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The origins of the beefy miracle


Last night I received a message via Twitter from a hot dog.

This hot dog, calling itself The Beefy Miracle, informed me that the latest version of the Fedora operating system, Fedora 17, was going to be named after it. The voting was close, but Beefy Miracle ended up winning by almost 150 votes.

Now I wasn’t involved in the naming or voting, but I was deeply involved in the original creation of this hot dog, so I thought I’d fill in some of the blanks regarding how it came to be in the first place. And for those of you who were also involved, if you remember additional details, please pass them on and I’ll share them here.

Way, way back in the pre-Fedora days, soon after the turn of the century, we were working on the release of a new version of Red Hat Linux (I’m guessing it was version 7.1, 7.2 or 7.3, but let me know if you remember the exact version…). At the time, most companies were beginning to fill up their software installer screens with advertisements for their other products and services. The hope was that, while you were sitting there bored waiting for the software to install, you’d see one of these ads and instantly make the decision to buy something else. Instant revenues! Instant riches!

I’m not sure how well this sort of installer advertising actually worked, but Red Hat was on the bandwagon too, and this sort of corporate stuff was beginning to sneak in to the company. Mind you, Red Hat also had a history of installer hijinks, dating back to the original option to set up “redneck” as your language of choice in the install process (which I think stayed in there until Red Hat Linux 5.1, but was gone by the time I started working there—Donnie or Mike, do you remember?).

So faced with an increasingly corporate installation experience, we decided to bring some of the fun back into the installer and had our designer at the time, Kyle Hoyt, a brilliant illustrator, create some installer screens that evoked the experience of the interstitials at the movie theater. Here is the result:

For us, they were love at first sight, and they actually made it into the installer. But as you can imagine, not everyone inside Red Hat loved them. Some thought the images were not “enterprise enough” for our rapidly growing company (it is hard to argue that a dancing hot dog is “enterprise,” but we tried). I remember more than one heated conversation about turning the Shadowman logo into a comic book character, about dancing hot dogs, and about what we were “doing” to the product with this strategy.

By the next release, the dancing refreshments were gone, I thought forever, until I received the tweet from a hot dog last night. It was nice to see them again, it had a been a long time.

And to know that Kyle’s dancing hot dog was the inspiration for the name of Fedora 17? It truly is a beefy miracle.

Thanks to those of you who played a part in bringing these images back to life. And my congratulations to The Beefy Miracle on your new job!

Netflix, Facebook, Apple and the brand community karma bank


By now I’m sure you’ve seen that, in a tersely-worded blog post, Reed Hastings of Netflix today rolled back the controversial decision to split the company into two separate services: a DVD-by-mail service that would have been named Qwikster and the on-demand streaming service that would have retained the Netflix name.

You may have also seen the announcement that Apple pre-sold 1 million units of its new iPhone 4S on the first day it was available, blowing away previous records. This positive news comes after many people (especially those in the media), expecting a completely new iPhone 5, greeted last week’s iPhone 4S announcement with disappointment.

Meanwhile, over at Facebook, privacy concerns continue to mount as the latest site enhancements caused some to question the addition of cookies that would supposedly allow Facebook to track users’ movements even once they log off the service.

I put these three events together because they showcase how three of the most successful and powerful brands of our time interact with their brand communities as they innovate quickly and aggressively.

What do all three companies share? First, confidence. They can see their destiny, they have a plan in place to control it, and no one—not even their customers—is allowed to slow their innovation engines down. What else do all three share? They all also have passionate communities of people who care deeply about them and watch every move they make closely.

In each case, these two forces—the company’s own self confidence and the pressure and expectations that a deeply engaged and passionate brand community brings—can lead to highly-charged, high-risk announcements, communications, and interactions.

So why is Apple so successful at keeping the relationship with its brand community healthy? Why is Netflix stumbling so badly? And why is Facebook in a dangerous spot?

In my view it comes down to a difference in the way each company approaches the give and take transactions with their brand community, the way they manage their community karma.

Creating a healthy brand community is a lot like managing a bank account. In order to remain in good standing, you must make more deposits in the karma bank than withdrawals. And this is where Apple, Facebook, and Netflix begin to differ.

On one end of the spectrum is Apple. The company showers us with delightful new products and innovations. Apple surprises us. Apple entertains us. But most of all, we’ve come to expect that almost every product Apple makes is going to fundamentally change the way we work and play. By creating great, impactful stuff that really does improve our lives in meaningful ways (I haven’t used a computer that runs Microsoft Windows in more than a decade… but I still remember EXACTLY how it felt), Apple is constantly making deposits in the community karma bank.

And while many folks were upset that Apple didn’t launch an iPhone 5 last week, I’ll point out that it was a stronger karma decision to launch an upgraded version of the iPhone 4 and call it a 4S than to launch an upgraded iPhone 4 and call it an iPhone 5 (as many other companies would have done). When an iPhone 5 is ready, we will know it, I’m sure.

That’s not to say that Apple doesn’t make karma withdrawals too. It does. Apple, you annoy me with your crappy restrictions on what I can do with music I download from you. I dislike your anti-competitive app store practices, and you scare me every time I have to click through a new version of your license agreement.

But when it comes right down to it, you give me more than you take, Apple, so I must admit I still love you.

On the other end of the spectrum we have our friends at Netflix. For years, Netflix was a dutiful investor in the karma bank. The company made their site elegant and easy to use, the social functionality and ratings were helpful, and, when streaming came along, it was like Christmas.

Personally, I loved Netflix. I loved it so much that I even bought a new TV last year on the strength of one feature—I could seamlessly stream Netflix movies directly to it.

But something changed. Over the last six months, I’ve noticed that Netflix has started making more karma withdrawals than deposits.

First, the Netflix site quit getting better. I don’t know about you, but I found it harder and harder to search for new movies. Netflix has always tried to push you toward the backlist titles and older movies, and I get why that made sense with the DVD-by-mail system. But why not make it easy for me to find your newest on-demand titles? I got frustrated and quit using it as much because it seemed like the site was actually losing searching/browsing functionality rather than getting better (was that my imagination?).

Then Netflix hit me with the price increase. Now I don’t mind paying more when I’m getting more, but at the time the price increase was announced it had become clear that Netflix’s agreements with distributors were souring and that they might even lose access to many on-demand films. This on top of my frustrations with the site, created my first negative Netflix experiences.

Still, Netflix had enough positive karma with me, built up over years, that we remained buddies.

Then, on September 19th, Reed Hastings sent me an email (under cover of night, at 3:31 AM, mind you) that started as an apology and quickly turned from mea culpa into double down. If you got the email, you were likely either A) angry or B) wondering if Reed might soon have an opening to hire you to help with his communications strategy.

Not only was Netflix going to keep the price increase, they were going to significantly degrade the customer experience by splitting the business in two and forcing their customers to log in to two completely different sites if they wanted to stay a customer of both the streaming and DVD-by-mail businesses. I understood the business strategy and why it made sense… but the communications strategy and the way the whole thing was positioned was just plain terrible. As someone in the communications business myself, I felt the need to look away.

And that was the moment Netflix made one more karma withdrawal than I could take. In the weeks since I received that email I have 1) bought a Roku box so I can stream on my TV from someone other than Netflix if I want to 2) started using the free streaming I get as a member of Amazon Prime and 3) made the decision to go on a break from Netflix until it gets its karma account back in order.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Since the announcement, the Netflix stock has fallen off a cliff, down from just over $200 to around $110 a share (and it was at $300 a share this summer). The announcement today may not have come soon enough, only time will tell.

Netflix, I still think we might have a future together, but man do you have some work to do.

Which brings us to Facebook. Now Facebook is a very interesting case to look at because of one thing that makes it very different than the other two companies: it doesn’t charge me any real money.

Facebook is a free service, and typically our expectations of a free service are very low. Investments in the karma bank add up quickly when the service is free. For years, Facebook has earned our love by helping us reconnect with long lost friends and relatives, while allowing us to actively keep in touch with more people at once than we ever could with a pen, phone, or email.

The real price of using Facebook—our privacy and personal data—was one that was originally only too high for a fringe group of digital conspiracy theorists. But over the past year, Facebook has become more and more intrusive, less respectful of what little privacy it still allows us, and has at the same time claimed more ownership of our personal data, using it in ways that are less clearly in our own interests.

The double whammy is that at the same time, the service is becoming incrementally less valuable to many people. Now that you are connected to all of these folks that you haven’t seen in 20 years and know what their kids are having for breakfast… then what?

I’ve noticed more and more of my friends on Facebook are going largely silent. It is good to have the network there when you need it and want to reach out to someone. But my perception is that the regular updates are decreasing, the number of times I’m tempted to click the “like” buttons has gone way down as I wonder how Facebook intends to exploit my click, and I’m unlikely to upload any personal photos or videos until I am 100% positive they aren’t going to show up in some banner ad for deodorant.

I wonder if Facebook is nearing a critical juncture. Because the service is free, I think Facebook will likely be able to avoid the rapid depletion of the karma reserve that Netflix has seen over the past few months. But as more people become aware of the true costs of using Facebook—in terms of loss of control of our privacy and personal data—and the incremental value of Facebook begins to level off, could the karma bank for Facebook go negative, even as a free service?

I don’t know. But if I were at Facebook, I’d certainly be starting to worry about it. Especially if I had a competitor like Google (with its own karma stumbles, but an overall better track record of respecting personal data) lurking, waiting for Facebook to make one too many withdrawals.

I’m sure many of you have strong views about these three brands. If you do, and either agree or disagree with my analysis, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

How to *really* help the communities your brand interacts with


Organizations have a lot more to offer the communities they interact with than the products they sell. When these organizations unselfishly offer assistance to the communities around them, they can build powerful relationships based on trust and shared value rather than just on transactions.

Sure, building this foundation will often mean that people in these communities would be more likely to consider buying products or services from you down the road (in case the marketing types ask). But if that is central to your thinking, community members will smell a rat. It is not enough to simply seem selfless while remaining selfishly motivated by your own bottom line.

You must actually care what happens to these communities. You must want to help them be more successful at achieving their own goals. Although this approach seems so obvious, my experience of working in the business world for the last 20 years indicates that it’s not.

Usually when I begin to talk about helping the communities that surround a brand, people immediately assume I’m just referring to typical organizational philanthropy or corporate citizenship work. While in some cases, a community-based brand strategy will dovetail nicely with these efforts, they have very different end purposes.

By carefully considering how you can help the communities of customers, partners, prospects, friends, neighbors, and others that interact with your brand every day, you can not only create value for these communities, you can develop deeper non-transactional relationships that will also benefit your organization in the long run.

If you need help shifting your thinking to a community-based approach, consider the following types of things your organization might do to help the communities around your brand:

Funding

Consider investing money in projects that help the community achieve its goals. Bonus points if the investment will also help your organization achieve its goals or further your brand positioning. Red Hat and other open source software companies have done this extremely well, investing in projects that later become the heart of products they sell while also creating value for community members at the same time.

Gifts

Many communities are in need of assets that individuals can’t buy on their own. Are there assets you already own or could buy and then give to the community as a gift? Red Hat bought many companies over the years with useful proprietary source code and then gave away the code for free. The community was able to innovate more quickly, and everyone—including Red Hat—reaped the benefits.

Your organization might have other assets that would be of value, such as a conference facility that could be used or land you haven’t developed. You could donate your products, services, web server space, or other supplies and materials that might otherwise go to waste.

Time

Your organization probably has knowledgeable people who might have a lot to offer. Consider allowing employees to spend on-the clock time helping on projects that further community goals and support the brand positioning.

Connections

Who do you and others in your organization know, and how might these relationships be of value to others in the brand community? Perhaps you can make connections that not only help the brand community, but also help your organization at the same time.

Brand power

Could you use the power of your brand to shine the light on important community efforts, drawing more attention and help to the cause?

The bottom line…

When organizations begin thinking like members of communities—when they are of the community, not above the community—and bring value in the same ways individuals do, they can fundamentally alter the relationships they have with members of the community.

This means that organizations have to stop thinking selfishly about what they want to get the communities to buy from or do for them (what I call Tom Sawyer thinking) and start thinking about what assets they bring to the table that could create real value for community members.

Faking it will get you nowhere, but when you really bring some tangible value to a community and the community becomes better for it, your brand will reap the benefits down the road.

This is the ninth in a series of posts drawn from The Ad-Free Brand.

Why is Google putting so many ads on TV?


Almost every time I’ve turned on the television in the past week, I’ve seen an ad for Google Chrome. What started earlier this year as a sprinkling of ads here in the United States has become a torrential downpour.

For me, Google has long been one of the poster children for a new breed of company born in the age of the Internet that doesn’t need to rely on traditional advertising to build its brand.

So, as I’m sure many of you have, I started asking myself, why exactly is Google doing so much television advertising?

It’s no secret that Google has historically not been a fan of traditional advertising. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago (2006) that Google Chairman Eric Schmidt called advertising “the last bastion of unaccountable spending in corporate America.”

And Google is certainly an interesting paradox: a company that historically does little paid advertising itself, yet makes billions of dollars selling advertising to others.

I did a little research and pieced together some history about Google and television ads.

In May, 2009, the first ad for Google Chrome appeared on television in the United States. In the blog post announcing the new spot, Google sounded almost apologetic, saying the ad was originally just developed in Japan as a web video, but it sparked a conversation and received good feedback. So Google decided to run it as a TV ad, in part as a test of the new Google TV Ads program.

The next year you may recall that Google actually bought an ad on the Super Bowl, which they called Parisian Love.

Eric Schmidt announced the spot on the Google blog, justifying it by saying “we liked this video so much, and it’s had such a positive reaction on YouTube, that we decided to share it with a wider audience.” But his Twitter announcement of the ad acknowledged that this was quite a unlikely strategy for Google:

Eric Schmidt hell frozen over

Earlier this year, Google began developing the current set of ads for Google Chrome in partnership with advertising agency BBH.

The work is compelling, as advertising goes (here’s a link to all of the spots on YouTube, if you want to check them out). Perhaps the most thoughtful one highlights the It Gets Better Project, which has resulted in thousands of videos being created for YouTube that are intended to give hope to LGBT youths.

The Dear Sophie spot has been viewed on YouTube over 3 million times, and there are ads featuring Lady Gaga (4 million page views) and Justin Bieber (almost 2 million pages views) as well. The newest pieces highlight The Johnny Cash Project (where artists are collaboratively developing a tribute music video for Cash’s song “Ain’t No Grave”), Frank Restaurant in Austin, TX (mmm…. so delicious… don’t pass up the waffle fries), and Angry Birds.

From a branding perspective, the ads make sense–as stories. By telling these stories, Google and BBH are invoking the transitive property of branding to associate Google Chrome with some incredibly innovative collaborative efforts. The math looks something like this:

Lady Gaga = open, collaborative, innovative.

Google Chrome = open, collaborative, innovative.

Therefore, if you like Lady Gaga, you’ll like Google Chrome.

Certainly getting ten million combined pageviews on YouTube for the campaign is pretty awesome—and free—so why spend the big money to put these ads on television too? Isn’t the beauty of the Google / YouTube model that it can be effective at eliminating the need for traditional advertising?

Perhaps Google is trying to expand its brand awareness with people it can’t reach via YouTube? But why spend the money on Google Chrome, a web browser (and a term Google itself has shown that almost no one understands), rather than the Google brand itself?

My first thought was that perhaps Chrome was losing the browser wars and the television ads were a desperate attempt to keep the Chrome ship afloat.

It turns out that is about as far from true as you can get. Chrome is killing it. According to StatCounter, Chrome is rapidly gaining new users at the expense of Internet Explorer and Firefox both.

StatCounter Brwoser graphic

In fact, some predict Chrome usage will actually exceed Firefox usage by the end of this year.

A victory for traditional advertising?

Not so fast. Here’s a good post from late this summer highlighting Chrome’s rapid ascent and documenting the reasons for it. From the post:

“Online, Google of course has a huge marketing advantage over basically everyone else since it can recommend its Chrome browser on its web properties such as Google Search, YouTube, etc. Not even Facebook can compare with Google when it comes to sheer web presence, reaching over a billion users.

That said, Google has clearly built a very good and highly popular product. If people didn’t like Chrome, the browser wouldn’t be able to retain users to the extent it seems to be doing.”

So the two reasons for Chrome’s success come down to:

1) the browser is good

2) it can leverage the power of Google’s online advertising engine (yes, the same engine that millions of companies have raided their traditional media advertising budgets to spend more on, causing the rise of Google in the first place).

But I didn’t see Google’s television advertising strategy mentioned here, or in any other article I read, as an explanation for Chrome’s rapid ascent.

Let me sum things up:

I get why Google is making the effort to create stories like these and share them with the world. Storytelling is an extremely powerful tool for building brands the open source way.

And overall, I like the approach Google is taking—many of the stories are really well told, and the focus on open, collaborative projects and artists (not to mention tasty hot dogs) sits well with me.

But I can’t for the life of me figure out why Google spending so much of its shareholders’ money putting these ads on TV.

If you have the answer, I’d love to hear it.

[This post originally appeared on opensource.com]

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