A different lens on branding

Learning about a brand can take you places you never thought you’d go like in front of the camera, instead of behind it.

I had the opportunity to get sassy with a group of dynamic women from SSI that’s St. Simons Island. We swaggered and swirled in the exquisite selection of apparel and accessories from Planters Exchange in Redfern Village. What did I learn about the brand?

It supports women and the women who wear it support each other. It goes against the small town cliques of bygone eras. Yes, there’s still a bit of that anywhere; however, the glimpse of honest support is what makes shopping at Planters Exchange much more inviting.

We all know local boutiques can offer personal attention the big box stores can’t. What I witnessed at Planters Exchange is that they welcome you in after others have locked their doors. Everyone on the floor gets involved in the customer selection process. Friends are made and relationships built.

There are supportive sizes, fits, and styles specific to their international, globe trotting, coastal cruising clientele. While other boutiques might be able to taut similar superlatives, not all of them can offer the agility and flexibility this shop does. Planters Exchange is owned by a Global CEO who understands the needs of his customers. He offers accessories that can take them from travel or professional ware into an elegant evening with a wrap of a scarf, handbag switch, or a quick and simple necklace pendant exchange.

I realized he’d tapped into a vital component that facilitates not only the selection process, but also the way his clientele likes to shop. His customers aren’t always permanent residents. They are also vacationers who come in store when they are on the island and shop online when they get home. The ease of it has attracted women and their gift-searching husbands who have never been to St. Simons Island.

As marketers and promoters of a brand, it’s so easy to stay on our side of the lens. It’s important to remember being on the inside or on the other side of the camera is where we discover that point of difference we need to find. The information isn’t earth- shattering. The emotional experience is, and that is what gives me the stories only Planters Exchange can tell.


JNSQ Factor, Expectation & How Your Brand Delivers

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Who owns a particular brand?

Once upon a time, the company owned the brand. Before the advent of the printer and the telephone, a company could dictate the use and function of their brand to their consumers. Today with ever more transparency brands are at the mercy of their consumer.  A consumer-centric brand promise is no longer a mere marketing tool, but as integral to the life of a brand as our heart is to survival.

What sells a brand to a potential buyer? 

Most people would say value and quality. The imperative for these two factors to matter is to understand the specific meaning a customer attributes to these words.

Another selling point might be functionality. It’s a term that covers a particular brand’s ability to enhance a potential buyer’s self-image, skill, performance or competence in executing a specific task.

The overall key is assuring the brand experience resonates on the positive in these areas enough times to create an expectation.

What differentiates a brand?

It is no secret a name, logo, and other identity pieces that communicate a mission, vision, and promise are all essential features to building a brand. While quality, value, and functionality can separate one brand from another, there is what I’ll call the je ne sais quoi (JNSQ) factor.

The JNSQ factor is what appeals to the sybarite in consumers. It is a perceived high caliber expectation. It can be generated by something as simple as the name, package design or product scent. It can also be driven by a celebrity sponsor, ambassador, or influencer who confirms the brand will bring about a particular feeling or final result. 

In the end, the essential elements that separate one brand from another are the JNSQ factor, the customer’s expectation, and the brand’s ability to deliver on it again and again.


Re-Branding What It Is To Be Human In America

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How did I become an American?

My dad was the first born American in his family. I am the fourth of his five children and have one of my own. Today, I am an empty nester trying to figure out where I want to take the next chapter. I traveled to distant lands, then came back to explore my own: America, named after the Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. He didn’t have an American Dream, he only wanted quicker passage from Portugal to Asia.

What is the American Dream?  

If we travel back in time to 1931, we learn where the phrase might have originated. Historian James Truslow Adams stated in his book Epic of America, "The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."

Beth Banks, a friend of mine who has been traveling in an RV across America with her husband for a few years now said, "In my mind, the American Dream is the idea that you can come from nothing and build a life for yourself/your family through hard work, smarts, and opportunism." 

Let’s assess the concept by first flying forward from Adams’ day to 1948 when brand guru, David Ogilvy urged advertisers to understand: "What are you selling?" Why are you selling it?" and "Who is buying it?"

Now, jump to 1964 when the father of communications, Marshall McLuhan, explained how the medium we choose to convey a message, directly influences how the message is perceived, and coined the famous phrase, "The Medium is The Message.

If we zoom through the last few years, ooh wow, that's hard, isn't it? There's so much traffic! This trip could take a while. To expedite things let’s consider, if the medium is our Nation, and the content coming out of it is the message:

What Is America Selling?

John Zogby in his report: The Way We'll Be defined the American Dream in two main groups. The first group, a third of his study, he called, The Traditional Materialists. He defined this group as those who feel the dream is financial success:  to buy more stuff, have a bigger house with land around it, etc. Those who fall into the Traditional Materialists category feel a house is a quintessential dream component. 

Beth believes she achieved some measure of that version of the American Dream, "I am smart, I worked hard, sometimes shitty, low-paying dead-end jobs, (sometimes two of those at once!) and took opportunities where I saw them. But I was also very lucky; I didn't come from nothing; I am straight, white, educated and relatively attractive. I had opportunities and people helped me." Beth’s mom supported her early on and she fell into an industry (technology) at a time when it was growing exponentially. She got invaluable on-the job-training and made a career of it. Her husband was with a start up and got stock options that allowed them to put a down payment on a nice house, and they sent their kids to private high school. "We worked all the time though," she admits.

I could say the same. My ex and I worked day jobs, went to Portfolio Center in Atlanta to get extra training in advertising, then got a corporate job as a creative team at agencies in New York and Atlanta. We worked nonstop and as a married team it became 24/7. We bought our first house in the Norman Rockwell suburb of Avondale Estates in Atlanta. We had a baby. We tried to live a version of the dream. It boomed then bombed. The high stress of our job and parenthood wasn't sustainable for both of us. 

At least, we got a taste of it. The two-job Janes and Joes with "can't-wait-until-it's-Miller-time faces that permeated my rearview mirror on my road trip along I-20 didn't look as if they would ever have the Traditionalists version of the dream home. Beth agreed, "Not everyone escapes the grip of poverty or addictions or health problems or wins the lottery of  supportive family, decent education, right industry, right time, etc. I feel like a lot of people are trapped in that spot where poverty costs you so much, it keeps you from ever escaping it."

When I drove through Jackson, Mississippi, it felt as stuck in the mud of the haves and have nots as it did when I attended the first International Ballet Competition in the 70s. Dallas on the other hand seemed to be busting with Texas oil pride more than it did when I escaped there from TCU in the 80s. Big white trucks were everywhere. Little did they know that a hundred-plus-billion dollar financial storm would hit their state's coast.

In his November 9, 2017 article on weforum, Alberto Gallo, Portfolio Manager and Head of Macro Strategies, Algebris Investments explained when the American Dream came in the form of credit: “Private debt outgrew GDP four times in the US and Europe over the following decades up to the 2008 financial crisis, accompanied by the deregulation of financial markets and of banks.” John Quelch explained in a Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge OP-ED: Selling Out The American Dream, "The American Dream has been transformed from an embodiment of the country's core values into a crass appeal to materialism and easy gratification."

Who's Buying It?

Considering the 2017 Current Population Survey (CPS), 27% of the U.S. population is made up of immigrants who have come for a better life. Their numbers and their U.S.-born children make up approximately 86.4 million people. As far, as U.S. citizens are concerned, based on a CNBC article by Shawn M. Carter, "Fewer than one in five Americans feel like they're living the American Dream.” Her statistics come from Hearth Insights' 2017 State of the American Dream report. Contributing editor, Erik Sherman’s statistic for his October 1, 2017 headline in Forbes came from Pew Charitable Trust: “77% Of Americans Don't Believe The Iconic Rags-To-Riches American Dream.”  

Based on other statistics, we can't afford what we are selling. Helaine Olin in her book Pound Foolish explained, "Housing, health care, and education cost the average family 75 percent of their discretionary income in the 2000s. The comparable figure in 1973: 50 percent."  Nearly 39 million households can't even afford housing, and what I’d call the, “flip-money-pits” are draining the ones who can. 

Does It Deliver?

Common indicators for the state of our nation include consumer spending levels, national debt, stock market analytics, and GDP (Gross Domestic Product). However, in the September 18, 2017 Fast Company post, The End Of Capitalism Is Already Starting–If You Know Where To Look, journalist, Eillie Anzilotti, quotes New School University professor, Richard Wolff who said, “Americans are getting closer and closer to understanding that they live in an economic system that is not working for them, and will not work for their kids.” Carol Graham, author of Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream explained in The Guardian, "While 90% of the children born in 1940 ended up in higher ranks of the income distribution than their parents, only 40% of those born in 1980 have done so." Ester Bloom in her CNBC article explained, "America's market-driven healthcare system is the most expensive in the world — and yet produces lackluster results, especially given how much patients are forced to spend.

Our healthcare system isn’t the only thing that doesn’t work. Our education system is failing. “In 2016, more than 48% of first-time, full-time students who started at a four-year college six years earlier had not yet earned a degree,” according to The College Dropout Problem written by Frederick Hess for Forbes. The public school system isn’t working either based on Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss findings in her October 15, 2018 article How are America’s public schools really doing?. The Atlantic contributing editor, Ian Bogost doesn’t feel anything works. He explains in his article, Why Nothing Works Anymore"The frequency with which technology works precariously has been obscured by culture’s obsession with technological progress, its religious belief in computation, and its confidence in the mastery of design. In truth, hardly anything works very well anymore."

How Are We Selling It?

The digital age has taken the face (and outer accouterments) of the upwardly mobile to exponential heights, 'look, look, look at me'. Mylio posted that InfoTrend estimated consumers would take 1.2 trillion photos in 2017. Imagine this tsunami of images along with a deluge of what Social Pilot posted as 35 million daily Facebook status updates, and 6,000 Tweets every second.  

The dream in all its forms is sold on social media. Movies and advertising campaigns are still promoting it in traditional mediums. However, people in their insatiable quest to be the ultimate image of the dream are going live to sell consumer goods and getting paid well for it. Storage capacity can’t keep up with all the content we’ve created, we have to offload to an invisible cloud. In another Eillie Anziolotti Fast Company article, How the Telecom Industry is changing the shape of our cities, she quoted photographer Rian Dundon's observations: "The infrastructure, Dundon says, serves as a way to think about ideas and concepts that are largely invisible, namely, our creeping dependence on constant communication and data usage."

What Are The Costs?

As of November 2017, keeping up with the Jones' in pursuit of the American Dream put consumer debt up 8.8 percent to 3,827.2 trillion. As for the costs of our obsession with social networks, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” said former Facebook pioneer, Sean Parker,  to the Times while also admitting the platform he helped create was designed to be a “social validation feedback loop” that consumes “as much of your time and conscious energy as possible.”

In The Express Tribune, Ahmad Ali Published: Social media 'more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, "The research found that 91% of 16-24 year olds use the internet for social networking which has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. The increased use of social media may have also led to higher rates of anxiety and depression in young people which have risen by 70% in the past 25 years."

The millions of people in relentless pursuit of the dream makes for a juggernaut on the time/space continuum. It’s frenetic. Content has surpassed contact. Friends and families scramble to make time for each other, but I could argue our heart isn't in it. Most of us have our heads down vigorously validating ourselves by airing every moment of our importance on social media.

The ritual has inadvertently unearthed the vile side of our nature - all the burps, gas, and excrement. Our society leaders can no longer hide like they could for eons behind the fog of stinky perfume called ‘Trust’. The bottle of that which the media devoted precious airtime to eulogize is now empty. It’s been replaced with a bigger charade and over indulgence in every thought, word, or deed so as to further clutter our brains with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) diversions.

What Marketing Week’s Mark Ritson said of United’s CEO leadership skills after the April 2017 Chicago debacle could be applied to many American leaders: “This is modern, brand-centric leadership at its worst. More concerned with optics than actuals. More informed by internal PR teams than humanity or strategic responsibility.”

How are the costs affecting us as human beings? 

"I know the people we meet on the road don't want to work in an office every day and put all their money into a mortgage anymore," said Beth who continued by saying, "It may be because they saw their parents do it and watched them get laid off instead of get pensions, or wake up in a house that wasn't worth half the mortgage on it. Maybe seeing that betrayal made them reject those things. Maybe housing prices in SF, NY, Seattle, Portland or Austin led them to pursue traveling in an RV, but I am just guessing. They may just love the new eyes travel gives you. Thats what keeps me excited about tomorrow."

People do still go to a place of work and despite Glassdoor access to insider brand experience and revelations like those from the author of Why Work Isn't Working Anymore, Jim Karger, Brand Expert and Forbes contributor, Denise Lee Yohn deemed the 2018 competitive frontier as, "The Year of Employee Experience." However, as of July 25, 2018, Qualtrics contributor, Campbell George reported in 18 Employee Experience Stats to Know in 2018 that despite the fact that companies get 2.5x more revenue when employees are engaged compared to the low engagement levels of their competitors (Hay Group), almost half the employers don’t have a plan to cultivate the skills needed in the workplace. (Deloitte Human Capital Trends). The Washington Post sites a trend that seems to be taking hold in the December 12, 2018 article, Workers are ghosting their employers like bad dates.

Alberto Gallo in his weforum article explains, “Promoting individual happiness as our utmost ethos is self-defeating, as deeply divided societies turn unstable and unhappy.” CBS Dennis Thompson in his article, More Amercians suffering from stress, anxiety and depression study finds, referred to a April 17, 2017 report in the journal Psychiatric Services, which included federal health data as well as national health data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that about 8.3 million adults (3.4% of population) suffer from serious psychological distress. Later in the year, Healthline, Depression: Facts, Statistics, and You, July 17, 2017 report almost doubled that stat to 16.7 million (6.7% of population) by considering American adults who’d had at least one depressive episode.

What's The Return?

We are coming to the end of 2018, and the indelible fact remains that work is still not working for us, along with our economic, education, and healthcare systems, and the draw of the American Dream as well as our place in it isn’t fostering positive human development. In fact, it could be making us sick.

Is It Time To Re-Brand?

In her Fast Company article, I'm Living Proof It's Time To Rebrand the American DreamEliana Giolando said, "To me, achieving the American Dream is no longer about accumulating money and property but about using my resources to maximize my freedom and individual impact.

Beth, Eliana, and I might fall into the other third of Zogby's population that he called The Secular Spiritualists. This part of his population redefined the American Dream by moving away from the materialistic view with goals bigger than one's self that leave a legacy where family, community, and planet are in a better place. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Where Do We Begin? 

Start simple, but that may be hard for some. Beth and her husband are down to an RV. I can fit what I want in a 10x15 storage bin and what I need in the trunk of my car. We don’t have to go to those extremes, but I recommend the exercise. If we think about it, the American Dream home is really just an expensive storage unit for our stuff. What do we really need? Read Marie Kondo’s books, or online sources like Simplify Magazine for insights. Learn more about the art of decluttering and overcoming busy-ness. Consume less. Limit choices of what to eat and wear to reduce daily decision-making. Cut down on digital detours. Shift FOMO into JOMO (joy of missing out). If we can pull away from the cacophony of choices and diversions that our consumer culture demands long enough, we can get back to our essence.

Who are we?

We are human. Physically, it means our opposable thumb can move farther across the hand than other primates. Scientifically, “One of the key characteristics that makes us human appears to be that we can think about alternative futures and make deliberate choices accordingly,” says Thomas Suddendorf Ph.D. in his 2014 Psychology Today article, What Makes Us Human?.

We can evaluate our strengths as a nation. As James Fallows wrote in the January/February 2010 issue of The Atlantic: How America Can Rise Again, James Fallows , "America has been strong because, despite its flawed system, people built toward the future in the 1840s, and the 1930s, and the 1950s." 

We can evolve. Listen. Communicate. Find compassion for one another. Choose to be better people. Great humans with engaging stories built America. I'm not talking only the famous one's in our history books, but the nameless and invisible ones like those I saw during my travels. People who care enough to do the right thing at the right time, and don’t have a dollar figure associated with it. Many die without their story being told, only their impact felt.

What’s our story?

Ilya Vedrashko, SVP and Director of Research at Hill Holliday's consumer research arm, Origin, told Adweek. "Stories move not only people, but they also move product." Therefore, it seems like a win, win for even corporate America to find their humanity again.

Who are 'we the people' today and how do 'we the people' unite to succeed in a flawed system? What is our unique selling point? How much work, skill, and strategic responsibility are 'we the people' willing to give to recreate the story of The American Dream into something worth our while —something we are proud of that can influence others on a global scale?

I'm ready to help rewrite it. Are you?

 

 

 More articles by Rhonda on The Medium:

http://bit.ly/humanpredicament

http://bit.ly/humaninamerica

http://bit.ly/mouthontruth

©2019 Rhonda Geraci Creative Consulting, LLC All Rights Reserved

  

  

 

Tweedle Dum Time

Printed with permission. Visit artist, Justin Hillgrove's site at impsandmonsters.com.

Printed with permission. Visit artist, Justin Hillgrove's site at impsandmonsters.com.

 

The morning begins inside a skyscraper under a florescent sun. Within the labyrinth of gray steel Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum sit separated by a magnetic board with very little attraction. A phosphorous fog  fills the room with cost-saving light tempered by a single 65-watt lamp swiped from the office of a Dilbert Principal hire gone awry. Tweedle Dum posts note-to-self: “The end is near. Only 20 years to retirement.” The ubiquitous monitor glows. The hypnotism begins. Forced submission is only moments away. Humpty Dumpty sits on the firewall watching. Facebook, Twitter, and other perfectly good avoidance behavior resources are blocked to meet the company goal of maximum production for the Wizard of Oz. Desk lunch is served from a plastic container hot and radioactive from the microwave. Eight hours later, with vitamin D sucked from every pore and all vital systems completely acidified through electronic overexposure, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum escape down the rabbit hole. They follow a neon sign flashing the promise to wash away lost hopes by reducing them into a childlike state through extreme inebriation. It is not fulfilled. The night spirals down with hours of complaining that drone on drink after drink, until last call and a cab ride home.

 

Repetitive tasks and rote patterns dissolve our sense of adventure, curiosity, and fulfillment. The body and mind need recreation. If they don’t get it, they will seek alternative solutions, most of which are highly destructive. Geniuses do not create by working in a mind eating corporate machine. They have to play. They have to be in an environment that allows them to take chances, improvise, experiment, and cross boundaries. If a clock is right at least twice a day, couldn’t it be said that we can all be a genius at least once in our lifetime. Daniel G. Amen, M.D. author of Making a Good Brain Great and Magnificent Mind at Any Age would probably agree. His findings through a long-term study and brain imaging have enabled him to help clients boost their mental capacity, and treat everything from anxiety to insomnia all predominantly with vitamin supplementation and exercise. He hasn’t explored the idea yet; however, if he performed his brain imaging techniques on test subjects after a few hours of euphoric play, the discoveries might be worth noting.

 

Emma Seppala, Science Director for Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in recent book The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success, studied the breakthrough ideas of people like Einstein and Tesla and found they happened when they were walking or listening to music. In her Quartz article, “Happiness research shows the biggest obstacle to creativity is being too busy,” she says, "Simply put, creativity happens when your mind is unfocused, daydreaming or idle.”

 

We glorify busy-ness. However, if you visit award-winning creative departments in advertising firms across the country, you often see ping-pong tables, basketball courts, or pool tables. Why? The people who make up a creative department, often referred to as perpetual children, have forever resisted the corporate diatribe that believes a butt in the seat means an employee is being productive. They know something most don’t: play fosters creative and innovative thinking. You don’t come up with the next “big idea” behind closed doors with four blank walls and bad carpeting. Sometimes it comes while you’re singing in the shower.

 

As early as the 1800s, philosopher Herbert Spenser recognized play as an important feature of the human experience. Of course, it’s doubtful it’s taught in an MBA program where quantification has become synonymous with “why you pay us the big bucks”. Even though it’s pretty much just another variation on “smoke & mirrors”, without those magic numbers most company leaders would be too scared to make a move. Who can blame them? Their jobs are on the line. However, it’s a big price to pay, because fear is contagious. It begins to permeate in ever sector of society, until all possibility of creativity and innovation is stored away in a time capsule no one has enough courage to swallow.

 

Imagine if there was a mandate for play in schools and corporations across the world. Yes, even today in our precarious economic pond. It seems it should be an imperative especially now, because of the proliferation of fear, we've pulled the reins in tighter. We’re choking. We need fresh air. Playtime is a free initiative. Even based on the argument “Time is money”, playtime will take the place of complain time. If any company feels that is something they aren’t paying top dollar for now, they need to rewind the tapes and watch a little closer. Most freelancers know they are much more productive than a salaried employee for just this reason. They give themselves downtime. 

 

In the 1940’s, D.W. Winnicot developed “play therapy” as a way to open the psyche. In his work he was able to successfully reach into the anxieties of virtually every child he worked with -a success rate that was unimaginable in his era. However, today his techniques are reserved mostly for victims of abuse. The rest of us have forgotten the healing power of play, like the American Public School System. When they canceled recess in schools, they simply increased the amount of money they spend paying teachers to discipline. Parents and teachers should be the ones asked to provide the statistics. They know kids. The findings would conclude teachers should be paid to teach not to discipline. Pay for a recess and the money APS spends paying teachers to discipline will go down. The results: teachers teach more and students learn more.

 

It all seems like a no-brainer, but for some reason, most educators and corporations can't see it. Until they do, the clock will tick on into our wonted oblivion. All the Tweedle Dees will drink with the Tweedle Dums, while Wee Willie Winky runs through the town in his nightgown looking for a playground.

©2018 Rhonda Geraci Creative Consulting, LLC

Stop Chasing Unicorns.

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Ever since David Ogilvy coined the word branding over 50 years ago, it has been warped by greed and the demand for speed. Businesses who blindly followed the false profit of social media got a rude awakening that began with the 2014 Google Study showing 56% of Internet advertising is never even seen by humans. 

Much of the robotic, growth-hacking algorithms and reputation management machines used to gain favorability scores have proved to be nothing more than a unicorn that fed the MBAs addiction to numbers. But like electoral ballots when you sprinkle that perfect blend of magic dust it blurs the vision –no matter how well you think you can count. 

Branding + Creativity = sales

New media vehicles do have their place. They can be solid support tools, but basic branding guidelines have to be established. What most small businesses don’t understand is that branding is more than a logo and website. It is not something developed just for the customer, but it is the only way your company has a prayer to succeed. Think of it as a map that tells you where you want to go and how you're going to get there. It helps you understand what you can promise your customers and the unique selling point that will enable you to deliver on that promise better than anyone else. It's not rocket science, but it takes strategic direction and focus.

Creativity is another matter. Known for his many books on the subject of creative flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi spent over 30 years observing creative people. “If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude.’”

Perhaps that’s why creativity is an essential part of the business growth equation. Unfortunately, it is the least respected part, even though companies like IPA have impressive stats for MBA number junkies with their extensive studies like the infamous Gunn Report, “Selling Creativity Short, Creativity and Effectiveness Under Threat.” Creative people can transform a basic branding platform and create a compelling story with imagery that engages your customer. 

Bottom line there are no guarantees, so don’t be fooled by unicorns that claim there are. Humans are flawed. Creative humans are delightfully so. Robots may be programmed to click on an ad and perhaps even to think of a myriad of possibilities that can appear creative, but they can’t be trained to resonate with a customer so they will try your product or service. That takes human creative talent and experience. Of course, if your product or service sucks – then nothing and no one can help you. 

 

©2017 Rhonda Geraci Creative Consulting, LLC

Could Your Brand Be Next?

The Brand Hacking Brief (An Incomplete Aggregate)

PR Daily predicted that in 2016, "Who you can trust will become a branding issue, not a cyber security issue,” |Borenstein, G. (2015, December 15)|. Most people know when a brand promises something, it needs to deliver. However, perpetrators, like hacktivists seek to change the perception of your brand for social or political reasons.

Hacktivism comes in many guises from memes to more damaging Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, and other cyber hacking or hijacks to pervert brand communications. Hacktivists are computer hackers whose sole aim is to promote their social or political cause. Allegedly, unlike cyber criminals, hacktivists are not in it for the money.

The renowned hacktivist group, Anonymous has taken credit for innumerable hacks around the world. It has infiltrated companies and governments whose ideologies go against theirs since they first appeared on the world stage wearing Guy Fawkes masks during their 2008 Project Chanology campaign.

Hacks can be disruptive and damaging; however, some companies benefit. Anonymous took credit for the February 2013 fantastical tweets on the Burger King Twitter account that made it look like McDonald's bought Burger King. That day an online post from Computer Worldsaid Burger King gained 60,000 new followers as a result, |Kirk, J. (2013, February 18)|. The day after Burger King was hacked, Jeep gets a similar invasion with tales that Cadillac bought them.

A few months later, Forbes offered advice on how brands can avoid the embarrassment Burger King endured from its breach, (2013, March 6). Guest contributor, Steve Garrity, co-founder and CTO of Hearsay Social said, "Research firm Altimeter Group recently found that 76% of crises could have been minimized with better preparation by the affected company." Trend Micro contributor, Vic Hargrave explains there are white hat hackers, who are company-employed computer securities experts, and then there are the black hat and gray hat hackers like Anonymous, (2012, June 17).

Most hacked entities can’t boast the Burger King and Jeep happy ending. If you Google the top hacks of 2015, the list is long. While cyber hacks may only be embarrassing and disruptive, cyber crimes are costly. On February 15, 2015, CNNMoney posted the internet security firm, Kaspersky Lab report about a $1 billion bank heist. While many of us read the intriguing Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy along with the recent David Lagercrantz continuation, Girl In The Spider's Web without pausing for water, it’s important to understand that regardless of what shade black hat perpetrators are wearing the activity has real consequences.

A “We’re sorry you got hacked,” letter like the one from Target posted in MarketPlacedoesn’t stop the bleeding, |Tobin, A. (2014, January 16)|. While a MarketWatch article celebrated, “Two months after damaging data breach, Target stock has its best day in 5 years,” |Cheng, A. (2014, February 26)|, it added Target said it incurred, "[...] $61 million in breach-related costs in the fourth quarter, or net $17 million after $44 million in expected insurance payments." Despite the $10 Million payout to victims, |Tobin, A. (2014, January 16)|, the debacle sounded a loud alarm to consumers.

A Gallup Poll found that 69% of the people in the U.S. are worried about having the credit card information you have used at stores stolen by computer hackers, |Riffkin, R. (2014, October 27)|. Unfortunately, it also said that out of the one in four Americans who claimed to have been hacked very few ever reported it to the police.

Last year, an article on India’s BW Businessworldcalled Hacktivism a “Weapon of Brand Destruction" and said most brands are “strategically unprepared to cope,” |Sood, G. (2015, November 17)|. The article reiterates the importance of understanding, “What goes online stays online." While Reputation Management is becoming part of branding initiatives along with an ever-growing set of metrics to measure sentiment and sales, there’s no cookie-cutter solution to a negative post.

Raimund Genes, CTO, Trend Micro predicts, “Governments and enterprises will begin to see the benefit of cyber security foresight, with changes in legislation and the increasing addition of cyber security officers within enterprises. In addition, as users become more aware of online threats, attackers will react by developing sophisticated, personalized schemes to target individuals and corporations alike,” |Moore, T. (2015, October 27)|.

Along with a list of Trend MicroThreat Predictions for 2016 is an increase in online extortion. “Hackers consistently evolve to adapt to their surroundings, just as online ads are declining, we see ransomware is increasing,” said Tom Kellermann, Chief Cybersecurity Officer, Trend Micro. “Despite the growth in security investments and legislation, these changes will inevitably bring new, more sophisticated attack vectors.”

Not everyone can justify (much less afford) adding a white-hat-hacker computer securities expert. Law Technology Todayencourages, at least, having a Breach Response Plan. For larger companies they recommend more intense measures including emergency preparedness activities much like a fire drill. Let's call them Cyber Drills. LTT contributor, Daniel L. Farris explains, "According to the U.S. Fire Administration, there are approximately 1.4 million fires a year in the United States. According to PwC, there were 42.8 million cyber incidents in 2014. Despite the fact that a cyber incident is 3000% more likely, many U.S. companies do not have a written cyber breach response plan, and fewer still actually practice them," (2015, December 14).

Cyber threats are real. Obama's recent budget proposal, which included a request to increase federal cybersecurity spending to $19 billion as part of his "National Cybersecurity Action Plan" can attest to that. The bottom line is, if your brand gets hacked, your relationship with your consumers is what is at stake. There isn’t a negative message too small to address these days. It will demand a fast, authentic response that is consciously conveyed and consistent with your brand.

©2017 Rhonda Geraci Creative Consulting, LLC

What's up for Brands in 2016?

Many brands are shedding their old skin like the “Mad Men” era executives used to shed their first wives. The once take it or leave it pre-packaged image is transforming into an interdependent human brand experience. The importance of eye-catching design and premium shelf space allocation at big box retailers is taking a back seat to the imperative of a real voice and authentic Social Media persona. In a World of increasing disengagement (from information overload), time to make an impression is growing ever shorter. There's no dress rehearsal.

Where once brands grew from an ongoing monologue and vending-machine style purchasing process, now, more and more, Brand Ambassadors are engaging in one-on-one conversations with customers. Ever more discriminating and skeptical, people are choosing trustworthy communities that hold similar beliefs and values. Talking to real people builds a higher level of trust than traditional selling methods.

In the same sense, placing authentic consumer content with organically generated relevance on carefully selected platforms creates a more genuine connection than the robotic growth hacking algorithms and reputation management machinations used to gain favorability scores.

In 1996, Bill Gates said, “Content is King.” Twenty years later, content is finally stepping up to take its seat on the throne and data-driven Context is Queen |Chan, N. (2015, May 21)|. Together they are building stronger relationships while developing viable communities through relevance and emotional resonance.

The new engagement is not only making customers a real part of the product and services development process, but it’s also immersing them in an ever-changing personalized virtual experience that gives them the feeling: My brand is custom made for me.

Another trend that has been growing in prominence over the years is co-branding and collaboration. These days, the inherent money savings aspects of cooperative efforts are trumped by the benefits supporting customer causes and enhancing the user experience offer when brands pool capabilities towards innovative solutions that address consumer need.

While this new community-centric brand engagement sounds like it could create the kind of forever relationships we only hear about in fairytales, that’s not all that’s twinkling in the cloud this year. Keep an eye out for the shimmer of 50’s style brand stardom coming back on the scene. There is a major twist to this minor trend, instead of customers buying into the brand's community-think, these ‘celebrity’ brands are giving “exclusivity tests” to evaluate whether the consumer prospect fits their brand.

©2017 Rhonda Geraci Creative Consulting, LLC