Fundamentals of Branding in the Defense, Intelligence, and Civilian Government Markets

April 23, 2009

As government contractors react to the sweeping government and economic changes, it becomes apparent which companies truly appreciate and understand the value of establishing, maintaining, and growing their brand–not just to position themselves for immediate strategic government contract wins, but for long-term, sustained growth. But perhaps even more obvious are those companies that do not consider branding as a centerpiece for business success in the government marketplace. In today’s environment–increasing contractor oversight, transparency, and instant connectivity with social media–the once small government community has gotten remarkably smaller and even more scrupulous. Navigating these changes may seem daunting at first. But successful companies are sticking to the basics, reinventing their brand, and consistently and effectively feeding their brand across all internal and external channels.

Like a sandwich, your brand is the underlayer and top layer. However you stack it in the middle is your business. CONSUMER Sandwich 1Some companies choose to stack their brand sandwich so tall that it risks toppling over. They do this by identifying multiple brand personalities and injecting them into the marketplace. These ultimately become confusing and ineffective. Rather than strategically addressing the brand centerpiece, they choose to build on top of unfavorable brand equity, which lends to overarching brand instability. So what does this really do? Just one bite of this monster sandwich and you’ll likely appear more portly, and it will slow you down. Your next move would be to reach for the Pepto, if only you could get up out of that chair.

Streamline your brand by building a smart sandwich–two pieces of bread with business in the middle. Then replicate it…over and over and over. In the government market, this brand persona should resonate in all proposal submissions, in HR policies and employee communications, and in executive communications. Externally, this same sandwich should be packaged to go–in press releases, your website, social media, customer presentations, at trade shows, customer meetings, and all other service interactions. Consistency, simplicity, and effectiveness help you achieve brand recognition, and make it digestible for the government marketplace, which is comprised not only of government customers, but also of critical business partners, Congress, and the American taxpayer.

But where is that special sauce? Every sandwich needs that special sauce that really makes a statement when the government marketplace bites into it–that WOW factor that makes people want to tell their friends (through social media and every other means). This is where government contractors can get that special sauce.


Pirates drive attention to shipping industry and the need for innovation

April 10, 2009

As the situation with the Maersk ship and the pirates continues to unfold, it begs the question: how is the shipping industry evolving in order to keep pace with 21st century demands and expectations?

The piracy situation has brought forth a wave of niche businesses–maritime transportation security, piracy insurance, and others. These have been stood up very quickly in response to the unfortunate Maersk crisis. Sometimes it takes such a crisis to receive national and international media attention in order to help create a demand for change and for solutions to be designed that address critical challenges. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes all it takes is a passion for wanting to do things more efficiently, effectively, and designing a solution that addresses problems before they become major national and international issues.

Take Marine Healthcare Services (MHS), a crew medical services provider that created–and is leading–a niche market in the shipping industry. I had the privilege of speaking with its Chief Operating Officer, Lloyd Schwing, who said, “I have been immersed in the shipping industry and I know precisely how we can enhance the medical care for crew members, while reducing risk for the ship owners and P&I Club members.” Mr. Schwing’s pride in his work was audible to me as he spoke from Houston, TX, where MHS is based.

MHS is an innovative solution that helps protect the lives of thousands of crew members by bridging the gap between foreign vessels that come into U.S. ports, and the U.S. medical facilities and professionals. Often times there are language barriers, insurance issues, and numerous other challenges that delay medical treatment, or result in misdiagnosed ailments that at times have proven fatal to crew members. These issues are more prevalent than what we think. Why? Because it hasn’t yet garnered the national and international media attention–yet. And hopefully, with MHS at the helm, they never will.

Hats off to such innovative companies such as MHS that take it on themselves to create win-win-win solutions that result in saving lives and saving money.

Thoughts and prayers for a safe and peaceful resolution to the piracy situation.

Top 5 Indicators That Your Company Brand is in Jeopardy…and How to Turn It Around

April 7, 2009

I was asked this question the other day by a VP at a global company worth several hundred million dollars: “How can we pump up our brand?” My reply began with a simple statement: “Your brand is an aggregated perception of many business components.” But I knew what he was really asking me.

To some, branding is a big word that may mean very little. Yet, companies consistently recognize that a favorable brand is critical to achieving long-term success. The disparity often lies in how one defines branding. Simply put, branding is the perceived favorability of a company, an emotional connection that is established over time that results from one’s interactions with the company. Branding plays a critical role in practically every business function. It serves as an underlying component in everything the company does.

Your brand is your people, your processes, and your customers.
Your brand is so much more than your logo, your advertising, and your marketing and communications. Although those elements all play a role in your brand, there are five critical components to look out for in order to help determine if your company’s brand is need of immediate attention.

  1. Employee morale is falling. Employees are the cornerstone of a company’s brand. Companies will go through growth stages and at times the employees may feel stretched, uneasy, or uncertain. Particularly today, in the midst of layoffs and mergers, it is more important than ever to keep a finger on the pulse of your employees. What to do about it: Listen to your employees, reach out and monitor feedback, address concerns, demonstrate progress, and follow through with commitments. If morale is already a bit low, this may take some time to see a turnaround, but it is important to start immediately–it’s about earning the trust of your employees, who are your company’s brand ambassadors.
  2. Business operations and business units are silos. Business units that do not engage with each other tend to split further apart–from each other, and the brand focal point. For example, some companies encourage business units to develop innovative ways of driving the business forward without encouraging or incentivizing them to share best practices with other business units. While competition can be healthy for the organization, the latter is often times detrimental and limits the growth potential of the enterprise. What to do about it: Unify the business around core messaging, value propositions, and show how each business unit contributes to the growth of the enterprise. Encourage and incentivize best practices information-sharing, and recognize innovation when it occurs, showcasing examples and encouraging ways to share innovation across markets–this often times leads to new product development and more robust service solution offerings that accelerate brand and business growth.
  3. Customers are uneasy and questioning what’s next. If you cannot confidently assess how at least 80% of your customers truly feel about your company, then it means that you are too complacent. And complacency tends to turn into simply satisfied customers. Such customers tend to jump ship when a better deal comes along. What to do about it: It’s more than surveying your customers in order to come up with a satisfaction index. It’s about engaging your customers and positioning them as a part of your company’s future. Everybody wants to be affiliated with a winner. Share your vision, get them excited about it, and bring them into it–that builds brand loyalty. It begins with a reliable CRM system and process that is attentive to the customer throughout the complete customer interaction lifecycle .
  4. External communications and marketing occurs only when the company achieves a milestone. A press release is issued once a month announcing a milestone achievement, or an advertisement is placed in a trade publication because the editorial topic coincides with your company’s solution offering. At best, this is maintaining company awareness. But it’s certainly not building your brand. What to do about it: Be innovative. Share more. Utilize new media channels, social media, and integrate other channels into your external marketing and communications mix. After all, you want to earn the trust and respect of external stakeholders–and you need to do this by reaching out to them. There are ways of doing this very cost-effectively and efficiently. 99% of the time, companies are lacking in external communications frequency and relevance.
  5. Branding is not a standard agenda item at the senior leadership team meetings. Branding is often owned by marketing and/or communications teams. Updates are typically presented on how marketing initiatives are going, or which media picked up a story. While this is not a bad approach, there are much better approaches. What to do about it: Appoint brand managers, title them as such, and place branding as a high enough priority that it becomes a weekly agenda item at senior leadership team meetings. Branding is more than marketing and communications–it is about synchronicity, working with the business units, HR, employees, external customers, and other stakeholders to unify, communicate, and grow together. By elevating the visibility of branding in your organization, you are elevating the importance.

If you’re experiencing some challenges with any of the above, connect with me. As I say in #4, share more. I’ll be happy to steer you in the right direction and give you tips on accelerating your brand and business.

Mission Critical: Government Information Sharing

April 1, 2009

With so much emphasis on interoperable communications within government at all levels–federal, state, and local–we still banter over our inability to effectively and securely communicate with each other. This has been identified as a cornerstone of national security, yet it seems to continue to be a plaguing problem. There is arguably no greater priority for government than to resolve this issue. Complex? Yes. Possible? Absolutely.

Roger That
As much as I wish this were an April Fool’s joke, it isn’t. U.S. border security with Mexico is just another example of our need to nail down secure information-sharing solutions. How sound could our country’s infrastructure possibly be if we are experiencing tremendous difficulties just talking to each other? When communications are compromised, so too is our national security.

The Solution Exists
What if it was possible for federal, state, and local authorities to securely communicate with each other? But it might just be a matter of our inability to effectively communicate this message? How ironic is that?

Some of the world’s leading technology companies put their competitive egos on the shelf and attempted to tackle this issue head-on several years ago. Cisco, Microsoft, EMC, and other technology companies collaborated and formed an alliance to help design and deliver a secure information-sharing architecture to the U.S. government in order to address one of government’s most pressing needs. If a solution exists, then why hasn’t it been implemented? Perhaps the solution was not yet ready for primetime. Or maybe the challenge rests with the adoption of the solution in a government strewn with agencies that have competing priorities. After all, a few agencies that adopt a uniform information-sharing solution will hardly make a dent in overcoming the massive communications challenges we face. Adoption at all levels is required–this should not be a commercial sales effort, but rather a government mandate rolled into the FEA with performance measures tied to its implementation.

National Security Before You Tube
Admittedly, I was delighted to see that GSA was able to work through the agreements with social media in order to allow government to post on social media networks. If only as much attention and dedicated focus were placed on overcoming this issue of secure information sharing.

In the Shadows of the Stimulus

March 31, 2009

For many companies, the anticipation of the stimulus is like waiting for a stretch of rainy days to end, excited for the sunny days that the meteorologist promised. And just as the sunniest days cast the deepest shadows, so too will the glory days of stimulus spending be balanced with the bold consequences of debt.

My intent is not to sound an alarm of gloom and doom–others have long since done that. My intent is just the opposite–the more we truly understand and appreciate the carry-over effects of this stimulus spending, the better off we may be in helping to alleviate the immense burden we will be placing on the generations that follow. Simply put, it’s a one-year stimulus that will likely cast a seven-year shadow.

Recognize the Shadow, But Don’t Fear It
What effects could we expect to see? Bilions of dollars of debt, greater than any level of debt our country has ever seen. Foreign entities are investing in the U.S., and thankfully they are. But with the debt rising at an exhoritant rate, we risk deflating foreign confidence in continuing to invest in our country on the scale that we need.

So what then? We print more money. The value of the dollar drops and drops. Other foreign investments become more attractive. The investors we count on to continue pooling money into our country and economy withdraw. And this could occur after a notable percentage of our country’s infrastructure is owned by foreign investors.

If You See a Shadow, There Must Be Light
Is there a better solution? That depends on your school of thought, your priorities, and your understandng of the multiplier. With any proposed solution that promises a sunny day, there will always be shadows. That’s unavoidable. But as long as we see the sunrise the next day, it’s as good a day as any other.

What does best value really cost? Trusted partnerships…priceless.

March 27, 2009

It’s a human condition to want to establish boundaries to concepts in order for us to make them measurable, reportable, and ultimately to hold accountable. In this great shift towards more transparent and accountable government, “best value” contracting is no different. After learning about the recent GAO ruling over Access Systems, as well as with many other government contract protests and debates, it begs the question: What does “best value” really look like? Moreover, how much should best value cost?

Granted, in the situation of Access Systems, GAO cited that there was merely a lack of documentation to support a best value decision. But beyond this example, how can you even begin to quantify the value in services contracting when many times it comes down to choosing a partner with whom you feel most comfortble working? For example, what would it be worth to the American taxpayer if the confidence level of government were 10 percentage points higher, but $2M more costly, if selecting an industry partner to help them deliver critical infrastructure support services? So much attention is on the dollars being spent (and rightfully so) that we need to exercise caution in weighting contract decision too far in favor of dollar amount. After all, the incremental returns on efficiency and effectiveness that are realized when working with a trusted partner are generally far greater than the dollars that would otherwise be saved by going with a less expensive contractor.

Naturally, there are significant strides being made in productizing services–by implementing contract reporting requirements (e.g. EVM), and other tools to help us quantify things like value, which could then be measured, forecasted, and reported. The more that can be measured, the more comfortable we are in justifying decisions. That which is sometimes unmeasurable (and perhaps at times unjustifiable)–trust–is sometimes the most costly.

It’s also human condition to overcompensate when we’re passionate about improvement. We may be overcompensating a bit with overly aggressive scrutiny around awarding best value. As with most things, the best value pendulum will eventually swing back into balance.

And in today’s environment, contractors need to do much more than reach out to government with their brand-building and trust-building efforts. They must reach directly through government and reach the unprecedented numbers of American people who have never before been so actively engaged in government–and government contracting.

Independent collaboration: the future of government contracting

March 23, 2009

Many industry and government personnel seem to have an opinion about the increasing level of government oversight surrounding government programs, of which many have resulted in significant cost overruns, delays, and downright poor results. And like most people, I have my own opinions.

At a very macro level, there are several key issues that are driving the need for increased government oversight:

  1. Contracting rules. Let’s face it, government contracting rules need a bit more tightening. Cost-plus contracts allow for escalating costs with little incentive for contractors to create time- and cost-efficiencies.
  2. Personnel. The number of government programs are outpacing the number of qualified personnel to adequately manage them.

If you agree with the above two points, then surely you would agree that new strategies must be considered in order to tighten government program controls. But is increasing government oversight the most effective way to resolve this?

While increasing government oversight and tightening contractor requirements (e.g. earned value management) would likely improve the situation, it can further divide the relationship between industry and government. Of course, the argument can be made that some technology tools can enable EVM capabilities and provide real-time, web-based visibility into the management of government programs. This addresses the post-award stage of government contracting.

The forward-looking solution rests in the stages that preclude contract award. The answer is not as crazy as it sounds: “independent collaboration.”

“Independent collaboration” describes the process by which government selects the proper team of industry partners to design optimal solutions that meet some of government’s most pressing priorities. This represents a departure from the current government contracting climate, where contractors pull together teams of partners to deliver what they believe to be the best team, which often times leverages existing networks and relationships (and may not truly represent the best collective solution).

Under this new approach, government would identify and select the right partners to comprise the right team. Industry partners would then work together and deliver the solution in an environment of complete transparency and accountability.

Would This Really Work?
A solution in and of itself may not produce the desired expectations, but collectively, I believe they would. Combining the “independent collaboration” approach with the current movement towards increasing government program management oversight would not only help address the immediate concerns over runaway program costs, etc., but it would also support the Administration’s goals of maximizing taxpayer monies, increasing transparency and accountability, and helping to ensure that the program dollars are being spent on the “right” solutions and not just the most convenient ones.