“Before all else listen. The pathway to change is through relationships, and you can’t form a relationship if you’re not at eye level.”

These are the words of Tim Shriver, Chairman & Chief Executive, Special Olympics. He was featured today in “The Boss”, a regular column in Sunday’s NY Times Business section.  In talking about the start of his career he states: “I probably started my career on a big white horse, thinking that I was a social change agent. The kids (who he taught in an after school program) taught me a fundamental lesson: Get off the horse.

Interesting how things come around. His words from many years ago, you can’t forge a relationship if you’re not at eye level, describe perfectly the changing nature of the relationship between customers and companies.

Today, eye level translates to:

• understanding customers and their pain points
• letting go of control (actually, realizing your not in control)
• providing content and experiences that help them do more and achieve more
• responding with real time customer service and support
• being the conduit for customer conversations with others who have similar interests and needs
• actions that build transparency and trust

Are you at “eye level” with your customers?

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Crumpleitup is Humana’s consumer innovation team, a group within the company dedicated to building a healthier world with innovative thinking. As they say on their About Us page, we realize it’s not always easy to eat right and exercise regularly. So, we’re putting our heads together to come up with creative ways to help people be healthy while having fun.

I’m a big fan of this initiative for a number of reasons:

1. Changing the game. Humana’s changing the basis of competition, from a reactive payer to a proactive provider of products that create new and greater value for customers and company.

2. Differentiation. It helps the organization stand apart within a largely undifferentiated category of healthcare providers.

3. Deeds vs. words. Rather than campaigning about themselves or merely talking about the benefits of being healthy, the organization’s actually covering the backs of its members by helping them be healthier.

4. Promise. They [over] deliver on their promise of Guidance when you need it most.

5. Humanizing the Company. This group puts a human and approachable face on the organization.

6. Brand Engagement. They encourage participation from everyone who’d like to contribute to the initiative. In fact, anyone can join The Crumple It Up Innovation Network on Linkedin.

7. Constant Innovation. Rather than wait until transformation becomes necessary, they  integrate innovation into their everyday business.

8The real issue. They’ve uncovered (whether intentional or not) the problem behind the problem. Improving health takes a community of friends and supporters.

9. Passion and drive. These guys want to make the world healthier.

10. Belief in change. They know that change (better health) is necessary.

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“It has changed the culture of our company”

In a post on TechCrunch titled Comcast: Twitter Has Changed Our Company, this is how Comcast CEO Brian Roberts described Twitter’s impact on the company at the Web 2.o Summit on 10/20.

Comcast is a great example of a large company using Twitter to engage with customers as they tweet about their experiences (well frankly, complaints). Roberts goes on to say that their online engagement goes beyond Twitter, to Facebook and some other (not named) networks.

Lessons learned for health brand marketers include:

Embrace the negatives. Engaging customers in real-time as they tweet complaints should be embraced as an incredible opportunity. Consider how long it takes a complaint to be routed through a typical call center to someone who can actually handle your complaint. Sometimes, just letting them know you’re there can often represent a huge step forward.

Proactively tweet the negatives. Transparency and honesty are hugely important “trust-building” traits through social media. If customer tweets are gravitating around similar customer service themes, consider proactively addressing the issue(s) by starting your own conversation. There aren’t many companies who will openly admit their shortcomings.

Use the channel as an online research tool. Ask questions and ask for opinions, and you’re sure to get customer feedback.

• Use it as an early warning system. Monitoring the chatter can give you a sense of the issues surrounding your products and services.

• Don’t limit to departments. Twitter helps you get closer to your customers, on their terms – whether through their complaints, compliments, feedback, suggestions, etc.  Rarely are these limited to “marketing.”

Use TweetBeep. Similar to Google Alerts for Twitter, you can monitor conversations that mention your company, your brands and your competitors.

Are there other lessons learned to add to this list?

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Did you know that…

81% of 10-year old girls are afraid of being fat.

In the United States, more than 2/3 of women ages 18-25 would rather be mean or stupid than be fat and over 50% would rather be hit by a truck.

70 million people worldwide are suffering with eating disorders.

Fat Talk Free® Week (Oct 19 – 23, 2009) is an international, 5-day body activism campaign that draws attention to body image issues and the damaging impact of the thin ideal on women in society. This annual public awareness effort was borne from Tri Delta’s award-winning body image education and eating disorders prevention program, Reflections: Body Image Program™.

We were thrilled to partner with Tri Delta for this important cause – to begin to change the way women think about their bodies. Please visit our endfattalk.org website. Learn about the cause, watch the video we created, get involved, pass along to friends.

Friends don’t let friends fat talk!

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How can you create new and greater value for customers by looking across complementary product and service offerings?

This post from Abe Sauer on brandchannel – The Smart Logic of Disney Products And Apple’s Retail Genius – led me to think about how health brand marketers can set themselves apart and change the game for customers by looking outside their traditional industry boundaries and seeing things from a fresh perspective.

As reported this past week, Disney is planning to spend $1 million per store over the next five years, with Apple’s help, to convert each existing Disney-branded outlet from a simple retail location to a complete “experience.”

Untapped value can often be found in complementary products and services. In this case, it’s the value that comes from providing a richer shopping experience (a Disney magic-like experience) to Disney customers.

The key to thinking more broadly about your role in customers’ lives is to consider the total solution they seek when they choose your product or service. One simple way to do so is to think about what happens before, during, and after your product is used. Map out the total “journey’ that customers take when using your (fill in the blank). When you look from their point-of-view, you’ll open up new possibilities to create new and greater value, e.g.

– why must a doctor appointment be limited to the “appointment itself” (consider that Virgin Atlantic has a limo take you to the airport)

– why do you need to call on the phone, and be put on hold for five minutes, to book a doctor appointment (when you can book everything else on line)

– why must patients wait in waiting rooms (do other professional service providers put their clients in “waiting rooms”; and why do you need to “wait”)

– why must a drugstore be a “drugstore” (isn’t their much more value, for the customer and the organization, in being a “healthstore”)

– why is a diabetes patient a “disease-specific” patient (aren’t they individuals with other important healthcare needs and desires)

How are you looking through your customers’ eyes to create new possibilities for them and for you?

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The Democratization of Online Social Networks.

This presentation is from Amanda Lenhart, Senior Research Specialist at Pew/Internet.
Important to health brand marketers, key findings include:
• 79% of American adults 18+ use the internet in 2009, up from 67% in ’05
• 46% use social networking sites, up from 8% in 2005
• 73% have a Facebook account
• 45% have a college or advanced degree
• 51% are between 25-44
• usage skews more female (56% vs. 46% male)
Key conclusion for health brand marketers:
These are your audiences participating in online social networks. Ignore how they choose to interact and share with others and seek information, don’t engage them on their terms, and you risk losing your relevancy.

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Sharing this great list from Willis Wee at Penn Olsen on 10 successful businesses on Twitter. They define success not by the number of followers, but the interaction and engagement these businesses have with their followers.

The businesses, along with their engagement focus, include:

1. @WholeFoods (customer service)
2. @Starbucks (coffee conversation)
3. @PizzaHut (pizza occasion events)
4. MailChimp (email system questions)
5. @DellOutlet (sales)
6. @Zappos (day-to-day stories)
7. @SouthWestAir (questions, quizzes, games)
8. @Redbull (events and interactions)
9. Toyota (news and customer queries)
10. @Zazzle (product customization)

Regardless of your offering across the health continuum, every one of these examples can be “tweeked” to be relevant to your brand and your audiences.

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Instead of focusing on beating the competition, make the competition irrelevant by creating a leap in value for customers and your company. This is a fundamental premise of blue ocean innovation strategy.

Odacite competes in the very crowded skin-care category. But they distinguish themselves from all others in the industry by “delivering directly to your door, the freshest skin care on the market.” Their products are:

• Freshly Made, in small batches, from certified organic ingredients
• Dated with a Freshiency™ date, a window of time during which ingredients maintain their full freshness and efficiency
• Directly shipped from their lab

The end-product is, in their words, the most active Skin Care Line.

Indicative of a good strategy, the company doesn’t diffuse it’s efforts across all areas of competition. It focuses on Freshness, and its value curve diverges from others along a few key dimensions. Its tagline also reflects their distinguishing and truthful brand promise – Redefining Skin Care. The First & Only Organic Skin Care Made Freshly For You.

Relating this back to your business, ask yourself these few questions…
• how are you creating a leap in value for your customers and your company?
• how are you breaking free from competitors?
• what’s your version of the Freshiency™ date?

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