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I’m about to purchase a pair of basketball shoes. At my age, basketball is a combination of exercise and mental health therapy, with no hope of ever dunking the ball or even developing a nasty crossover dribble (note to those who guard me: I rarely go to my left).

So why should I care what basketball shoes I buy? Perhaps I’ll buy the most comfortable shoe I can find. Or the most durable. Or the cheapest. Or even the coolest looking ones. But no. The first thing I look for is the Nike Swoosh. Why? Because, like all of us, when I shop I take with me the part of my brain that processes emotion. It’s not that I don’t have the rational part of the brain with me, too. It’s just that the emotional part makes the decision, often unconsciously, and the rational part justifies the decision I make.

Ergo, I look for the Nike Swoosh, and then rationally choose the coolest, most comfortable Nike basketball shoe at my price point.

Where did my emotional connection with Nike come from? Certainly design plays a big part of it, though some of the Nike basketball shoes I’ve purchased have been pretty garish. It’s because Nike has connected with me on an emotional level higher than a maker of basketball shoes.

Three levels of needs: A strategy for earning brand loyalty

In my last post, about deepening employee engagement, I offered three levels of needs: articulated, un-articulated and unknown, un-articulated needs.

Let’s apply those need levels to my shoe purchase:

  1. Articulated Need: It would be great if I had a comfortable, durable and stylish basketball shoe at the price I want to pay.
  2. Un-articulated Need: Why would that be great? Because I would look and feel good when I’m on the basketball court.
  3. Unknown Un-articulated Need: Why would that be great? Because I would feel more confident, which would help me maximize my athletic potential.

My un-articulated need, then, is for a coach to help me maximize my basketball abilities. Enter the Nike theme line: “Just do it.” Sounds like a coach to me. Enter all the iconic Nike commercials designed to inspire us to higher performance. Looks like a coach to me. Enter the iPod+ shoe—a shoe with a training tape built right in. Acts like a coach to me.

This is obviously not a rational connection I have with Nike. It’s an emotional one—the kind that can withstand a rational sales message from a different label claiming a more comfortable, durable, fashionable basketball shoe. That label won’t be my coach.

What brands do you love?

Try the same laddering exercise with a brand you love. Ask yourself when you buy this product, what are you hoping for? It would be great if what? Why would that be great? And why would that be great?

Apple doesn’t just sell me an elegant, easy to use computer. It doesn’t just make me more productive. It’s my creative co-conspirator, always innovating ways in which I can express my creativity. Therefore, I am an emotionally connected Apple evangelist.

Next time you go shopping, note brands to which you’re most loyal. How have they connected to the emotional part of your brain? I’d love to hear your answers.

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I’ll admit to those of you playing Buzzword Bingo that I know the word engagement is most certainly on your card. I’ll chip in that perhaps it’s there precisely because engagement is worth talking about. Exploring engagement is really about helping employees identify for themselves, Why should I care? And how much of my effort is really required to max out my rewards?

How many of you have thought about engagement in relationship to your own work? Have you asked your employees and other stakeholders about the character of their engagement with your organization? Or is it, something that you just feel?

Three Levels of Needs: A Strategy for Engagement

The extent to which you, an employee or other stakeholder is engaged, is based on three levels of needs:

  1. Articulated Needs: Am I getting what the organization promised me?
  2. Un-articulated Needs: Am I getting what I want, but haven’t told anyone in the organization?
  3. Unknown Un-articulated Needs: Are there things I could get that I haven’t even considered?

The first level of Articulated Needs, known to both organization and employee, likely comes from a formal or tacit job description and is the focus of most discussions regarding employee satisfaction and performance.

Strategy: When a formal review is performed, it’s good to provide a written list of the organization’s promises for the employee to check against.

The second level of Un-articulated Needs can be most insidious in diluting an employee’s engagement. Here, a set of expectations is known only to the employee, leaving up to luck, the organization’s ability to deliver. Meanwhile, the employee is thinking, why can’t they meet my needs?

Strategy: Ask the employee, is there anything you expect from the organization that you haven’t told us, and we haven’t met? Perhaps it’s more frequent feedback, a raise, more visibility in the organization. Then follow that with a discussion of how the organization might align to help deliver on those needs.

Often there are job benefits that an employee hasn’t even considered. This third level of Unknown Un-articulated Needs is potentially the most powerful in securing an employee’s buy-in, loyalty and increased productivity. This is the gift that the organization gives to transform good employees into ambassadors for the organization.

Strategy: Ask the employee to finish the thought, It would be great if the organization and this job would provide me with what? Why would that be great? and What else would be great? Find some areas in which the organization could satisfy those needs. Perhaps it’s personal or career development opportunities, such as a chance to grow a network, learn a new skill or have a platform for industry-wide visibility.

The Other Side of the Equation

All of these employee needs for engagement should be balanced against the organization’s needs from the employee. If the employee isn’t certain that his or her rewards are equal to or greater than what the organization expects from the employee, then burnout will ensue and the engagement won’t be sustainable. And because needs and responsibilities change, this equation should be revisited on a regular basis.

Implications to Your Organization’s Brand

If you’re wondering what employee engagement has to do with branding, then you are probably missing one of your most potent branding tools. Smart organizations brand from the inside out; that is, they understand that before you begin building a brand with customers, the employees have to buy into and be passionate about delivering the best brand experience. Customers can spot a half-engaged employee a mile away, and it certainly dilutes the brand promise beyond the moment of a less-than-satisfying interaction with that employee.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how these employee engagement principles might apply to customer engagement. In the meantime, any feedback you have for me would be a gift.

Four years ago, when I started GPS Creative, I wasn’t too sure about the name. Would people get the reference to Global Positioning System? Does it really encompass what I do? Does it have staying power? The one thing I did know, is that the URL was open and I was tired of finding all my other options taken. Admittedly, having gpscreative.com available didn’t help my confidence, when much less obvious domain names were already gobbled up.

Now, as I look back at all I’ve learned while helping individuals, teams and organizations plan for their future, I see the name as a lucky accident. Whether I’m taking organizations through strategic planning or brand strategy workshops, or teams through innovation training, or facilitating qualitative research, or as I work with my creative partners to develop marketing campaigns, the name still fits.

The Creative Road Map

It fits because, like GPS technology, the deliberate creative process through which I facilitate all the work I do, is based on understanding three basic elements:

  1. Where you are now
  2. Where you want to go
  3. And the best route for getting there

Now think about how many projects, in which you’ve participated, didn’t have a clear goal. How many failed to explore all the factors of the current situation before the plan was implemented? How many had no defined steps for reaching the goal? How many simply were solving the wrong problem?

Without a deliberate process, these are the detours on which many of us find ourselves.

When I meet new prospects, there are two questions that are important to me above all others: What would you really love to see happen? And, What do you think is stopping you? From this, I can get a sense of where clients might want to go, and what they think their current barriers are to getting there. The map already begins to take shape.

Chance favors the prepared mind.

You might be wondering if deliberate creativity is somehow different from real creativity, which happens intuitively, and in an “ah-ha” moment. The answer is, “ah-ha” moments bubble up from the subconscious after an incubation period. Deliberate creativity doesn’t bypass those moments, it nurtures them. Moreover, with any trip you might take with a GPS device, you will probably encounter and be delighted by unexpected sights and new experiences along the way for which you hadn’t exactly planned. These will often be the stories you remember most vividly. The same applies to GPS Creativity. Along the creative path, you will encounter unexpected insights and new ideas for which you hadn’t planned—the “ah-ha” moments. These are ultimately the drivers of growth and innovation.

As someone who has worked in the creative side for many years, I still rely heavily on my intuition, a flash of insight, a new connection—but I’m also reassured that when I’m feeling lost, there is a map, when I need it.

And, I’m feeling better about the company name.

What’s your story?

What do you do for a living?

That’s the question a marketing friend of mine asks when he explains his approach to storytelling. Most of us would reply with a job title. I’m an account executive. I’m an insurance broker. I’m a teacher. Painter. Social worker. Nurse.

He would reply, “I help businesses make more money—that’s what I do for a living. So every morning, I wake up excited to discover some new story that will help a client make more money, because I know when I help clients grow, it means a new person might be hired, and that person might have a family, and he or she might be able to send a child to college or take a wonderful vacation. And who wouldn’t want to be part of making that happen? I help businesses make more money by helping them find their story…” By this time, you’re hooked on Greg Noack’s personal story and the story of his company, Fountainhead Communications (fountainheadcommunications.com). And Greg has many wonderful stories about how his company has helped clients find their stories and make more money.

I write about Greg’s story for three reasons:

  1. A lot of people talk about the importance of story in branding, but few people, or brands for that matter, really know how to tell a good one.
  2. Telling a good story is a surefire way to spark an emotional connection with your audiences. And that’s how you gain loyalty and develop long-term relationships.
  3. Everyone has a good story to tell.

What’s your gift?

I often ask my clients about gift, as in what gift do you give to those who you expect to sell or influence? A gift is on a higher plane than a benefit, because everyone expects a benefit. The gift is something unexpected and meaningful.

For example, I may call myself a strategic planning facilitator, an innovation trainer, a brand strategist or a creative director, and you will have your ideas about what benefit I might offer and whether it’s worth it to you. My guess is you’ll frame the benefit in terms of activities or deliverables, like an effective plan or insightful strategy or an engaging ad campaign or a dynamic training program. But that’s not my gift. That’s my job. My gift is helping you connect to your creativity to do great and satisfying things. Most of my clients aren’t expecting that connection to their creativity and are delighted, and a bit surprised, by it. This is the source of my stories: how, as a Creative Director, I came to study creativity…how I was transformed by what I learned…how others have reported back to me their individual and their organization’s transformation after practicing some of the processes, tools and cultural drivers of creativity that I share with them. This unsolicited feedback is their affirming gift back to me.

Greg is also the person who introduced me to the quote, “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions,” by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Greg’s approach to story has stretched my mind—his gift to me.

So, while it’s not my birthday, I’d love the gift of hearing your story.

Willie Mays

Truth be known, I didn’t want this dog. We had just lost our 15-year-old golden retriever, Ozzie (named after then Nebraska football coach, Tom Osborn), and I consoled myself with the promise that without a dog, we could come and go as we please.

That was not the decision of the more influential members of my family, who offered to name our new puppy after arguably the greatest baseball player of all time. That was nearly 2 years ago, and I am happy to report that Willie Mays has established himself as arguably the most popular member of our family.

In those brief two years, Willie has reminded me of several valuable lessons for leading a creative life:

#1 Sniff everything: Willie reminds me to be curious. Ask questions. Who marked this tree and that fire hydrant? What are you cooking tonight? Who’s shoe smells like this? What dog was recently hanging around your pant leg? All questions asked innocently and without judgment. I find that emulating Willie’s eager curiosity feeds my creativity. It helps me to open pathways to learning, dispel false assumptions and generate new ideas.

#2 Wag your tail a lot: When someone walks in the house, it goes something like this: the tail starts up like a propeller, Willie leaps skyward, hoping to kiss the person—on the lips if at all possible—and then upon landing, he pees in excitement. By all accounts, he goes overboard in his greeting; yet it does remind me to be enthusiastic, keep a positive outlook and let people know that I care about them. People pay attention to that sort of thing. They’re more apt to listen to ideas. And offer their own. It might even earn me a pat on the head.

#3 Be playful/be daring: Everyday, Willie reminds me of the value of being playful and daring. He, himself, is an insatiable game player who takes incalculable risks. He’ll diverge on all the things he can steal that will get someone to chase him—shoes, napkins, pillows, underwear. If he knows you’ll chase him for it, he’ll go after it. And just when we think we have everything beyond his reach, he finds something new to take. Willie sets an example: He uses his playfulness and daring to overcome barriers and lead to the next big idea (of what to steal).

#4 Persistence pays: Willie can wear you out. He’ll tease you till you chase him. He’ll bark until you get the ball out from under the chair. He’ll whimper until you take him for a walk. He’ll stare you down until you give him a bite. The guy is persistent! And sometimes, that’s exactly what you need to solve a problem, make a creative breakthrough or convince someone that your idea is worthy.

#5 Let sleeping dogs lie: After all the curiosity, tail wagging, playfulness, daring and persistence, even Willie has to take a break. He is a great napper. And it reminds me of the importance of taking a break from work to refresh and re-energize. Then, when Willie wakes up, he takes a speed lap around the back yard, announcing to the squirrels that he’s back and ready to resume the chase.

In the end, I suppose the real takeaway is this: look for life lessons where you find life’s joy.

Now I’m off to play a little catch with Willie Mays.

Recently, we were invited to present our branding capabilities to a team of marketing/branding executives at a prospective client. Even before we got through introductions, it was easy to see how little they understood—not just about their brand—but what it takes to even be a brand.

To be completely fair in this tale, we were invited to present our capabilities at the request of someone who was leaving the organization’s marketing department. We had no opportunity for direct communications with this group before the meeting other than to hear that they wanted a capabilities presentation. As such, the branding services we were “selling” might not have been a good match with the services they wanted to buy.

The Meeting

After keeping us waiting for 20 minutes, we began the meeting with introductions. Each member of our team provided a brief and enthusiastic description of his or her background; they merely told us their names. After further deliberate probing we were able to coax from each of them their job titles and how long they had been with the organization. Nothing else. This early sign of non-engagement was reinforced when the top executive furtively checked her phone for emails throughout the presentation.

We presented our perspective as strategic partners on brand strategy and our approach to establishing and maintaining a consistent look, voice and actions of a brand; they were interested in our ability as vendors to follow graphic standards and work on tight budgets. Fair enough. This is why it would have been helpful if they were available to give us some input before our meeting.

And that sets up my point.

Previously in this blog, I’ve talked about the disconnect many organizations have between their Mission, Vision, Values and Purpose, and their Brand. Check out the values of this organization:

Integrity, Compassion, Accountability, Respect, Excellence

Note how the first letters of each value spells out I CARE. Well this executive team acted like it couldn’t care less about our meeting.

So the question is, if the organization/brand has values of compassion and respect, does that just apply to its customers? Shouldn’t it also apply to employees, strategic partners and even potential vendors? Think about the person who is exceedingly compassionate and respectful to people with whom s/he does business, but treats the waiter like dirt: is that person authentically compassionate and respectful? And if you don’t hold yourself accountable for living the organization’s values, where is the integrity in that? Or the excellence?

Most marketing and branding departments own their responsibility to manage the brand look and message to “customers.” But how many think to own the responsibility of acting the brand values to all stakeholders—internal and external? Even vendors? I once heard that it takes 10 positive comments to counter one negative comment. Imagine how many negative comments are generated in the community when a vendor is treated poorly? (Note: The purpose of this post is not to call out a particular organization; rather, to use the experience as a learning moment for me and my readers. I do, however, admit to feeling differently about this organization and its leadership than I did before the meeting.)

So, after all my ranting, what is the true cost of behaving badly in a meeting? Is it a marketing and branding team’s responsibility to set the example for how a brand should act? Or is this too much to ask, and is it enough to just manage the brand’s look and message?

What do you think?

How does curiosity get piqued? What is the value of being curious? And, most importantly, what can you do to become more curious?

Wondering why I ask these questions? It’s because I’ve noticed a paradox in my work facilitating innovation and change leadership: Professionals who are considered experts, are naturally evaluated by what they already know. The prevailing thought is, “Experts get paid a lot of money to know, so it might look bad for them to question their own knowledge.” Perhaps they consider questions the sign of a novice; or worse yet, something over which children obsess. Expertise and knowledge, then, can be a barrier to curiosity; yet, curiosity is what built the knowledge and expertise in the first place.

Here is what I mean by curiosity being at the root of knowledge and expertise, as well as the driver of innovation and change leadership:

1. Curiosity drives active learning.

As a way to illustrate the potential power of curiosity on our proclivity to learn, I can imagine this difference between a naturally curious person—or active learner—and myself in my usual reactive learner mode:

ME: I touch a hot stove and I learn to never do that again. It hurts!

NATURALLY CURIOUS PERSON: Learns the same thing I did when touching a hot stove, but then asks, what makes the stove hot? How do people feel pain from heat? How does the skin heal itself? What are the common factors that make people touch hot stoves? And on and on! These questions could lead to learning about physics, medicine, psychology, risk management—curiosity naturally opens up new avenues to knowledge. Because of curiosity, maybe someone will invent a stove top that cooks food without being hot to the touch. Maybe we’ll get an instant burn-healing ointment—or some sort of smart-alarm that senses when a cook gets too close to the burner.

Active learning drives innovation.

The point is, innovation, itself, is a learning exercise. In other words, innovation doesn’t come from knowing, it comes from asking. There’s a risk to this when you have to ask, “Have I been defining the right goal? Have I been solving the right problem? Do I understand the nuance of context? Are there motivations I haven’t yet considered? All of these are hard questions for an expert to ask. Still, you must be curious and open to exploring all the uncharted paths on which your questions take you—even if (and here’s your second risk) you have no assurance it will lead you to the promise land of innovation. Albert Einstein is a great endorsement for following curiosity’s many paths. When asked about his work process, he said, “How do I work? I grope.”

Curiosity drives engagement (which drives change).

Here’s something else I’ve noticed: When I’m naturally curious, I  become naturally more engaged. Sometimes it’s a desire to fill gaps in my knowledge. Other times, my curiosity is piqued by a problem to be solved…something to figure out. So now, if I’m not feeling engaged in something that I know I should be, I try to become curious. What is the one question I can ask that will invest me in a meeting, in a task, in a conversation? How can I use my curiosity to engage in and lead change?

This all leads me back to one of my initial questions: What can you do to become more curious? I know I could do better, so I’m just asking…