Multilogue

"What I do best is share my enthusiasm." -- Bill Gates

Missy Woodruff rarely said a word about the Coca-Cola Co. After all, as the niece of the late Robert Woodruff -- arguably the person most responsible for constructing this global icon -- it just wouldn't be right.

Once, however, Missy let down her guard. It was during a particularly risky period for Coca-Cola. Having fiercely protected the name and reputation of its flagship brand name for nearly a century, the company refused to use the Coca-Cola brand name for any product extension, preferring, for example, to call its diet cola "Tab."

After much soul-searching, the company launched Diet Coke in 1982. To Missy's relief, Diet Coke looked like a big winner, and soon after the launch, she broke a lifelong silence abut the company with this solitary comment to a group of friends: "Diet Coke is really good."

We nodded our heads -- stunned -- but careful not to say much until Missy left the room. Immediately thereafter, word of Missy's declaration spread rapidly. When I returned to Boston from Atlanta, I too began to feed the grapevine (as well as begin my own six-pack-a-day consumption of Diet Coke).

"We discover ourselves through others." -- Carl Jung

Years later, I thought about Missy's candid endorsement and the effects -- intentional or unintentional -- of her words. Within weeks of that unprecedented event, Missy's friends had spread the word near and far: "Diet Coke is really good."

This chain reaction convinced me that the most powerful marketing is not delivered directly from a seller to a potential customer (monologue), or even transferred through an interactive, two-way relationship with a customer (dialogue). In order to benefit from truly powerful marketing, a company must entice its customers to talk about the brand to others "after the party" (multilogue).

For years, friends have asked me to mind my manners at social gatherings because the key is not what people say to you at the party, but what they say to each other after you leave the party. This sentiment resembles a comment made to me by Mickey Drexler, CEO of the Gap, while I was working with his company:

"In our communication efforts, Mark, let's focus on how we can impact customers' comments to each other after they finish shopping at one of our stores. Do they leave and talk about what they are going to have for dinner, or do they leave talking about what a great experience they just had?"

"The real voyage is not in seeking new landscapes but in seeing with new eyes and through the eyes of others." -- Anonymous

Throughout the 1990s, management consultants and corporate leaders like Scott Cook, CEO of Intuit, picked up on this theme. Cook announced that Intuit needed to focus its marketing efforts on its apostles: "The people who rate you a 5 on a 1 - 5 scale will build your brand for you if you let them," he professed.

A frequently acknowledged brand is Harley-Davidson, which revived an American icon through "multilogue." H-D customers rhapsodize their Harleys to others, share stories and rides with fellow Harley owners, and feel a part of the H-D community. It is the epitome of successful branding: customers as apostles.

Multilogue occurs when customers proudly connect themselves to a brand. That brand becomes part of their identity and -- they believe -- says something about them that they want to project to others. The brand may connote intelligence, the cutting edge, or a personally desirable social stratum.

Whether it's Hotmail or Harry Potter, when customers connect with your brand, they begin to promote you. And there is no more powerful, or cheaper, form of marketing. Whatever the brand, products or services should play second fiddle to the core message behind your brand -- and what it tells others about its purchasers.

"To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart." -- Eleanor Roosevelt

Brand Lifeline: Build Your Brand on Multilogue

"He who wishes to secure the good of others has already secured his own." -- Confucius

Three years after Missy's Diet Coke comment, I began working to strengthen the Coca-Cola brand name with the then executive vice president, John Reid. Pepsi had waged a powerful cola war, and Coca-Cola was concerned. What ideas could I contribute to make Coca-Cola's marketing budgets more effective? How could we solidify the brand's preeminent global position?

After several discussions about budgets and media, I walked by an assistant's desk piled high with mail. I asked John about it. "Oh, that," he responded. "We get hundreds of letters from people telling us stories about how much Coke is part of their lives."

I asked John what Coca-Cola did with those letters. Nonchalantly, he replied, "The assistants open them up and see if there is anything important inside that we need to respond to. Any serious complaints or problems are handled right away. Usually, however, the letters just contain comments on how much people like Coke and think of it as part of their family's everyday life. We usually discard them."

I thought of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Purloined Letter." The hidden letter that no one can find is in the most obvious spot, sitting on the mantle over the living-room fireplace. So it was at that time at Coca-Cola Corporate. The brand equity of Coca-Cola was sitting in an assistant's wastepaper basket.

"The ultimate paradox of selfishness is that we can only become significant, important, by concentrating on others." -- Charles Handy

What opportunities to harness the power of multilogue branding are you missing in your own life? How can you know that when you leave a party, everyone will say the nicest things about you? Here are three examples:

  • I always enjoyed visits with Harvard Business School Professor Jim Cash. Whatever we discussed, I knew that when I left his office, I'd be walking on air. Jim knew how to make you feel great: important, smart, and engaging. And he always got his point across as well.
  • Sam Walton's first company-wide speech to his sales associates was entitled "You Are Important." He talked about how they made Wal-Mart special. And no associate's comments ever ended up in a wastepaper basket.
  • In Victorian England, there were two great prime ministers: Disraeli and Gladstone. It was said that after you dined with Gladstone, you came away thinking you had dined with the wisest man in the Empire. But after you dined with Disraeli, you came away thinking you were the wisest soul in the Empire -- and knowing he was.

All these people had their own abilities, their own greatness -- and used those abilities to help others discover theirs. These people knew how to create a climate that brought out the best in others. I am sure they got invited back to parties for years to come.

"Freedom is actually a bigger game than power. Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash." -- Harriet Rubin

Copyright © 2000 Dr. Mark S. Albion. All rights reserved.

by Mark Albion

Read more columns by Mark Albion.

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