posted by Michael Powelson Nov 24,2015 @ 08:00AM

Smart brands embrace a human rhythm

They are the very first sounds you hear on the record. And if the story surrounding them is true, the man responsible may still cringe every time he listens.


In 1982, Kenny Aronoff was a classically trained percussionist who’d declined posts with prestigious symphonies to back up a stalled rock-and-roller with a phony last name. In the studio to record the singer’s third, and possibly last, album, Aronoff was struggling with perfection in a very rare way:  He’d attained it, and it was ruining everything.

Years of regimented instruction had turned Aronoff into a metronome, his sense of timing so impeccably precise that it now sounded artificial to his boss. This is when John “Cougar” embraced his inner Mellencamp and gave a seemingly ridiculous order.

“Put the hi-hat on the left,” he told his drummer. This completely reoriented the percussionist’s tools in a way that intentionally put him at a disadvantage. Aronoff, who’d been right handed his entire life, was being told to play lefty.

Listen to the first six measures of “Hurt So Good” and the result is a visceral one.  How else should a salute to youthful indiscretion begin? The song is recklessly alive before a single melodic note is struck, and it’s because Aronoff has been pushed to the edge of his abilities. He’s simply trying to hang on, and the resulting tension sparks a current of wild abandon that surges all the way through American Fool. The album will go on to sell more than five million copies and change the lives of all involved. It isn’t perfect. It’s indelible.

As someone who makes his living leading a creative team in developing memorable, unexpected brand communications, I find some valuable lessons here about the benefits of stretching beyond your comfort zone. But for other business leaders, I think the takeaway of authenticity might be the larger pearl.

That’s because the most common mistake I see business communicators make doesn’t stem from a fear of pushing themselves or trying new things. It comes as a result of their attempt to be perfect.

Moreover, the marketing industry isn’t doing a lot to help them. Turn your attention to the nearest commercial break, corporate website or glossy print ad and odds are you’ll run smack into messaging that strikes utopian chords few of us living in the real world can identify with. Still, the biggest problem with feigning perfection isn’t disbelief. It’s boredom. As anyone who’s spent time in a coloring book or romantic relationship knows, perfection is hopelessly dull.

Why? Because human beings are drawn to things they relate to. And no matter how aspirational we claim to be, flawlessness isn’t one of those things. It’s no surprise that the most successful businesses are those that have stopped trying to be everything to everyone. Or that the brands making some of the biggest strides are the ones who have dropped the Stepford act, resisted Madison Avenue’s default conceit and allowed themselves to be exactly what they are: well-meaning, imperfect, contradictory, temperamental human experiments. In other words, mirror images of the customers they hope to attract.

So, be it on a website or in an elevator, the next time you communicate on behalf of your business, consider putting the hi-hat on the left. Lose yourself a bit. Speak from the gut. Be passionate. Be vulnerable. And trust that if you show your audience something real—that less-than-perfect, honest-to-god essence of your brand—they’re a thousand times more likely to see themselves reflected in it.

Remember, people want a heartbeat, not a metronome.



posted by Kevin Smith Oct 28,2015 @ 08:00AM

How We Spend Money

1920s: We outspent ourselves.

1930s: Then we spent nothing.

1940s: We spent only when necessary.

1950s - 1980s: After that, we spent as instructed.

1990s - 2008: We outspent ourselves -- again.

2008 -  2010: Then we spent nothing.

It may have been a cycle, but it isn’t anymore. It’s not that “this time is different.” Every time has been different to a degree. I don’t believe we are in the midst of a modest recovery that will ultimately culminate in another glory decade or two.

I believe the next phase is: “We started caring how we spent.”

The number of brands connected to causes or giving back or being more sustainable is growing by the minute. That’s a trend. I hope it continues. But there is a broader and likely more permanent business context.

Companies that articulate and demonstrate a clear purpose are succeeding. Some might be charitable in nature, but this is not a prerequisite. Given pervasive marketing, given that we are all time-starved and attention-impaired, consumers are choosing to spend money with companies that demonstrate clarity.

Kick Starter announced last week that it will not sell or go public – ever. They are committed to helping fund creative projects, and see reporting to shareholders as a potential distraction to that end. Southwest has held true to its mission of democratizing the air, and stands by the slogan: “bags fly free.” Meanwhile, CVS made the decision to focus on its customers’ health and stop selling tobacco products. As I write this, several of our local network affiliates are providing uninterrupted coverage of Columbia’s tragic flood. They’ve decided to focus on their primary purpose as an affiliate – reporting local news.

This is not marketing, but purpose-based decision making. This is leadership. Clear business decisions driven by a company’s mission and core values. These decisions may at first seem counter intuitive, but they provide clarity both internally and externally. The outcome is loyalty and profit.

Our marketplace has never been more crowded and communication channels have never been more fragmented. Most marketing programs have become a scattershot of tactics. In this environment, purpose and the clarity it yields brings customers in the door and keeps them coming back.

A recent Gallup poll found that only 28 percent of employees strongly agree with the statement "I know what my company stands for and what makes our brand(s) different from our competitors." The same poll found that when customers can see alignment between a company’s purpose and its behavior, they give it twice the share of wallet.

Given this dynamic, I am shocked at how few companies have a clear sense of purpose. Mission statements and core values abound, but they are most often anything substantive. If one of your company’s core values includes integrity, this most likely includes you. Basic honesty is not a core value. Being “best in class” or “providing excellence” is not a mission. A committee of employees assigned to work on the mission statement typically leads to general platitudes on which everyone can agree. Unfortunately, committees rarely offer organizational clarity or existential intent.

Ask instead: Why were we created? What would be lost if we were gone? You and your coworkers have to know why you show up each day, beyond making money. In doing so, I believe you’ll make a whole lot more of it. 

posted by Teresa Coles Sep 23,2015 @ 05:11PM

The social company as bedrock for success

Open any business book or magazine these days, and you’re likely to encounter narrative around the benefits of being a “social” company. In fact, there are no less than 131,960 book results on Amazon under this exact heading.

What's that all about? And how could there possibly be this much fodder around the concept? Corporate social responsibility and the use of social media appear to have grabbed the microphone on this issue, given the prolific conversations in each of these two spaces.


The path of corporate social responsibility

Corporate social responsibility has made its way from a self-regulatory construct for major corporations in the 1960s to an element of the “triple bottom line” in the 1990s. Practices include a wide range of endeavors, from environmental sustainability and product innovation to skills-based employee volunteerism and corporate philanthropy. In 2011, the concept of corporate social responsibility was identified as a driver to creating shared value (CSV) by Michael Porter of Harvard Business School fame. This advanced model seeks to link economic and societal factors through conscious decisions that:

  • Identify unmet human needs.
  • Inform new products and services.
  • Optimize productivity in the value chain.
  • Build economic development clusters.

Social media, the great connector

The skilled use of social media has been credited as a catalyst on a seemingly endless list of strategic corporate objectives: trend and product launches; long-term brand influence; short-term sales; customer service; venture capital; crisis management; recruiting, and many other areas. While there’s no denying the impact of social media on these business imperatives, some thought leaders contend that the deification of social media can sometimes become a crutch for corporate leadership and effective decision-making.

 Which brings us to the third — and I submit, most meaningful — definition of what it means to be a social company.


Social core, social company, social brand

Social companies are those in which culture, products and services are in complete alignment with the organization’s purpose, vision and mission. These corporate beliefs impact everything in the company, starting with internal behavioral systems. For example, employees in social companies behave in a way that is highly collaborative, self-sacrificing and committed to group interests. Employees in companies that are more transactional — as opposed to social — typically are less collaborative and guided by their own self-interests.

The business world has become familiar with the characteristics of social companies through the work of leading authors such as Jim Collins, Seth Godin, Stephen Covey, Terrence Deal and others. They’ve exposed us to the social infrastructure that has defined success for companies such as Amazon, Google, UPS, Hewlett Packard, Southwest Airlines, IKEA, Trader Joe’s and many others. Their research has yielded data that clearly connects social companies to higher performance levels; one study indicates that social companies consistently perform at three times the Standard & Poor’s average.

Social companies achieve this kind of outward, quantifiable success by connecting their cultural expectations to exceptional product and service delivery systems, then bringing those to market through highly authentic brand marketing. There’s no question that the Patagonia brand is a direct reflection of Patagonia, the social company. Newer companies like Warby Parker and Harry’s are bringing fresh interpretations of what it means to be a social company, and their performance is there to back it up.


Size does not make social

Being a social company is in no way restricted to Fortune 500 corporations or national retailers. Any company — no matter the size or type of market — can apply the principles of social business. All it takes is the willingness to stop and consider three important whys:

  • Why your company really exists.
  • Why defining your belief structure is important.
  • Why the way you deliver your product and service is key.

Understanding these three concepts paves the way to an effective internal culture and an external brand that resonates with the market.

I believe American business is on the precipice of creating more value for humankind than ever before. As a marketer, it’s my great pleasure to work with companies that realize this and are building cultural and operational systems that support it. The social company knows its core, nurtures it and demonstrates it in the market. Executed well, success is the only outcome.


This post originally appeared as a column in Columbia Regional Business Report.

posted by Taylor Craig Sep 03,2015 @ 04:34PM

What Public Relations Professionals Actually Do

I declared my major as public relations during my sophomore year of college. Admittedly, at the time I wasn’t quite sure what exactly public relations entailed. Well, surely it involves dealing with people, right? I’m outgoing. I can do that, I thought. Three years, hundreds of writing assignments and a post-grad apprenticeship later, I’m realizing that a lot of people may not understand what public relations is—I know I didn’t. When I say that I work in public relations, I usually get responses like, “So you’re an event planner?” or “That’s cool, my aunt is also in marketing!”

Yes, part of my job is event planning, and digital marketing can go hand-in-hand with public relations to create an integrated campaign. But neither of those things fully describes what public relations professionals do. From the outside, the profession seems confusing. I experienced that confusion myself. I am now in the third month of my public relations apprenticeship at Riggs Partners, and I just finished planning and managing two huge events in two weeks alongside Kelly Davis, our public relations director. Together, these events have given me firsthand insight into what public relations professionals actually do.

1)   Planning – A crucial part of public relations is strategic planning. Planning encompasses almost every other aspect of public relations within itself. Planning for public relations includes research, establishing goals, formulating outreach and response strategies, implementing communications tactics, and evaluation. Public relations professionals must plan for what will happen and what probably won’t happen. In the words of one of my favorite professors, “Nothing just happens—if you are at all related to it, you are responsible for it.”

2)   Writing – In college, my professors always stressed the importance of writing in public relations. It is imperative to be an effective communicator in this profession. A large portion of my time is spent writing news releases, media advisories, story pitches, and social media posts. Proofreading is essential.

3)   Educating – One responsibility of public relations professionals is to educate and engage the public. From an agency perspective, this task varies greatly from client to client. In my experience, educating the public has meant spreading the word about a free service that people may be eligible for, informing people about an upcoming industry conference and encouraging them to register, or simply raising awareness about an important issue in the community. Another quote from that same professor, “In public relations, information is power.”


4)   Media Relations – One way to educate the public is to engage media participation in spreading the word about different issues and events. Part of our job as public relations professionals is to help the media do their jobs well. Media relations is much more than writing a fill-in-the-blank press release and distributing it to as many media outlets as possible. Instead, you must consider the audience you are trying to engage and focus on the media outlets that would be the most in-line with their needs. It is important to provide media with all necessary information and to connect them with the appropriate people for interviews to best tell your story. If you leave media hanging, they’re left to draw their own conclusions—which isn’t beneficial for anyone.

5)   Monitoring – Another large part of public relations is monitoring media coverage. If you sought media coverage of an event or story about your organization, it is important to check the coverage you earned for accuracy. Monitoring allows you to see which aspects were conveyed well and which aspects may not have been, and may teach you what to avoid for next time.

So yes, public relations professionals are event planners. And yes, they can be involved with marketing. But they’re also storytellers, crisis managers, media contacts, writers, researchers, educators, and so much more. As we wrap up a hectic summer, I feel incredibly thankful for the knowledge I’ve gained so far here at Riggs. These three months as a public relations apprentice have given me hands-on experience that has changed how I see public relations as a profession.

And perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned the importance of coffee (for those 4 a.m. news shots).


Kelly and me meeting the TV stations before Dental Access Days at 4 a.m.

posted by Michael Powelson Sep 02,2015 @ 12:23PM

Circa 1995

Three to five years.  That's the current lifespan of the average client/agency relationship. I'm not here to bless, bemoan or belabor this. It is, as we so poignantly say now, what it is.

But it's also a telling lens through which to note a remarkable milestone for one of our most remarkable clients.

Last Friday, First Community Bank celebrated its 20th anniversary. What began in 1995 with two banking offices, has grown into a publicly traded, multi-state entity that tallied more than 800 million dollars in assets last year.


Such growth has been achieved, in large part, by remaining steadfast to core principles. Sound fiscal planning. A commitment to relationships. And most importantly, a focus on, and loyalty to local businesses.

Including this one.

You see, last month also marked our 20th year as First Community's marketing partner. In all that time, they've done more than change the way we think about banking. They've shaped the way we think about business. First Community's insight and inspiration bleeds into just about every other account we work on. For their achievement, we could not be more grateful, nor they more deserving.

To Mike, Robin and the hundreds of other diligent and talented individuals that have made this anniversary possible, we offer the most heartfelt of congratulations.

Here's to you and all the homes, communities and businesses you've made better.

Including this one.


First Community's first ad, circa 1995:
First Community's first ad, circa 1995
Twenty years later:




By the numbers

youtube is 2nd largest search engine