  • Engage your employees. He said, “It’s easy to say, ‘Yep, our employees differentiate us,’ but if you’re not connecting with your employees to listen and learn, then I think it’s just lip service.” Brian puts his money where his mouth is. He has a reputation for visiting Best Buy stores all around the world, hosting town hall meetings and speaking plainly with store employees. And he listens to his people on Facebook and Twitter. But he engages employees in other ways, too, such as pranking employees on April Fool’s Day with a fake employee newsletter story about Keith Richards working part-time at a Best Buy store in its Musical Instruments department.

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  • Be relentless with your message. Brian passionately believes in the Best Buy “Connected World” message — or the notion of connecting people through technology to the services they need, the information they crave, the entertainment they desire, and the people they love. Brian shares that message consistently to everyone — analysts, news media, vendor partners, employees, and shareholders.

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After the Client Summit, I had a chance to experience what Brian was talking about. I returned home from the Client Summit to discover that the wash machine in our home was broken. So I decided to try a local Best Buy for a replacement — not because Best Buy is a Razorfish client but because I often shop at Best Buy for home entertainment and usually find what I want. I’m happy to report that my experience was positive from the time I stopped by a Best Buy (on Butterfield Road in Downers Grove) on October 15 to the time my new wash machine was installed on October 17 (a Sunday afternoon). Here’s what Best Buy did right:

  • The in-store service was prompt. No waiting around for someone to help me.
  • The salesman, Tony, read my family’s needs perfectly. He understood that we sought an easy-to-use machine at an affordable price. He explained the features of units with different price points so that we made an informed decision, but he helped us find the right Whirlpool model without too many bells and whistles.
  • The in-store experience was actually fun. Think about that: my wife and I had fun buying a wash machine. That’s because Tony had a sense of humor, and he clearly enjoyed trading jokes with his fellow employees and with us. The appliance section just seemed like a place where employees give off a good vibe.
  • The post-sales experience was flawless — an area where many retailers stumble. I received a follow-up phone call confirming the delivery date/time within 24 hours of my purchase. The delivery occurred within 48 hours of the transaction. And — this is really crucial — we were given a brief (two-hour) window. It just kills me when delivery people force you to sacrifice your entire day waiting for them. But I can live with two hours (and by the way, the delivery occurred inside the window with an hour to spare). The delivery team was professional and, like the Best Buy employees, personable.

The Whirlpool is working just fine, too.

Flipping the Bird to marketing executives

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What can a badass undercover cop teach a room full of marketing executives? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot — as 650 attendees of the Razorfish Client Summit found out on October 14 when they witnessed Jay Dobyns discuss his life as an undercover agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF).

Perhaps you’ve heard of Jay Dobyns. He’s the best selling author of No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels, which discusses his alternative life as “Bird,” the identity he assumed as a make-believe hit man to infiltrate criminal activity in the Hells Angels motorcycle club from 2001 to 2003. He drew on his experiences to share a poignant story of risk taking and personal sacrifice at the Razorfish Client Summit, an annual event where Razorfish clients and employees discuss the state of the art in marketing, technology, and creativity.

For the 10th Annual Client Summit (which I organized), Razorfish challenged marketing executives to succeed by taking ownership of change at a corporate and personal level. (The theme: “Evolve.”) Speakers such as Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn discussed what it’s like to do something as enormously complicated as change the brand for a multi-billion dollar organization. As I planned the event, I had a feeling Jay would be an intriguing speaker because he has consistently and willingly embraced change his entire life: from being a football star in college to an undercover ATF agent, a best selling author, and now missionary to disadvantaged children in Africa.

He did not disappoint.

For about 30 riveting minutes, he described:

  • What it’s like to really take a risk. After being on the job with the ATF for only a few days, he was taken hostage, shot, and nearly killed. (He showed us the bloody shirt he wore that day.) As dramatic as the story was (he could literally hear blood leaving his body), what impressed me was how he reacted to a near-death experience: instead of allowing the trauma to make him gun shy, he lost his ability to fear risk taking. In fact, he openly sought risk instead of hiding from it. His willingness to do so led him to an undercover assignment to investigate criminal activity inside the Hells Angels, which required him to completely lose himself in another identity as “Bird” a la Donnie Brasco.

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  • Living with the uncomfortable. Does the turbulent economy and the stress of being a marketing executive ever get you down?  Well, Jay Dobyns now lives everyday under the constant threat of being killed in retaliation for his undercover work (he once caught wind of a scheme to inject him with AIDS). So how does he endure that kind of stress, knowing he has a family at home? “Live life with concern, not fear,” he said. “I’ve got God on one hip and a pistol on the author. I don’t live in fear.” Remember that the next time you fear an upcoming budget review or the launch of a major marketing campaign.

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  • Remaining true to your values. In our industry, we work hard, we play hard, and we are driven to succeed. And Jay encouraged everyone to continue doing that. “Go out and achieve your fame and fortune,” he said. “Set your standards so high that your competitors cannot touch you.” But he also showed us that success means nothing if you can’t stay true to your values. In what was easily the most captivating moment of his talk (and the entire Client Summit), Jay described how he became so immersed in undercover life that he lost sight of his family. He related how one year his young son drew a birthday card expressing hope that his dad would never get shot again — and yet Jay was so lost in his identity as Bird that the card did not move him. As he related this anecdote, the room at the Boston Sheraton became still and Twitter chatter stopped. We just listened.

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After hearing Jay Dobyns speak, I was motivated to take risk and evolve my own career. But even more importantly, I could not wait to get home and hold my family close.

Thank you Jay for the reminder.

PS: for some reactions to Jay’s talk on Twitter, Tweet Dobyns #rzcs and check out the chatter. A few of my favorite reactions:

  • “@debpasquale All I can say about Jay Dobyns is WOW. Google him. Read ‘No Angel.’
  • @kellythul Jay Dobyns speaking. He is big. He is bad. I will have nothing but good things to tweet.”
  • “@sauld Really moved by Jay Dobyns talk at the Client Summit this morning”
  • “@stevedawson Jay Dobyns is officially a badass”
  • “@TeresaCaro Jay Dobyns makes our work life balance complaints seem insignificant”

Here’s to risk taking, loving change, and staying true to what matters.

How do you handle mistakes?

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Everyone makes mistakes, and companies are no different. How one responds to a mistake speaks volumes for the credibility of a brand. Two cases in point from this weekend:

  • The Advertising Age website was down when I tried to visit the site the morning of October 11. I found myself entertained by the interstitial message admitting to the site not working, especially the part about Ad Age staff “shouting at each other more than usual.” A little self-effacing humor goes a long way.
  • On October 9, my United Airlines Flight 532 from Chicago to Boston was delayed by a mechanical problem. The United Airlines crew and pilot responded with grace and understanding, and by the time I landed in Boston, the following email awaited me:

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After receiving the message, I chose a $150 e-credit for a future United Flight. But what really mattered was the crew showing what seemed to me genuine concern for the disappointed passengers.

What are some examples you’ve seen of companies addressing customer service mistakes in a way that surprised you?

How Twitter united indie star AM with Razorfish

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How does an emerging indie artist in the dysfunctional music industry find an audience anymore?

My employer Razorfish is tackling that challenge through an unusual co-branding relationship with indie musician AM, which sees Razorfish playing the role of quasi-record label, concert promoter, and DJ. And so far we are having a lot of fun while building our brand with a creative and smart musician.

Even though he is not yet widely known, AM has garnered critical acclaim among journalists and bloggers. His most recent recording Future Sons & Daughters was cited as “one of the pop albums of the year” by the U.K. Sunday Express and given a 4-star rating by Q magazine. And at Razorfish he has a huge fan: me.

I was personally smitten with the beauty of his laid-back yet smart songs one night in March when I saw him open for the French rock band Air. After the concert, I sent him a Tweet to let him know how much I enjoyed the show. And to my surprise, he replied with a heart-felt thanks. We began communicating more frequently, which led to my visiting with his manager Mia Crow of Visionworks while I was in Los Angeles for a Forrester Research conference.

From there, a client relationship between Razorfish and AM took root. Razorfish saw an opportunity to build our brand by associating with a forward-thinking artist who plays in the same social media sand box we do; and AM’s management recognized the value of Razorfish applying our own marketing and PR skills in a client capacity.

Fast forward to October: AM and Razorfish are creating the kind of co-branding relationship that you often see between emerging artists and business-to-consumer firms like Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew (the latter via its Mountain Dew Green Label). Our relationship is based on the three pillars of experience, technology, and community. To wit:

  • On October 13, AM will perform at the 10th Razorfish Client Summit, where Razorfish and our clients discuss the state of the art in marketing, technology, and design. He’s customizing a set list for nearly 700 Razorfish employees and clients including Axe, Best Buy, Levi Strauss & Co., and Mercedes-Benz. We’ll also make his music available to attendees via a specially created StickyBits application and mobile site.
  • His music is being streamed to 2,000 Razorfish employees around the world as well as a StickyBits download, hence fostering word-of-mouth marketing amid a highly social employee base.
  • Razorfish and AM are sponsoring a design-a-poster contest on Creative Allies, which invites artists to create poster art to promote the vinyl release of Future Sons & Daughters. Razorfish Vice President of Experience Andrew Crow will help judge the entries. The winning entry will be used in the actual promotion.
  • Razorfish has been using forms of social media to build awareness for AM’s brand, helping him boost his presence on Facebook and Twitter.

So what does Razorfish get out of the relationship? We benefit in a number of ways. We give our clients and people access to great music, and, through the Client Summit, an experience they’ve never had at our event. We also associate ourselves with a creative, up-and-coming artist who aligns well with the forward-thinking nature of the Razorfish brand — which is ideal for relationship building with clients and job seekers (we recruit actively at SxSW Interactive).

Meantime a relationship with Razorfish is one more stop in the unconventional and resourceful journey AM has taken to gain a following. Like other artists, he has embraced social media, including Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube to complement his website. And as evidenced by how he and I met, he really uses Twitter to reach out to fans in a genuine way. In 2010 he also successfully solicited fans’ financial support to fund the vinyl launch of Future Sons & Daughters. And by licensing songs to movies and TV shows ranging from Big Love to Friday Night Lights, he has not only kept his music visible but gotten paid for it. In addition to touring with Air, he has toured with Charlotte Gainsbourg and will head to the United Kingdom soon for more touring, building his fan base one venue at a time the good old fashioned way.

Our relationship comes at at time when it is acceptable for musicians to find corporate partners. Gone are the days when a corporate relationship meant “selling out.” As discussed at the September Billboard Music & Advertising Conference in Chicago, artists like Zac Brown find companies like Ram Truck to be essential conduits for their music and causes. As Zac Brown said at the Billboard conference selling out means doing something you don’t believe in, a sentiment AM shares. In many ways, companies like Mountain Dew and State Farm are little different from record labels in that they distribute music for the artist. With Razorfish, AM gets access to sources of potential deals (e.g., by performing at the Client Summit), and our employs act as brand ambassadors if we like what we hear.

By letting his music speak for itself through the power of live performance, AM does what Razorfish likes to do: build a brand through an experience.

Meet the new face of luxury

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Michelle Phan has been described as the next Michael Jordan of the upscale endorsement world. She’s a 23-year-old Floridian who has become a massive YouTube sensation with her video make-up tutorials and beauty tips As of June 2010, her 100 videos have been viewed more than 150 million times. And now she is a video spokesperson for Lancome. Never heard of her? I had not either until I attended an Advertising Week panel on how luxury brands are attracting the coveted Generation Y audience. Michelle Phan was the star of the show even though she was not even in the room.

The panel, “Attracting Generation Luxur-Y,” was hosted by my Razorfish colleague Joe Crump and featured Scott Galloway, founder of L2 Think Tank, Paul James, vice president of Starwood luxury brands like the St. Regis, and Kamel Ouadi, global digital director, Louis Vuitton. Although the panel covered a lot of wide-ranging territory, the discussion that resonated the most for me is how Gen Y is redefining our notions of luxury.

We often think of luxury as something unattainable and indulgent. But to reach Gen Y, luxury brands need to stand for authenticity, passion, and emotion. Hence Michelle Phan has become the new face of luxury. As Scott Galloway pointed out during the panel discussion, “For Generation Y, luxury is about real people using real products.” In calling her the “the next Michael Jordan” of the luxury world, Scott cited how her appeal stems from the fact that she is genuine and social, in many ways the embodiment of Gen Y. People love her videos because she is real. She uses only products that she is comfortable using in real life, and she is “one of us,” not a megawatt celebrity from the world of the unattainable.

Louis Vuitton brought “real people” into the fold with its Journeys Award to showcase the talents of emerging filmmakers. Participants were invited to create movies that defined what a journey means to them, whether an emotional or physical one. The short-listed movies all answered the question, “Where will a journey take you?” — not “What does our brand mean to you?” The winners enjoyed the cachet of becoming feted by Luis Vitton. And Louis Vuitton in essence recruited quasi-spokespersons who brought an air of authenticity and emotion to the Louis Vuitton brand.

Joe Crump mentioned that relying on lesser known people to tell their stories is a departure for luxury brands, who are traditionally proprietary in their use of spokespeople. The shift in thinking reflects an acceptance that Gen Y want luxury to be more attainable. Hence St. Regis has opened up its brand by encouraging visits to its restaurants and hotel services even if you are not ready to shell out the money to stay at a hotel, and its parent Starwood operates the high-end but more affordable Aloft brand. And both Louis Vuitton and St. Regis have made their brands more social — for instance, Luis Vuitton uses social media to broadcast is fashion show.

Real people using real products and having real experiences. As Scott pointed out, “All great luxury brands have spokespeople — they just have not met them yet.”

More about the panel here and here.

“Classic Rock” magazine gets physical

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If you appreciate the lost art of LP cover design, then get thee to a newsstand and grab the September issue of Classic Rock before they sell out. The issue painstakingly reproduces the extravagant artwork for the iconic 1975 Led Zeppelin album Physical Graffiti to illustrate the lead article by Barney Hoskyns concerning the making of the album that produced such rock epics as “Kashmir.” The magazine itself slips into a specially constructed outer sleeve depicting the same New York apartment building pictured on the original Physical Graffiti album, with titles of the album’s songs visible through die-cut windows, as was the case with the LP. And the article itself provides an in-depth examination of the making of Physical Graffiti, with tasty insights from the likes of sound engineer Ronnie Nevison.

The Physical Graffiti issue is a bold celebration of the power of a tactile experience that is unique to the world of print — and a firm “piss off” to the naysayers who claim that print media are dead. According to Classic Rock Editor in Chief Scott Rowley, it’s not the first time Classic Rock has done something bold and imaginative. Through an email exchange with me,  he explains that reproducing album sleeves dates back to a September 2007 issue that was a tribute to Led Zeppelin III. (In fact, Classic Rock got the original Led Zeppelin III artist Zacron to design the issue.) He also points out that Classic Rock issue 138, which celebrated 150 albums you must hear before you die, was designed like an album inner sleeve with the cover depicted as a record with spot varnish grooves.

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Classic Rock Issue 138

According to Scott, “We try to keep the packaging fresh, and earlier this year we came up with the idea of copying the style of the L.A. Woman sleeve to go with a Doors story we were working on [the August 2010 issue about about Jim Morrison’s last days.] The Zep idea came from that — it’s the 35th anniversary of Physical Graffiti, but really it was the thought of doing the mag in tribute to the original packaging which led to the feature . . . Our Art Director Brad Merrett then had to make it happen. Which wasn’t easy, considering those guys did it originally in the days before Photoshop — and credit’s got to go to him for delivering so authentically.”

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Classic Rock Issue 148

But why invest in such extravagant packaging and expense at a time when the print industry is in apparent decline?

“The print industry is suffering, as is the music industry,” he responds. “Our answer has been to make something special — an experience that can’t be downloaded and has a nostalgic/emotive pull.” For instance, the issue on 150 essential record albums also contained goodies like a 100-page book Let It Rock, an exclusive Classic Rock mouse pad, a Classic Rock car sticker, and a 15-track CD. (The insert for the Physical Graffiti issue also doubles as a glossy mini poster.)

And is the investment paying off?

Scott answers with an unqualified “Yes.” So far newsstand sales appear to be up 10-12 percent for the Physical Graffiti and L.A. Woman issues. “Our Led Zep III issue was our biggest-selling issue at the time, and the 138 ‘inner sleeve’ is still our second best-selling issue ever.” He adds, “Obviously I don’t believe that’s just down to the packaging — in each case I think the look was backed up by a great story, and I would hate for anyone to think it’s been style over substance — but it does suggest that the overall package is pressing the right buttons.”

Classic Rock has innovated in other ways since being launched in 1998. In 2009 Classic Rock launched a first-of-its-kind online subscription service that offers readers the chance to download albums before they are available in stores. The May 2010 edition (Classic Rock 144) was guest-edited by KISS. Also in 2010, Classic Rock published Classic Rock Presents: Slash, which gave fans Slash’s solo album a month before its general release along with a 132-page magazine about Slash. The Slash issue marks the first time a magazine publisher has topped an online album chart.

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Classic Rock Presents: Slash

And Scott adds, “We’re actually working on another idea right now and have a couple more up our sleeve.”

I think Classic Rock sets a standard not just for the publishing industry but for anyone who aspires to create a successful brand. Three lessons stand out:

  • Provide a memorable experience.
  • Offer content that people care about (whether you’re creating news stories or advertisements — people will engage with great content).
  • Take advantage of the unique attributes of online and offline — don’t simply reproduce the experience in both. For instance, the Slash download ahead of retail availability is an example of the former, and the elaborate album cover sleeve art is an example of the latter.

Did someone say print is dead? I don’t think so.