May I?

I grew up in New York City, specifically The Bronx. (Yes, that uppercase T is part of the official name of the borough that’s at the top right of the NYC map.) There, at a certain age, we played a street game called ‘May I?’ It involved making a creative request to move forward by hops or skips or steps, and accepting an alternative order from the leader. But first, you always had to ask ‘May I,’ or you would be sent back to the starting line.

Well, unlike my young colleagues, I didn’t do well at this game. I enjoyed the creative part, but would forget the ‘May I.’ Still, it was a good experience for a pre-entrepreneur, or a pre-rainmaker, or anyone who would eventually have a greater need to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

But still, there is a cosmic question for which we all need an answer:

When should I start with ‘May I?’ and when can I safely fly into action?

After a lot of thought, and asking a few wise folks what they think, I have concluded that it comes down to one key point: Where does the other person draw their personal boundary line? If you stay outside that line, the ‘May I?’ is optional. But once you cross that border, it’s an imperative.

So, how do you apply this to the creative arts of business?

Just remember that although you have a pretty good idea where your own boundaries are, and you have an idea about the other person’s boundaries, you just don’t know where they really draw the line. Therefore, it’s best to get their permission before launching into your pitch. This leaves a lot of territory in which to introduce yourself via a topic that is related to your ultimate intention, in hopes of encouraging them move their boundary lines just a little closer to you.

And one more point, if I may…

A great deal of that open territory is actually inside your own space. That’s where you can get creative with your questioning, and where you can give yourself permission to move ahead. And that’s how you start becoming great at selling anything from grand ideas to Ginsu knives. Because the first person you have to sell… is you!

Yes, you may. And yes, you can. It’s all your game to play and win!

Happy May!

Branding Yourself – without the pain in the…

Okay, so I have to start by admitting that when I first heard the term ‘brand yourself’ I thought of baby cows. As in, baby cows receiving the very painful and permanent imprint of someone’s logo on their butts.

That image went away when I started hanging out with real branding experts. Corporate branding, I mean, where no animals are harmed in the making of the marks.

These people are really interesting, because you can dish about the stuff you buy, and they can tell you why you’re buying it. (Sometimes, of course, an incredibly soft pair of black leather riding boots are just for keeping your legs warm and your feet dry in winter…while looking sensational with the bag you scored in an online sale, and the fact that both are from Cole Haan is just a coincidence. But I digress.)

We live in a blizzard of branding, so it was a surprise to hear from my friends Dr. Natalie Petouhoff and Laura Walton that brands are having a hard time these days. Apparently it’s becoming increasingly difficult for them to deliver on their brand promises.

One thing I’ve known for a very long time is that delivering on promises is pretty important. I hadn’t given much thought to making promises via an abstract intermediary, but, as Dr. Natalie and Laura pointed out, brands are very much like people, in the way that companies are sort of like people…in the legal sense. So it follows: sometimes companies make promises, and if the promises aren’t kept, trouble ensues. Often, that kind of wrangling happens in a back room – or a courtroom. But when a brand makes (or carries with it) a promise, and doesn’t keep it, the whole mess can happen right out in front of everybody, via Twitter, on Facebook, in the blogosphere, and in the media.

Now, having been raised to a new level of branding-awareness, I asked the esteemed legal advisor and intellectual property expert, Fred Wilf about promises. (Fred, by the way, is the guy who put the ® in Teamability®, for which we love him forever. And although he’s an attorney, he speaks in a way that the rest of us who aren’t can readily understand.)

Sayeth Fred, “In the legal context, a promise is a statement or declaration of intent. It can be written or oral. A written promise can be signed or unsigned. It can be unilateral or bilateral/multilateral (mutual). It can be made in exchange for something of value or the promise of payment of something of value (‘consideration’). It can be made in exchange for another promise that does not include payment. Under the law, whether a promise becomes an enforceable contract depends on each of these facts, and a few more.”

And as it always happens, Fred got me thinking about things I hadn’t been thinking about, to wit, what if all brand promises had to meet the legal standard? What if what my brand – what I promise you – was an enforceable contract?

So, for any one of you who have taken the widely recommended advice to upgrade your image to a brand, I just want you to know one thing: Your brand promise may be the most important promise you ever make – and keep.

Keeping your brand promise isn’t just a directive, a script, or a process. It’s more like a world-view. You need some way of building and sustaining a living model of what you are and what you stand for. For organizations, that’s usually called culture, but for a brand – or a person with a brand – there just isn’t enough time to get something that big into a small package. Business or person, there’s only one of you – and nothing to hide behind.

Your brand – and your brand promise – will stand or fall based on credibility. And despite all those assurances of privacy and confidentiality made by top-level-friends-and-followers-only infochannels, this is a social media world. There are no secrets.

So whether you’re maintaining a company or a personal brand, you must maintain currency in keeping your promises, because people are watching and deciding all the time. Including me…and Fred.

Here’s some basic advice:

First, make sure you know what you’re promising.

I’m going to be blunt here. If you borrowed the concept for your brand promise from someone’s website whose product is ‘pretty similar’ to yours, you blew it before you even got out of the gate. Promises – at least the good ones – arise from the heart and survive through integrity. (Perhaps you are old enough to remember the inherently equivocating “Promise her anything, but give her Arpége” campaign. If so, you’ll understand why it drove me to use any perfume BUT that brand.)

Second, make sure you are promising the right promise: the one your potential customer really wants.

Begin by drafting your promise; then reflect on it, and then air it out through your preferred channels. Are you promising a starry night where the earth moves? Something that ends happily ever after? Or is it just your ‘thing’ that’s helpful and reliable? Before you set the promise in stone, you had better be sure of its connection – and its connotation. Remember the 5M rule: Mixed Messages Mostly Make Messes.

Finally, figure out how you’re going to convince your potential ‘consumer’ that you really will be keeping your promise.

These days, few people take time to read all the copy. It’s your brand that gets you up close and personal, and it’s in that very tight space that the truth comes out. Not just with your followers and not just with your Facebook friends, but with everyone.

Adopt a platform of respect, appreciation, and gratitude – and make sure that the people on your team treat each other that way. If your brand gets mixed up in any one or more of the fifty shades of miserable management, you’ll soon be sporting a danger sign that glows in the dark.

Brand credibility is something you have to earn on the shop floor, in the board room, in the middle of the late night scrum session, in every conversation, every text, and every face-to-face, every day.

No matter how hard we try to connect with our customer, if we can’t first connect with each other, no brand – personal or otherwise – will ever rise to the standard of being a promise.