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January 2012
Cropped 2011 head shotHere We Go Again! 

Happy New Year, everyone!

January is a wierd time to start a "new year." The school year is September-June (July and August are freebies), and organizational calendars tend to reflect the same pattern. In Ancient Rome, March started the year, probably because of the equinox, and the rebirth of agriculture and "life" in the Spring. That's why the last four months of the year have names indicating that they are the 7th through the 10th months. The time between December and March was considered "dead time" and did not even have names.
Happily, we are starting off 2012 with a flurry of business! Hope you are off to a good start, too. 

The Failure In The Midst of SuccessMall shoppers cropped 


This holiday season, retailers rejoiced at substantial sales increases of as much as 3.5%-4%. Not so, Sears.

This iconic brand, nearly 120 years old, may be going the way of Wanamakers. The latter, which dismissed the post-World War II demographic shift from urban to suburban settings, lost out to Sears and other department stores that DID respond to that shift. Now, Sears, which merged with KMart in 2005, seems to have turned up its nose at capital investments in its real estate, and instead plowed its profits into repurchasing stock.


This unfortunate turn of events highlights the importance of keeping one's brand fresh. It's great to have a long history (stability, reliability) but it's a big mistake to rest on those laurels, allowing the brand to become stale. Shoppers are often fickle, looking for the next new "cool" place to shop. It is well known that retail environments are critical in spurring purchases--hence, scented air, calming lighting, new displays, and music. Sears ignored all of this, allowing their stores to become "shabby" and "uninviting" (according to Associated Press, 12/27). Brian Sozzi, an independent retail analyst said, "There's no reason to go to Sears. It offers a depressing shopping experience and uncompetitive prices." Even the addition of Land's End merchandise to Sears stores couldn't help.


This is yet another example of a senior management not paying attention to what is going on "in the trenches." Competitive pressures have a number of sources, related to the Four Ps of marketing (discussed in last month's newsletter): new products, pricing strategies, online shopping and in-store experiences, and promotions. In Sears' case, they seem to have missed on all four Ps, leaving shoppers unmotivated to visit and purchase. There's an interesting article in Social Science Research Network that explains what happens when managers become overconfident in their own perceptions and "wisdom." Seems to fit this case like a glove.


The net result is the closing of at least 100 stores and the loss of thousands of jobs. But an even more serious result is the tarnishing of the Sears brand. Traditionally, this has been "the people's brand." Well known for its Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools, and before that, its catalog business that helped bring all manner of consumer goods (including DIY houses) to average folk, Sears has been a staple in communities all over the country. However, it has not kept pace with changes in communications, transportation, and the spread of mass merchandisers and "big box" stores, which has led to what I call the "homogenization of America."


There was a time when you knew where you were by the department stores, restaurants, and other local or regional retail brands. With the spread of shopping malls and the expansion of regional brands to national accessibility, you can visit your favorite store or restaurant in dozens of cities all over the country. So this national marketplace that was once owned by Sears, is now much more crowded with hipper brands and more inviting shopping experiences.


There is still time for Sears to get more spiffy, but as a rule, building a brand takes a lot of time and money. Taking it down is a lot quicker and cheaper.

Employee Research

Be Prepared For Bad News


Conducting an employee survey can be risky, but it can also be salutary. Senior management can never be everywhere--that's why they have other layers of management to report to them. But what if the subordinate managers never want to give bad news? Or worse, what if THEY are out of touch as well? You might wind up with employees like the folks in this photograph. One out of three is clearly pleased (if not deliriously happy); one has a Mona-Lisa smile which could be her public face hiding private thoughts. The third person looks like he's thinking about his next job; again, he may be roiling inside.


That is why it is so important, and can be well worth the cost, to bring in a third, independent party. As an intermediary, this party can be an impartial repository of honest input from employees, and a counselor to interpret and guide management on how to proceed.


We recently conducted an employee survey--but ironically, it was not intended to measure satisfaction. The research objective was to determine brand perception among employees of the various divisions of the organization, to provide input for a possible name change and brand refresher (see above article on keeping the brand fresh!). What we got, in part, was a mixed bag:

  • My job is very rewarding, and...
  • No one else accomplishes what we do, nor serves the needs of our constituents, but...
  • Senior management is out of touch.
  • They give us directives but don't know what life is like "on the ground."
  • The facility and the technology need upgrading.

These findings explained what had been a conundrum. The response rate to this online survey was surprisingly low. We expected this employee base to be highly involved with the organization and strongly identified with its mission, and therefore, very forthcoming in telling us all the wonderful things about the brand. But they didn't come forth. What was worse, the CEO received calls from some people who expressed concern about confidentiality of THEIR answers. That's not good. At first, I thought they just weren't familiar with the standard confidentiality inherent in a quantitative survey ("We will be looking at your answers only as compiled with those of hundreds of others"). But when I read the open-ended responses to questions like "What three things are the main strengths...?" or "What, if anything, could be improved?" I was surprised, but also enlightened.


One principal of questionnaire design is: Don't ask a question if you are unprepared to deal with the answers--especially in customer or employee research. But in this case, we weren't really asking how happy the employees were, just what they thought of the brand!  What that tells me is that this unhappiness has been brewing, and people have been seething for some time now. One way or another, management had better find a way to address these negative experiences.


 and Upcoming Events
January 18, 11:30am-1:30pm 


Continuing its theme this year of the many ways in which social media impacts communications, IABC/LI is happy to feature Randi Busse, Founder and President of Workforce Development Group, speaking about the Intersection of Social Media and Customer Service. This meeting will be held at the Huntington Hilton, 598 Broadhollow Road, Melville and is sponsored by BusinessWire. For more information and to register, visit the IABC/LI website.


January 11 8-10am


SMPS-LI is sponsoring an important meeting on "R+D=Opportunity." This meeting, held at Westbury Manor in Westbury, offers an impressive panel of experts. For more details and registration, click here.


February 16, 8:30-10am


IABC/LI is changing its usual time and venue to present Jerry Allocca, Founder and President of CORE Interactive, a digital marketing company with brand new offices on Madison Avenue, NY. However, he likes us, so he's returning to Long Island to present Building A Digital Media Marketing Plan. This is a more informal setting than our typical lunch meetings, and so it is FREE for members, and a nominal amount for non-members. The venue is TBA. 

This practice is dedicated to helping companies become knowledge-driven, rather than assumption driven about strategic and tactical decisions concerning lines of business, branding, communications, and various marketing activities. For more information about how we do this, case studies, frequently asked questions about marketing research, and testimonials, please visit our web site:

Ann Middleman