Category Archives: Strategic Communication

Can a Logo Make You Hungry?

Lessons learned from "America's Next Great Restaurant"…and Red Bull

Every time we’re asked to design a logo for a client, I’m reminded of something I saw on a now-cancelled NBC show, “America’s Next Great Restaurant.” In the episode, Steve Ells, celebrity judge and founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill, criticized a contestant’s logo, saying it didn’t make him hungry. 

The logo was for a concept called “Meltworks,” and featured a melting cog for the letter “O.” Ells said he “got it” and thought it was “kind of fun,” but advised the would-be restaurateur to “put something that represents food in the logo.”

Meltworks Facebook Page

As I considered this advice, I flipped through logos for well-known food purveryors: McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s, TGI Friday’s … None of them feature an image of food in their logos. But, given their success, they must be making someone hungry.

Then, I looked up the logo for Ells’s Chipotle restaurant chain. It features a chili, which signifies food and even suggests a certain kind of food. But does it make me hungry? Better still, is it even possible for a logo to make someone hungry? According to a study involving the Red Bull logo, the answer may be yes.

Red Bull’s Logo Gives You Wings

In the experiment, subjects played a car-racing video game. Each time they played, the game was the same, but the logo on the car they controlled changed to that of a different famous beverage brand. When the car bore the Red Bull logo, researchers found that players drove faster and more recklessly. 

Other parts of the study confirmed that people associate “speed” with Red Bull more than any other attribute, and that they associate “speed” with Red Bull more than they do with any other brand. 

So, it is possible for a logo to elicit a visceral response, but Red Bull’s logo, which features two bulls face-to-face, doesn’t literally scream “speed” to me. Nor does McDonald’s logo literally say “eat here.”

Does a Logo Have to Be Literal?

These well-known logos get a response not because they look like what their owners sell, but because they have been carefully associated with what they represent through various forms of communication. 

For example, Red Bull sponsors a lot of sporting events. But you won’t see their logo at a bowling tournament or a figure skating contest. You’ll see it at the Ice Crash or the Flugtag. (Check out the opening scene from this video of Red Bull’s X-Fighters.) 

Seeing a visual mark in a certain context consistently over time creates the connection, not the image itself. It’s a bit like Pavlov’s famous experiment. The bell ringing didn’t make the dogs hungry until they knew they were going to get food right after hearing it. If Pavlov had merely been searching for a sound that makes dog’s hungry, his arms would have gotten really tired.

Ells may have had a point, though. Food is a basic human need, and an image of food does have inherent meaning. So, a chili or a hot dog might give passersby an important cue. But, like Pavlov’s bell, I don’t think a logo will make anyone hungry until after they learn what it means through some kind of experience.

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Just-in-Time Creativity

Two successful strategies

When being creative is your job

Where do those clever, innovative ideas you see in communications and marketing come from? How do people take flat and uninspiring content and spin it into something that captures our imagination and urges us to seek more information?

In my career, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with many exceptionally creative people. I‘ve observed and learned from them the best ways to unearth creative thinking. I have two favorite approaches … similar, but with important subtle differences.

Inside out

The first approach is what I call the Observe and Apply Technique, or OAT for short. Quite simply, OAT is a process of looking carefully at everything that is around us to find what is unique to your situation. Then OAT adapts an interesting concept to match your problem or issue.

Here’s an example of how OAT works: A client we were working with was having trouble getting employees to read the corporate newsletter. A study they had conducted showed employees were so disengaged that many literally dropped the publication in the trash before giving it even a cursory review. The client wondered if there was a way for us to have the printed piece stand out to grab the reader’s attention.

Our team took a few days to mull on the challenge. When we reconvened, one of the team members made this observation: 

“Our client is a white-collar business, and most of the employees sit in an office—offices have doors. This week when I was traveling it struck me that most of the doors on my hotel floor had Do Not Disturb signs on them. I thought, what a wonderful way to communicate. What if we took the newsletters, cut a slit in them, and then hung the newsletter on the doors of employees’ offices?  The cost to do this is pretty nominal and the impact is significant.”

This is a classic example of a person paying attention to the elements of a situation, finding something unique or intriguing that had previously been overlooked—everyone had an office—and then finding solutions that better match that problem. That’s inside-out creative thinking. 

Outside in

The other approach to creative ideas I have seen colleagues successfully use is what I call the Echo and Adapt Technique, or EAT. Here the individual echoes something he or she found compelling and applies it to his or her project. 

Here’s generally how it works: think about what you’ve seen over the past three or four days that caught your attention. Was it an image? Or maybe a video clip? What made that image or clip interesting? Once you answer this last question, think of how that element can be adapted to a communication piece you are crafting.

Here’s a real world example of EAT: Do you remember the water bucket challenge from a couple of years ago? And, more recently, the bottle cap removal challenge? The EAT approach taps those viral campaigns to create a “challenge” adapted especially for your communication problem. Your new communication need not be exactly like the original, it merely contains an echo/homage/memory of the original.

There are many tried and true methods and techniques used in business to help employees think creatively. These include formalized brainstorming sessions, retreats to clear your mind and spark innovation, and mixing teams with experienced and inexperienced skills to see what happens. For me, the idea of seeing what is right in front of you and putting it to work in your communication plan has always seemed to generate the most fascinating results.

I hope that you’ll use the OAT and EAT techniques to generate some innovative approaches of your own. 

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Steering into Happy Accidents

Don’t Be Afraid to Get a Little Peanut Butter on Your Chocolate, or a Little Chocolate in Your Peanut Butter.

There was a TV ad campaign back in the ’80s that portrayed Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as the result of some kind of happy accident. 

In the spots, one character would be strolling along, engrossed in a huge bar of chocolate. Around the corner, another character would be snacking from a jar of peanut butter. (Of course, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone walking around an office feasting on spoonfuls of peanut butter from a jar, but let’s suspend disbelief for just a moment longer.) Anyway, at the corner, the two snackers – and their snacks – collide. 

“Hey, you got your chocolate in my peanut butter,” moans one. 

“You got your peanut butter on my chocolate,” whines the other. 

Not fazed by the random cross-contamination, each person takes a bite of the new chocolate/peanut butter mash-up and a new taste sensation is born. The point, perhaps, is that no sensible person would ever think to blend chocolate and peanut butter. The only plausible explanation was an accident.

Get the Pigeons Out of Their Pigeonholes

What got me reminiscing about this ad campaign was stumbling across an old article in the Personal Journal section of The Wall Street Journal (“The Most Awkward Meeting”). The article is about elevator technology that can sort employees in a building according to their security badges. Employees who share a floor are corralled onto the same elevator. Executives are sequestered from the “rank and file” and shot directly up to their top floor suites. 

A benefit of such a system is increased efficiency, but a downfall, I think, are all the missed opportunities that can arise when you mix different kinds of people in random ways. One loss is the famed “elevator speech.” I’m sure C-suite occupants are subjected to bizarre pitches and awkward moments with employees all the time, but isn’t it worth hearing what’s on people’s minds? Who knows, maybe there’s a young go-getter out there with a fabulous idea. The elevator may be her chance to shine through the bureaucracy.

This trend of grouping and isolation goes beyond elevators. Technology seems to be trying to pigeonhole us more and more all the time. Think back to the ’80s when you might have seen that classically goofy Reese’s ad. There were only three major networks. The television was like a large national campfire. The next day in the office, there’s a good chance that those who actually watched TV had common experiences. 

With a few exceptions, TV these days is less national campfire and more pocket lighter. If you want comedy, there’s a channel for it. If you like sci-fi, there’s a channel for that. Music, sports, independent film, history, cooking … they all have their own channels. Even golf has a channel! 

Viewers no longer have to be exposed to things outside of what they think their interests are. Although there are some benefits to this specialization, I think we lose the blessings of surprise, of the happy accident, of being exposed to fresh ideas from other disciplines and from other points of view. 

Although I’m the type of person who can sit next to you on an airplane for three hours and never even see what you look like, I’m often gratified when a fellow passenger strikes up a conversation. It’s a rare moment of warmth in a crowded and sometimes cool world. It’s also a chance to see things a different way or to learn something new. These are key to creativity, innovation, community and self-evaluation, and who couldn’t use a little of all those things? 

Although I’m pretty content with my big bar of chocolate, it’s the happy accident that encourages me to force myself into the land of the peanut butter eaters.

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8 Removable Barriers to an HR Communication Strategy

Common Roadblocks and Practical Countermeasures

You’re ready to roll out a great new employee program. 

You send out some emails, do a few presentations and generate some interest. 

But soon, the buzz dies down and the whole thing is practically forgotten. 

Sound familiar?

Based on what I hear from clients, this scenario is all too common. No matter how good you think the communications are, they don’t ignite lasting change. 

There are many reasons why a particular communication or campaign fails, but I think it becomes more difficult for these efforts to blossom if they lack fertile, strategic ground in which to take root. 

Without a comprehensive strategy, coming up with a cool, new communication is like trying to invent a new traffic sign without abiding by the MUTCD. 

Below, I highlight a few of the most common roadblocks I encounter that keep organizations from having a solid HR communication strategy. 

Most of these roadblocks can be difficult or even impossible for a single individual or team to overcome. So, I’m going to suggest some practical countermeasures you can take at a small scale that can help. 

#1: HR Communication Planning Is Siloed

You have your own communication budget and you do your own planning — and so do all the other centers of excellence within HR. This is a missed opportunity. When everyone is doing their own thing, good ideas, tools, channels and resources are not being leveraged for the benefit of all. Many of the other problems in this list start to emerge as a result of this siloed approach.

Countermeasure: Collaboration. If you have no central communication resource, gather up your HR colleagues who are similarly tasked with communication responsibilities, and form a squad or guild. Get together regularly to discuss your needs and to share ideas and solutions.

#2: There Is No Cohesive HR Identity

If there’s no cohesive approach, there can be no cohesive identity. As a result, every campaign coming out of HR is a one-off effort — another piece of junk mail vying for attention in a crowded corporate inbox. 

One of the biggest eye-opening moments during an engagement is when we reveal to a client the results of a communication audit. All we have to do is put a few samples of the organization’s communications side by side and everyone sees immediately how disjointed they are.

Lacking a cohesive identity will undermine your efforts to get employees to recognize and fully appreciate everything your organization has to offer. It also means that, with every campaign, you’re spending precious time and resources (or, worse, none at all) figuring out what your content should look and sound like.

Countermeasure: Communication guidelines. If you can’t get help from someone with brand development experience, you can still create a simple set of guidelines that document the verbal, visual and experiential identity of your content and communications. Pull together a few diverse communication samples that you think best represent the program you own. Find the similarities in how they look and sound. Focus on what makes them distinct from other company communications but still aligned with your organization’s brand. Distill it down to a page or two of words and images that literally show someone how to create content and communications for you. Then, make sure all future media align with these examples.

#3: Your Intranet Is a Mess

You can’t rely on your section of the intranet to reach employees because employees don’t rely on the intranet as a source of useful information.

This cycle must be broken.

How to fix this problem depends on several issues, some of which are complex and technical.

Countermeasure: Content management. Don’t dismiss or ignore your intranet. It should be a reliable source of up-to-date, authoritative information. Depending on your platform, it might also foster collaboration and audience feedback. We typically recommend performing an audit of content, processes and requirements, and then developing site maps and process maps. This is not an easy or quick step but, in the long run, it will make managing content on an enterprise-wide scale easier. Imagine, for example, that you have to update site content about your organization’s compensation programs. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a single document that shows you where all that content resides and how to manage versions across employee types and geographies?

#4: HR Lacks Communication Resources

Quite simply, you lack the time, money, people, skills and tools to do it all.

Countermeasure: Partnerships and/or simplicity. Of course, we here at Smith would love to become your go-to communication partner. But, if you can’t always engage professional help, be realistic about your capacity and capabilities. It’s better to have a one-page intranet site that is accurate than to have a complex navigation scheme filled with out-of-date content and empty pages. Use Word and PowerPoint templates to simplify document creation. If a colleague has a good document or presentation, use it as a model. If someone else in your organization engineered a good campaign, talk them about what worked and copy it.

#5: Employee Audiences Can’t Be Targeted Effectively 

As I cover in another post, if you want your audience to pay attention, you have to offer them something of value. It’s tough to do that if you don’t know who you’re talking to or you’re talking to the wrong people. 

Countermeasure: Audience segmentation. Get to know your audiences and segment them as much as you can. If you’re making a change that only affects full-time, benefit-eligible employees, be sure you have an email distribution list of only those employees. If you have employees in different geographies, be sure the intranet is serving them relevant content. Use surveys and other sources of data to create audience profiles and personas so you can communicate with greater clarity and relevance.

#6: The Metrics Are Missing

If you’re sending out a communication or creating content, you’re doing it to affect behavior. It’s important to clarify what that behavior is and why you want to change it. Not only will this help you measure the success of the communication, it will help you craft content that is targeted, easier to understand and more actionable.

Countermeasure: Metrics. We were recently asked by a client to update content supporting an employee recognition program. Among our first questions were: How do you know there’s a problem with the current content? How will you know if the new content makes a difference? Even if your best answer is, “We get a lot of questions from managers about it,” find some way to quantify the impact.

#7: Available Communication Channels Are Being Ignored

Email, PowerPoint and the intranet are not the only ways to reach your employees. 

I was trapped in a traffic jam on I-4 recently on the way to Disney World with my family. Right next to us was a box truck emblazoned on all sides with ads for an auto accident attorney. How apropos. 

Think about your experience outside of the workplace. Consider all the creative ways marketers deliver content to you as close as possible to the moment when you can act on it. 

Countermeasure: Process maps and journey maps. You can only create a successful channel strategy when you really know what you’re asking the audience to do, what they need to do it right and when they need it. Process maps and journey maps can help you evaluate all the steps, tools, technologies, people and places involved. They can also help you pinpoint where employees might struggle. You can use this information to figure out where, when and how to deploy content throughout the process. Be flexible and be creative. You might be surprised at where this process leads you.

#8: HR Source Material Is a Bunch of Slides 

PowerPoint can be a great presentation tool, but it’s not a great place to articulate a strategy. When you create content in PowerPoint, you think in PowerPoint. That means thinking in choppy bullet points instead of thoughtful sentences and paragraphs. 

A lack of source documentation also makes the discovery process more difficult. Instead of handing someone a guide or summary to read, you have to go digging for answers and schedule “brain dumps.” This can literally add weeks to a project schedule.

Countermeasure: Formal documentation. You can keep it short and simple, but try to capture basic details, such as eligibility, a description of the program, websites, contact information, associated metrics and key messages. This is not merely an exercise in discipline or formality. This document becomes content you can later repurpose in presentations, memos, websites and more.

Are any of these roadblocks keeping you from having a killer HR communication strategy? Are you dealing with any others? We’d love to hear from you.

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