Brand navigation by North Star

Great Wave of Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai

Great Wave of Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai

Whether you’re a non-profit organization or a business, the marketplace has much in common with the sea.  It’s rough, dangerous, unpredictable, and survival is dependent on one’s exceptional navigation and leadership skills.

As an avid sailor, it is fitting that Michel Viau, President and CEO of Ove Brand | Design, sees branding as the North Star for companies large and small. Just as sailors used the North Star to determine their location, Viau says that the strategic branding process can give organizations and leaders a clear picture of who they are and where they are going. “A successful branding program can create clarity of expression and articulation, empowering organizations to cut through the clutter and reach their goals,” says Viau.

The strategic branding process requires companies to examine their mission, vision, values and brand promise; essentially, their DNA. Previously held assumptions about goals and objectives are tested and gaps in understanding identified. Ultimately, the process engages key stakeholders in dialogue and galvanizes them around a central idea about the company’s raison d’ètre and where it’s going.

It can be an uncomfortable process because it often pushes business leaders into new and unfamiliar territories. An authentic and long-term partnership between the client and an agency such as Ove Brand | Design is therefore critical. “Issues can arise when clients continue to see us as an external resource and expect turn-key solutions without us being involved in the organization,” explains Viau.

Corporate branding is a relatively recent discipline. It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s that businesses began to see themselves as the main expression of the brand. Prior to that, a company’s logo and product packaging were the main vehicles used to connect with consumers. “Back then, when a company said they needed to create a name, they didn’t say “we need to create a brand,” explains Viau.

Viau and his team of brand strategists, designers and marketing communications professionals were early adopters of a strategic approach to brand development, and have since helped build many successful brands, including BMO Financial Group, Sun Life Financial, SNC-Lavalin, the University Health Network and Toronto Pearson International Airport.

“My informal measure of success is seeing the impact of our work,” says Viau. “I’m extremely proud that we’ve helped create brands that work at the consumer level and are relevant and enduring in their expression over time.”

When asked what is the key to a successful branding program, Viau smiles and answers, “Never loose sight of the North Star.”

Note about the above article:  I’ve had the pleasure of working with Ove both as a client and an employee.  I’ve always admired Ove’s  unique approach towards building and strengthening great brands, and I’m pleased to be able to share it with others here.    

7 lessons in 7 months: tips for transforming your career

For the last seven months I’ve had the opportunity to start my own fledgling marketing communications consultancy and this blog. The experience has been both personally and professionally rewarding, and has transformed the way I approach my career and the rapidly changing field of marketing communications. I thought it was about time that I created some take-aways from this experience that other practitioners could both benefit from and add to.

1. Hustle.  Whether you own a successful business or have a pretty steady gig, you can’t afford to get complacent about your career. A good approach is to think about your career like an entrepreneur would approach a business, and never take anything for granted.

2. Make a Plan.  Creating a mission, vision and values statement can help you focus on your unique strengths and distinguish you in the marketplace. Conduct a SWOT and draft a plan that will help align your skills to the demands of the marketplace. Create goals and objectives for your career and a road map for how you’re going to reach them. You can alter your path as necessary, but your mission, vision and values should steer your course.

3. Grow your network. LinkedIn, Twitter, Blogs and other social media sites offer powerful opportunities to connect with thought leaders and peers. Professional associations like the International Association of Business Communicators, the American Marketing Association and the Canadian Marketing Association run networking and educational events. The choices are limited only by your time and means.

4. Take risks. What opportunities are available? What are you willing to risk in order to succeed? While you should understand your own risk tolerance before you undertake any new ventures, you should also aim to push yourself out of your comfort zone, as this is where the real professional and personal growth occurs.

5. Invest in yourself. In this economy you need to continually assess what investments you need to make in yourself in order to succeed. What is the time, effort and cost involved? What is realistic in terms of your personal obligations and work/life balance? There are a dizzying array of informal and formal education and networking opportunities out there, so make sure your decisions are strategic and align with your plan.

6. Ask for support. Family, friends, professional networks and mentors can provide a valuable source of objective advice and support. Don’t be afraid to reach-out beyond your network both online and in person.

7. Don’t fear failure.  If we never experience failure, we can’t fully enjoy or appreciate our successes. It’s easier said than done, but it’s important to develop a thick skin and not take things personally. As entrepreneur Michael Dearing explains recently in the New York Times, “I thought I had one shot to be successful. I had no idea that my career — or anybody’s career — is actually a multiround process and that you had many, many at-bats.” (Following Your Bliss, Right Off the Cliff. The New York Times. March 25, 2013)

What key lessons have you learned that you can pass on to others? Take a few moments to share your own experiences here and add to the list.

Measuring what matters: a guide to calculating social return on investment (SROI)

measuring_success-300x214In a previous blog post, I introduced the concept of Social Return on Investment, or SROI. Developed by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), SROI is a tool that helps non-profits measure the impact of their programs and services in economic terms. Below I’ve created a fictional case study that illustrates how a non-profit called The Toronto Literacy Foundation determined its SROI. Please note that I based this case study on the NEF article Measuring social impact: the foundation of social return on investment (SROI).

Case Study: The Toronto Literacy Foundation

Founded in 2003, The Toronto Literacy Foundation (TLF) is a small non-profit that delivers literacy programs to elementary school students in Toronto, Ontario. In response to a major government research study linking high school illiteracy to high school drop-out rates, criminal activity and unemployment, the Board decided to create a three-year pilot program for high school students. Board members initially raised $146,000 for the pilot program from four donors: two private philanthropists, one corporation and one foundation.

The organization developed what the NEF calls a theory of change, which is a statement about the big picture impact the program will have. TLF’s theory of change was:

High school students with strong literacy skills graduate high school and contribute socially and economically to their communities.

Stakeholder Analysis

Once funding was secured, the TLF undertook a stakeholder analysis that helped the organization gain key insights into how they were going to define success and communicate it to their various stakeholders. The stakeholder analysis asked the following questions:

  1. Who are the people that matter to us and what are their objectives?
  2. How should we prioritize our stakeholders?
  3. What do our stakeholders determine as “success”?
  4. What metrics can we use to measure success?
  5. Are our current internal and external communications efforts targeting the right stakeholders with the right messages via the proper channels?

Developing Key Performance Indicators

Guided by the stakeholder analysis and benchmarking data gathered from comparable organizations or programs, the TLF identified short and long-term key performance indicators (KPI’s). Short term or “tangible results” included things like the number of students enrolled in the program. Long-term indicators looked at the impact of achieving these goals over time, such as an increase in literacy that had a positive effect on learning outcomes or employment opportunities.

Key Performance indicators, March 24, 2013

Once the TLF identified their KPI’s, they adjusted the outcomes to take into account what would have happened irrespective of the program (such as students who would have graduated or a found a job regardless).

The tool below helped the TLF estimate that by year three, 8,272 students will have gone through program – which works out to a financial investment of just over $17 per student – little more than the price of a movie.

SROI tool March 24, 2013

To calculate their SROI, the organization looked at the economic impact of the program on outcomes like the increase in student’s incomes as they succeeded in finding employment, a reduction in government social assistance and crime related costs. Their research was informed by government statistics, surveys and the help of a public policy consultant.

These tools helped the TLF improve ongoing program management and evaluation and communicate the value of the program to their stakeholders in a relevant, useful and transparent way.


From the outset of the new high school literacy program, the TLF identified the KPI’s that would be a priority for their internal and external stakeholders. They created a ”theory of change” that they could substantiate with their SROI evaluation.  As a result, the TLF was able to communicate powerful, transparent and relevant stories about the program and its social and economic impact on the community.


Interested in learning more about measuring SROI?  Here are some links to some great resources:

London Business School and the New Economics Foundation. (2004) Measuring social impact: the foundation of social return on investment (SROI).

Delta Project. (2008) Calculating Cost-return on investments in student success.

Lessons learned from the Yahoo! employee memo

On February 22, disgruntled Yahoo! employees leaked a staff memo that ironically began with “YAHOO! PROPRIETARY AND CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION — DO NOT FORWARD” to Kara Swisher, Co-Executive Editor of (owned by Dow Jones).  The memo explained that executive management was bringing an end to Yahoo’s work-from-home policies because they “want everyone to participate in our culture and contribute to the positive momentum…and that starts with physically being together.”

The memo quickly went viral and caused an uproar on social and news media sites. There are a few reasons why it caused such a stir. The first is its dictatorial, condescending tone, which is at odds with the values and philosophy Yahoo! is trying to promote, resulting in a “do what I say, not what I do” approach to employee communications. Another is its lack of empathy for the employees effected by this change in policy.

The result is a revealing gap in trust between management and employees. A comment on AllThingsD by Angus Swan explains the memo speaks to “a tension and distrust between management and rank-and-file”:

Angus Swan Comment re Yahoo

Further compounding the problem is that Yahoo! has remained strangely quiet about the issue, leading to further speculation and opinion from mommy bloggers accusing Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayers of setting women back 20 years, to business writers speculating that employees are being called in to be examined pre-layoffs, to Richard Branson’s comment on the Virgin company blog that stated: “To successfully work with other people, you have to trust each other. A big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision. “

D’Aprix and Fagan-Smith write in Open Communication Cultures: Best Practices In A Changing World, “Internal communication is the top factor in determining a CEO’s reputation, which in turn is critical to shareholder value (Burson-Marstellar). The reaction to this memo poses a significant reputational threat with potential consequences for Yahoo!’s bottom line. Rather than remaining silent, Yahoo! should have immediately gained control of the discourse by employing the following approaches:

1. Empathise and reassure those affected: recognise that employees who are affected by this change in policy may need additional supports. Ensure them that their jobs are safe and that executive management see them as key to Yahoo!’s success.

2. Acknowledge responsibility: the dictatorial tone of the memo is not congruent with Yahoo!’s values of collaboration and innovation. Admit the disconnect here and assure employees that Yahoo! will learn from its mistakes and do better next time.

3. Open the communication channels: As Sarah Perry writes in her article Internal Crisis Communications, a company’s employees are “perhaps your most important ‘stakeholders’ during a crisis. Poor internal crisis communications can undermine all your efforts to manage a crisis externally, and the lack of trust, low morale, employee turnover and poor customer relations that result can compound the issues you face.” Creating a more open communication culture and encouraging feedback from staff about the work-from-home policy and other HR issues could help create a foundation of trust that Yahoo! can lean on when a true crisis hits.

After all, employee trust is not something that can be bought with an iPhone5 or free food; trust is earned.

What do you think of the memo and the resulting fallout? How do you think Yahoo! should have responded?

workban comic xlrg

Towards an “optimized” state of mind

In his new book Optimize: How to Attract and Engage More Customers by Integrating SEO, Social Media, and Content Marketing, Lee Odden, CEO of TopRank Online Marketing offers a practical approach for companies and business leaders to “integrate search and social media optimization with content to boost their relevance and visibility for potential customers” (Lee Odden, Optimize).

The book is organized into three parts or phases:

Phase 1: Explores changing customer preferences and behaviors with search, social media and content and what that means for your online marketing strategy.

Phase 2: Explains online content marketing tactics including developing buyer personas, social networking, content marketing and measurement.

Phase 3: Focuses on scale and the processes and training you’ll need to grow and maintain an integrated social media, SEO and content marketing strategy.

Each part of the book is structured to help business leaders build a foundation for a strong and integrated SEO, social media and content marketing strategy. Statistics and case-studies help illustrate Odden’s points, and he refers to media tools such as Radian6, wordtracker and Up Close and Persona that can help businesses reach their goals.

The strength of the book is in the emphasis it places on the importance of content as the basis of search. Odden explains that in order to attract, engage and inspire customers to buy, marketers must understand how customers like to discover, consume and act on information – at all stages of the buying process. He advocates strongly for “knowing thy customers” and developing “customer personas.”

A concept originally developed in 1994 by Angus Jenkinson, personas are “fictional characters from different segments of your market” (Lee Odden, Optimize). Odden makes a very clear and strong case for why personas, as opposed to keywords, should guide your content creation and optimization efforts. After all, “keywords don’t buy products and services—customers do” (Lee Odden, Optimize).

I also like Odden’s philosophical approach to the topic.  He begins the book with a personal story about wanting to take his public speaking skills to another level, and realizing he could apply the same principles found in Optimize to improve his public speaking skills.  He explains that this experience taught him that anything can be optimized for better performance, and that optimization is as much a state of mind as an approach to integrated search, social and content marketing.

On the more critical side, despite being written for “the masses”, I found the content a little complex and the area covered quite vast. I felt that I lacked some of the conceptual framework for the material that would have led to a fuller learning experience.

This leads me to the main issue I had with Optimize: one of writing style. Optimize reads as if it has been optimized for search, perhaps because some content was originally written for online audiences on the TopRank Marketing blog. The result is writing that is at times mechanical and lacking in a more human touch. To an extent, Optimize isn’t fully “optimized” for print audiences.

Despite this, the book is full of gold nuggets of information. I would recommend it and will return to it again to uncover more of those nuggets.

Zappos: an open communication culture that inspires employee engagement

Tony Hsieh, CEO Zappos

Tony Hsieh, CEO Zappos
Source: http://www.businessinnovationfactory

I recently read an article by internal communication gurus Roger D’Aprix and Barbara Fagan-Smith called Open Communication Cultures In A Changing World. In a nutshell, the authors look at the positive effect of open communication on bottom line business results. They define an open communication culture as one “in which non-confidential and non-proprietary information is actively and freely shared with both employees and interested stakeholders with the leadership’s blessing and proactive participation.”

This made me think about what companies like Zappos are doing right with regards to internal communication. Established in 1999 and bought by Amazon in 2009 for $1.2 billion, Zappos is a $1 billion online retail business with 1,400 employees. Despite its impressive growth, Zappos maintains an open communication culture that inspires employee engagement. For example, Zappos publishes an annual “Culture Book” that’s “a collage of unedited submissions from employees within the Zappos Family of companies sharing what the Zappos culture means to them…it reflects the true feelings, thoughts and opinions of the employees.” Zappos also encourages employees to get involved on the company’s social networks, and hosts a micro-twitter site for staff. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh actually posts some of his correspondence to employees on Twitter. It can’t get more transparent than that.

Do you think that open communication cultures have a positive influence on bottom line results? Are open communication cultures more effective at handling the various crises and challenges that come their way? How can closed communication cultures become more open?

What gets measured gets done

In my last blog post I talked about how non-profits can uncover their most powerful stories by analysing their Social Return on Investment, or SROI.  The first step towards understanding your SROI is to create a business plan that’s focused on your long-term goals.

Like your creed or mission statement, your goals should, as much as possible, guide everything that you do.  Every project you take on, event you create, or communications plan you draft, should have clear outcomes that align with your mission statement and business goals.

It seems simple enough, but for values-driven non-profits, having a business plan with associated metrics can seem better suited to the for-profit realm.  After all, they’re not in it for the money.

But I’m going to argue here that they should be, at least partially, about the money.  Or more accurately, the savings.  Non-profits can deliver services in a highly cost-efficient way; in doing so, they can create long-term social value that saves governments millions of dollars (note that the word “social” also refers to economic and environmental). In a sense, the term “non-profit” is bit of a misnomer.

Capturing the social value your organization creates will allow you to demonstrate the impact of donor dollars.  There are many other reasons why you should measure this, including:

  • Improved programme management, including more effective planning and evaluation
  • Increased understanding of the impact of your work
  • Stronger communication of the value of your work to ‘the people that matter’ (internal and external stakeholders)
  • Enhanced attention to the social, economic and environmental value created by your business or organisation*

In a future blog post, I’ll outline a step-by-step process that can help non-profits measure what gets done.

*Source:  London Business School and the New Economics Foundation. (2004) Measuring social impact: the foundation of social return on investment (SROI).

Social Return On Investment (SROI) for non-profits

The non-profit sector employs 1.2 million Canadians and raises $24 million for projects in Canada and around the world.  In 2012, over 13.3 million Canadians age 15 and over volunteered with a non-profit, and almost 84 percent of Canadians donated to one.

Non-profits are an important pillar in our society.  They play a significant role in the economy, in the lives of those they help or enrich, and in our national psyche, as they allow us to give back to a cause that’s bigger than ourselves.

Why then is it so hard for non-profits to measure the impact they have?  By measurement, I’m not talking about how many homework clubs run, endangered species saved, or schools built.  These are fairly easy results to track – and they are important.  But they only tell one side of the story.

The other side is the long-term value, or social return on investment (SROI) that non-profits create for society.  It’s unfortunate that this story rarely gets told, as it’s the most compelling one for donors to hear.

Measuring the SROI can be complicated and require resources, but the results will help non-profits make a stronger case for giving and ensure that they are spending their donor dollars wisely.  In my next blog post I’ll look at how non-profits can measure SROI and uncover their most powerful stories.

Advertising Canada’s Economic Action Plan

Photo Credit: John Geddes. Originally published in Maclean’s Magazine, Monday, October 22, 2012

I was in my car yesterday listening to a compelling show on CBC’s The Current called Canada’s Economic Action Plan (EAP): Is this Prosperity or Propaganda? The subject was the amount the government is spending on advertising the EAP.  The program looked at how effective the advertising campaign has been over time and asked who was benefiting.

Intrigued, I did a bit more research and learned that, from 2009 – 2010, $53.2 million in taxpayer dollars was spent on EAP advertising.   The spring 2012 television campaign alone cost the Finance Department $4.9 million. (The Toronto Star, Sunday, February 17, 2013)

In April 2012, the Privy Council Office conducted a post-advertising analysis that surveyed the impact of the campaign on 1,000 Canadians.   Of those surveyed, 33 percent could recall the ads, but only 20 percent, or one in five Canadians remembered any details.  Only seven percent were compelled to take action, such as go to the EAP website. (The Toronto Star, Sunday, February 17, 2013)

According to these stats, it therefore cost $22 to drive one person to the website or take some other action such as fill out a form, write a complaint or follow on Twitter.  In the same survey, the Privy Council analysis also noted a bump of five percent in government approval ratings between those who had not seen the ads and those who had.

The goal of the EAP campaign is to help provide Canadians with tools to improve their personal finances and boost consumer confidence.  Based on the above stats, do you think this is money well-spent towards achieving these goals?  I’d love to hear what you think.

Moving from communications order taker to strategic value creator



Have you ever experienced the following scenario:

The telephone rings and it’s your boss. “Hello Ms Communications Person.  Registration for the International Conference of The Circus Arts is dramatically down compared to previous years.  We need a marketing campaign to increase registration…Pronto!” Click.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of one of these calls, you’ll know that they can make you feel like you’re the one living in a circus. The questions that go through your mind may include:

  • Why did my boss choose a marketing campaign as the tactic to increase registration?
  • What does the conference manager think of this approach?
  • Why is registration low this year anyway?
  • Is this the right approach to solving the problem?

Marketing communications professionals owe it to themselves and their employers to move from being “order takers” to “value creators.”  There are many models out there that can help you become more strategic.  A really useful model for communicators is called “ComAdd” for Communication, Analysis, Design and Development.

I recently learned about ComAdd in Ithaca College’s course Needs Analysis and Performance Consulting.  Developed by Diane Gayeski, Dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications and founder of Gayeski Analytics, this model can help you establish the communications function as a strategic asset in your organization.

Here are some tips inspired by the ComAdd model that can help move you from being an “order taker” to a “value creator”:

  1. Identify the performance gap.  This is done by describing the big picture goal and contrasting it with the current reality.
  2. Ask why certain performance issues or behaviour are occurring.  What are the barriers, incentives and disincentives to doing well?
  3. Could the job, environment or work process be redesigned?  As Gayeski notes, “Most performance problems are the fault of the engineering of the organization, not the fault of individuals.  Most people come to work wanting to do a good job.” (SCM. Vol. 8, Issue 5, 2004)

The process of applying the ComAdd model is tantamount to peeling an onion.  Each layer must be appreciated before you can uncover the most appropriate solutions. What you discover may surprise you…and add another tool to your communications toolbox.