Personal branding doesn’t have to be BS

Last week my friend Chris O’Donnell (not that Chris O’Donnell) wrote a post on his blog titled “personal branding is BS“. Chris is not big on the idea of the personal brand. He writes

Most of you aren’t good enough to pull off the branding thing anyway. How do I know that? If you were that good, you’d be too busy actually working to post 20 tweets, 4 Facebook updates, and 2 LinkedIn posts every single day trying to convince us you are a thought leader in block chain powered whatever.

And you know what? That’s some pretty valid criticism. It’s easy to find people who are building their personal brand by puffing themselves up without doing meaningful work. Or maybe they did something really cool 10 years ago and they’re just coasting off it for the rest of forever.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Like with the label “thought leader“, it all depends on how its used. Chris is right to say that brands are “imaginary constructs”, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. A brand isn’t just the name you slap on the box to differentiate the otherwise identical dozens of detergents you produce. Your brand is what people think of when they think of you.

Building your personal brand is important if you want to get noticed for the work you do. You can get noticed without active effort, of course, but putting some work into it helps. Building your personal brand is more than just puffery. It’s sharing your work with others in social media, blog posts, conference talks, etc.

In the same way that companies have marketing departments to let the world know how great they are, people can do the same for themselves. Just make sure your ego’s not writing checks your body can’t cash.

International House of Brand mistakes

Last week, restaurant chain IHOP (fully known as “International House of Pancakes”) teased a name change. They’re going to flip the “P” and become IHOb. But what does the “b” stand for? Breakfast? Biscuits? Blockchain? Belly aches?

On Monday we learned it stands for “burgers”. It’s a temporary name change to promote their new Ultimate Steakburgers. And I think it’s pretty dumb.

IHOP has a well-known brand. They’ve sold non-breakfast-food for as long as I’ve been aware of them, but — as the name suggests — breakfast food is their bread and butter. They got a lot of free publicity out of this stunt, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was beneficial. The reaction I’ve seen has mostly been negative, including this scathing take:

You can get a burger in just about any restaurant in America. Even a temporary abuse of the brand to go after a crowded space seems cruel to a brand that has served so well. As The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding points out, products aren’t sold anymore, they’re bought. And they’re bought because of branding. A brand can be a company’s most valued asset.

Maybe this works out for them, but I expect that it doesn’t give IHO* any long-term benefit. What would be more interesting to me is dropping the non-breakfast menu entirely. There’s something to be said for simple food menus. The more items on the menu, the less often they get made. This means less skill in that recipe for the cooks and more ingredients that need to be stocked (and potentially sit for a while). With a simple menu, you can do a few things really well.

McDonald’s has learned this lesson over and over again over the years. Every time they expand their menu, quality and customer satisfaction seem to go down. So they simplify the menu a bit for a little while, until it’s time to chase a new customer segment. In comparison, Chick-Fil-A has a relatively small menu that they execute well. Restaurants don’t need to be everything to everyone, and I think there’s space for a “we only serve breakfast, you’ll just have to like it” chain. Let’s face it: few things are as popular as breakfast foods at not-breakfast times.

But if IHO* is really serious about competing in a crowded burger space, there are better ways to go about it. “Burgers are like pancakes made of meat!” is a slogan that just came to mind. It’s not great, but it could be worked on. Sure, it might get less attention than changing the name to “IHOb”, but attention doesn’t necessarily mean increased sales. Sometimes it’s not how many people you reach, but which people you reach and what message you reach them with.

But at least other brands are having fun:

Book review: The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding

As I move from tactical marketing work into more strategic work, my former CEO recommended several books. The first one I read is The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al Ries and Laura Ries. This 2002 update of the original by Al Ries and Jack Trout includes The 11 Immutable Laws of Internet Branding.

I immediately liked the book for its easy readability and the fact that I agreed with what it said. But it’s a little bit dated. The world was different in 2002, particularly when it comes to the brands that dominate their fields. That doesn’t change the messages. After all, it’s the laws that are immutable, not the brand.

The passage of fifteen years is more evident and meaningful in the Internet section. The authors spend most of a chapter decrying the “vanity” of Jeff Bezos. Amazon, they say, should stick to books. Branching out into other markets will damage the brand in the long term. Yeah, about that…

Now the rule may be generally correct and Amazon is just a lucky exception. Certainly many other brands have outreached their grasps. But in a later chapter, they rail against the notion of convergence. Nobody would want a combination of a phone, camera, and music player. Strike two.

The future is hard to predict, so I don’t hold it against them for missing the mark. But if you repeatedly insist with great authority, you need to be proven right. The authors failed pretty miserably in that regard. This forces the skeptical reader to wonder if the rest of the authoritative statements are similarly wrong.

I’m inclined to think that the bulk of the advice is correct, but I would certainly caution the reader to not accept everything blindly.

This book is definitely focused on building a brand, not maintaining one. But if that’s what you’re after, I’d give The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding a read.

Airlines race to the bottom

A race to the bottom is rarely an attractive concept, particularly in a submarine or an airplane. And yet the airline industry seems to be dead set on racing to the bottom. Case in point: United announced the addition of a new “Basic Economy” fare tier. This tier does not permit use of the overhead bins and does not assign seats until the day of departure.

The cynical (and perhaps correct) view is that this is an opportunity to raise prices on tickets people would actually want to buy while keeping the “as low as!” price the same. But it’s also an attempt to compete with budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier, according to an industry source. Being able to match the low fares is “absolutely non-negotiable.”

I don’t have the benefits of seeing the financial models for this, but from an outside perspective, this seems like a bad move. Not all customers are created equal and it damages your brand to go after the wrong market. Some customers will buy based solely on price, and if that’s who you want to go after, do it. But someone buying solely on price probably won’t be that loyal, so the minute your competitor drops prices, you’ve lost them.

Itemizing everything enables the customer to pay for exactly what they want. It also gives the impression they’re being nickeled and dimed. It’s much easier to just have the price than to add up all the line items. I find it amusing that no-frills carrier Southwest is the holdout for free checked luggage. (As an aside, I’ll probably never fly Frontier again because the notion of paying $40 to check a single bag insulting.)

I’m also curious to see how this affects behavior. By adopting checked bag fees, airlines incentivize passengers to push the limits of carry-ons. This slows down the boarding and deplaning process. Will this Basic Economy tier get people to shove everything into their personal item that’s just barely wedged under the seat in front of them? Will it lead to upset customers who didn’t pay attention trying to use an overhead bin they’re not entitled to?

Most likely, we’ll grumble about it and then end up buying the cheapest ticket anyway. That seems to be the pattern, so I suppose it makes sense for airlines to follow the customer. But maybe there’s room for one or two airlines to buck that trend.