Speed to cool

on October 14, 2008

Bill Ryan is the cofounder of Mandala, a branding and messaging services company. I sat down with Bill Ryan in his home in San Francisco to talk about how his business architects all the pieces of a company’s voice from branding to PR to messaging and to marketing.

Bill Ryan of MandalaSummary (Bill Ryan):

  • Companies poorly communicate their story to those that need to hear it (e.g. analysts, bloggers, journalists, and customers)
  • Nobody wrote a check because they thought your company was “interesting.” You need to get them to the point where they say, “cool.”
  • You need to sell the problem or the opportunity before you sell your solution.
  • The lenses for which you and your audience look at your company are completely different.
  • You need to be out in front telling your company’s story before your audience does it for you, which may not be to your advantage.
  • If you have a situation where there’s no market, then you need to evangelize the space, bring interest to it, and own it.
  • Increase discoverability by getting to every point on the influence chain. The further back you get, the more powerful it is.
  • The biggest complement you can pay to a writer is to demonstrate that you’ve read what they’ve written.

Full article:

From the individual up to the company level, we all tell stories. A company lives inside a story. The problem is there are many people who work in a company, and if you talk to five different employees, you’ll often get five different stories. That discontinuity within the organization is inevitably carried outside-to people who get pitched (e.g. press, bloggers) and everyone else.

Bill Ryan, cofounder of the branding and messaging services firm, Mandala, wanted to know how well companies communicated their “story.” Ryan talked to story recipients (e.g. analysts, VCs, and journalists) and asked them, “What percentage of companies have the ability to come in and tell you ‘what they do, why they’re different, and why you should care’ in a quick and efficient manner?” Sadly, the average response was 10% with the highest being 15%. Bad for the companies in question, great for Ryan who is in the corporate clarity business. Ryan is also a senior member of the marketing services company, Comunicano, where he leads their Words & Stories directorate.

Most people don’t have their story in place and just keep echoing their five message points, said Ryan. The most you can hope for is a long hour and a half discussion where they’ll inevitably get to the point and you’ll finally discover their story.

How fast can you get them to say, “cool”?

“Speed to cool” is Mandala’s own internal benchmark to determine how good someone’s company pitch is. During a pitch the listeners will often just nod their head and say, “Oh, interesting.” But as Ryan pointed out, “Nobody wrote a check because something was interesting.” What you’re going for is the moment in the presentation where it shifts from them saying, “interesting” to them saying, “cool.” That’s the moment they get it. Their body language changes, and they’re eager. It’s the point when the presenter can shift from just pitching, to closing. “Speed to cool is how fast can I get that audience to the point of saying, ‘cool.’ How can I get them beyond ‘interesting’ which is out of their heads and into ‘cool’ which is into their emotions and it’s all based of real value,” explained Ryan.

A solution without a problem or opportunity is irrelevant

“If you haven’t sold the problem, the fact that you have an elegant solution is irrelevant,” said Ryan, “It has to start with a sense of relevance.” There’s relevance in the sense of are you solving a business problem that they know they have. The flip side of relevance is opportunity. The Internet itself created all new opportunities. “You either have to sell the problem or you have to sell the vision of opportunity, first,” explained Ryan, “If you haven’t done that you will always stay in ‘interesting’ land.”

You have to give them a taste of the opportunities and you have to be willing to give a little bit of the secret sauce that is making you successful or as Ryan refers to it, “the gift of knowledge” marketing. Go so far as writing a book about what you know. For the person who fears giving away too much, Ryan reminds us that “management would rather bring in the consultant who wrote the book than have to actually read the book and try to implement it themselves.”

People look at your company differently than how you look at yourself, yet no one pays attention to those differences

People look at your company through five lenses. Companies look at themselves (from the inside out) through three different lenses. Bill Ryan summarizes the differences:

A company’s identity is defined by their:

  • Vision – What’s the core belief that started the company and what continues to drive its innovation.
  • Position – Where the company sees itself in the industry ecosphere as determined by who is the customer, how are we different, how are we pricing this thing, etc. The big vision is made practical around positioning.
  • Brand voice – How you express your brand to the world. That’s not necessarily your vision because your vision may be a competitive advantage and you don’t want to share.

The world looks at your company through the following lenses:

  • Relevance – Do you solve a business problem that people already have?
  • Superiority – Is yours the best solution according to the criteria the customers use to make a buying decision? That can be very different as to why you think you’re the best.
  • Ecosystem competency – Are you the company everyone wants to do business with? Are you a follower, or do people not know of your existence? Ryan points to Microsoft here, explaining that they score very high in this area, but not in innovation as version 1.0 of all their products IS usually poor. Later versions are where general adoption is at its highest. More importantly, Microsoft controls the environment. How savvy you are as an ecosystem player gives the perception of the strength of your company.
  • The team – Who’s running this show? The strength of the company’s team plays a lot in how the company is perceived as a player in the world.
  • Sustainability – Do you have what it takes to stay in business for the long haul to service your customers who will need you to be there for them?

Bridging this gap between how you define your company and how the public defines you requires you to be out in front telling your company’s story to the world. It’s a brand narrative, and you better be able to do it correctly before your audience does it for you, which might not be to your benefit. This isn’t like the old days where you just courted journalists and analysts. There are far more voices out there and it’s important that you’re out there telling your story, or as Ryan puts it “Be the shepherd of your story.” More specifically, he believes that your CEO needs to be the super shepherd telling the company story and why it’s relevant to customers.

There are two ways to tell you story, and it all depends on whether there’s a market or not. “You can either evangelize hygiene or you could sell soap,” said Ryan. If you have a situation where there’s no market, then you need to evangelize the space, bring interest to it, and own it. It’s a common mistake to only sell the product and not the market. It’s easier to just sell the product because it’s something you know. You don’t necessarily know the market. Or if you do, you definitely don’t know it as well as you know your own product.

A great example, Ryan pointed out, was McDonald’s “You deserve a break today” campaign. The campaign didn’t sell burgers. It sold the idea of eating out, specifically towards moms with kids. They were trying to grow that specific market, moms with kids eating out. Since McDonald’s already owns a percentage of the “eating out” category, they can grow their own business if they simply grow the entire category of people eating out.

Ryan is one of the earliest Internet PR players. One of his earliest clients was Yahoo! when they were still at the address www.yahoo.edu. In the early days of the Internet, nobody could see the Internet’s value. So one of Ryan’s first marketing strategies for Yahoo! was to evangelize the Internet and make the two words synonymous, Yahoo! and Internet. Jerry Yang’s early appearance on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air did not discuss the technical architecture of the Internet and search, but rather how the Internet was going to revolutionalize communications. And Yang told the story of how he got his grandmother up on email and how his relationship with his grandmother grew because of it. Ryan saw the value of that story, even if he’s not sure if Jerry had a living grandmother at the time. The net result of this positioning caused Jerry Yang and David Filo to become the poster children of the Internet. And any time anyone wanted to do a story about the Internet, they needed to get those two, or it wouldn’t be a complete story.

Be more discoverable by finding the connectors and influencers

If your company is not already on the consideration list when people are deciding to purchase a product or service in your category, you need to increase your discoverability. And doing so requires you to understand your audience and go where they live. More importantly, said Ryan, is to determine who are the people that influence them. “You want to get to every point on the influence chain. And the further back you can get, the more powerful it is,” explained Ryan.

Bill Ryan actually brought up Ken Rutkowski of KenRadio who I’ve mentioned multiple times as the ultimate connector in the tech and entertainment space. Rutkowski hosts meet ups and dinners where he brings people together. He is the connective tissue. In fact, Bill Ryan and I met during a Ken Rutkowski dinner just a few months ago. And then we were reintroduced virtually by Ken’s cohost, Andy Abramson of Comunicano, yet another connector.

“The trick is to find the Ken Rutkowski’s of the world in your particular marketplace that are creating those connections between the people who are influencing the market and the people who are actually creating the innovation. [You have to start] getting those connections made and gauging those people in thinking about your business,” Ryan said.

“You need to understand the chain of influence in your ecosystem.” While that may still involve taking a journalist out to lunch, it also involves understanding the influential bloggers and understanding how their connections fit into the sphere of influence.

“The biggest complement you can pay to a writer is to demonstrate that you’ve read what they’ve written,” said Ryan, “It has nothing to do with you agreeing with what they say. In fact, a good blogger or a good journalist will fall in love with you faster if you disagree with what them and you have a good heated argument and you talk about it, and you really go back and forth, and you listen to what they say…Let them talk, listen to what they say. They may teach you things about your business you never know about before. And if you do that, they will fall in love with you, and they will respect you,” Ryan said. The end result is you’ll learn more about your market and better be able to define the problem, the opportunity, and your story.

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