Big Bird Apologizes

We see it all the time. Athletes, celebrities and politicians caught in embarrassing, compromising or downright felonious situations. Rarely is it a victimless crime; someone has been harmed or wronged. The public makes sport of speculating as to what really happened and why the act was committed.

Regardless of what we think the punishment should be, we demand an apology. Often we are disappointed when said apology is delivered: the half-hearted mumbling, the attempt to place blame on others or the equally flaccid “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.”

This isn’t about those creatures who relish the glare of the spotlight, however – the Miley Cyruses and Anthony Weiners. I’m thinking of a product or a brand and what happens when said company owns up to a mistake. We may be ambivalent about or even unaware of said brand until we see the apology. What happens then is magical. We find ourselves not only thinking of that brand but starting to admire it – like the song that grows on you the more you hear it.

I came across something downright charming the other day. It wasn’t an admission of any epic proportion – rather, it was a self-effacing apology for a victimless “crime.” Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, posted this notice on its web site when it failed to fulfill its promise of a sale on iTunes apps. Here it is in case you don’t want to click to the site:

From September 13th to 15th, we intended to run a special three-day sale in the iTunes App Store. “Intended” is the operative word there, because we made a mistake somehow. Everything went wrong, Sesame Street Muppet chickens went crazy, Telly lost his triangle, Cookie Monster ran out of cookies, and most importantly, the three-day sale only lasted two days. The Count is very upset with us — he really wanted to count to three! (ah ha ha).
So to make it up to him (and all of you who thought you were getting discounted stuff, but weren’t), tomorrow, Saturday September 21st, we’re running a one-day, line-wide, Sesame Street app sale! Click here to open the iTunes App Store and see all of our apps!
It’s tough to harbor ill will toward Sesame Street after you read that. You’re more than willing to forgive because – let’s face it – Big Bird & Co. have amassed a mountain of goodwill over the years. The message is appropriate and reflects the brand. Heck, it’s fun. Not to say you can excuse an egregious violation of law or ethics with a whimsical haiku or limerick. Like the punishment fitting the crime, the apology must fit the transgression.    

Thank you, Sesame Street. You never stop teaching us things.


The Failure Wall

Last week I told you about D&B Credibility and its uncommon approach to talent. I got a few raised eyebrows when I mentioned the company takes up to nine months to pull the trigger on a hire. CEO Jeff Stibel says it’s a good way to know that the employee is a perfect fit, and there’s a better chance of retention.

In the post-2008 economy, that can be good and bad. Good for an employer to resist the temptation to pluck the next adequate candidate from an overflowing talent pool. Bad for a job seeker who can’t afford to wait nine months while an employer is looking under the hood.

That said, there’s a lot to admire about this company and its culture – and most importantly, how effective communication is at the heart of employee engagement.

One unique feature of the D&B culture is the Failure Wall – a giant whiteboard on which employees are encouraged to write down an experience where they felt they came up short and what they learned from it.

The Failure Wall has been widely chronicled and celebrated. The LA Times wrote about it and Jeff blogged about it for Harvard Business Review. Naturally, both went viral, making this an overnight phenomenon.

A business leader I admired once told me “You learn the most from the job you didn’t get.” Most of us would admit that despite the sting of failure (or failing to meet expectations), we pick ourselves up off the floor and gain fresh insight and self-awareness.

Indeed, when I asked Jeff “What’s the D&B Credibility success story?” he simply replied “People. Admitting our failures and learning from them.”

He continued: “You learn the most from your failures. We encourage people to disclose their failures and discuss them. “

There’s something cathartic about admitting failure – or even admitting you’re having a bad day – and doing something about it. If a customer service rep has a negative experience with a customer, Jeff may tell that person to take the rest of the day off and come back refreshed tomorrow.

How many times have you said to a colleague: “That’s on me.” Or “My bad?” It felt good, didn’t it? Even better when you say, “Here’s what I can do to fix it.” Or “Here’s what we’ll do next time.”

Stibel has several degrees, one of which is brain science –  the interdisciplinary study of psychology, philosophy, artificial intelligence and neuroscience. So I suspect he’s applying what he learned at Brown University. Of course he leads by example and will admit his own failures. How many CEOs do you know or have heard of do that?


Note: I came across this phrase several times: “Mistakes are the predecessors to both innovation and success.” Curious to know where it came from, I Googled it. The result was 5,790 matches. I don’t know who first said it, but Jeff has done a nice job of making it one of his key messages.

- Company blog about the Failure Wall
- Jeff describes the Failure Wall (video)


Decaf: the entrepreneur's jet fuel

I’m always intrigued by people who don’t drink coffee. I once had a boss who said he was “naturally caffeinated.” I admired how he could keep going and going like the Energizer Bunny.

Jeff Stibel is one of those self-professed decafs. Looking at his resume, you can tell that he derives all of his stimulation from life, from people and from the pursuit of success.

Jeff Stibel is an entrepreneur. He builds companies. For the most part, he does it in the classic ways – acquire a division of a larger company, take it private and reinvigorate it. As CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp, Jeff is definitely reinvigorating a 176-year-old brand and running a successful business service provider that seems to understand its customers quite well.

You’ve heard of Dun & Bradstreet – the company with the DUNS number – a sort of information clearinghouse for businesses? Well, the re-imagined D&B Credibility is not your father’s (or grandfather’s) D&B.

Headquartered in a lofty perch in Malibu CA overlooking the Pacific Ocean, D&B Credibility feels more like a Facebook or Google. Bright, airy, breezy – like the local climate. Open workspaces, young faces, tons of energy. Are these the people who monitor credit records of 30 million small businesses and help them improve their creditworthiness?

In a word, yes. And it’s largely the embodiment of Jeff Stibel’s vision of the workplace. A brain scientist by education, Stibel has written and spoken extensively on his conviction that the internet is like the human brain. While that may sound terribly intellectual and even wonkish, consider that Stibel does a masterful job of balancing the scientific with the human. He has an excellent intuition when it comes to people. Indeed, D&B Credibility is known for hiring and retaining talented people; turnover is miniscule. So, how does the company find these people and what makes them want to stay?

We had coffee at a Starbucks near his office – Jeff ordered decaf, of course – and I asked him how he builds successful teams. More specifically, I asked how much of D&B’s so-called employee engagement is a function of his people, and how much is a function of – well, him.

“It’s not about me; it’s all about the people,” he said, in a self-deprecating way. “Our hiring process takes generally nine months.”

My jaw must have dropped, because he went on to explain.

“We have to be certain that a person is the right fit. They spend lots of time here, talk to lots of people, observe and ask questions. We ask them what they think [of us] and it becomes apparent if they’ll thrive or not.”

He admits he loses some good talent because the process takes so long, but says that’s immaterial if they’re ultimately getting people that are a perfect fit.

So what makes a person a good fit? He told me they need to be collaborative, inquisitive and hard working.

“From the outside, our culture appears intense,” he said. “It’s about hard work and long hours. A person has to love work and love what they do.”

That explains the congenial, accessible atmosphere: the game room, the d├ęcor, the openness. They do the cool things for their employees that make the work a pleasure, and it seems genuine. When I arrived on a recent Friday morning, the receptionist was planning to order lunch for everyone. It was her idea – apparently she has lots of these – and the company lets her run with them.

From the looks of things (literally and figuratively), you’d think D&B is a young workplace, but Jeff disabused me of that notion. Their youngest employee is 18 and their oldest is well into what you’d call senior years (although I try hard not to label). He says there’s no formula when it comes to age or background.

“It just is,” he said, in the way a CEO can utter few words but make his point. “Maybe that’s not the way other companies do it, but ultimately we are hiring for the person irrespective of their age, background, etcetera. We have an incredibly diverse workforce as it turns out and we didn’t plan it that way."

He went on to assert that the most talented people happen to come from a large cross-section. Seems accidental, but one of those instances where you don’t mess with the universe.

Probably the most telling statement Jeff made during our chat is that every strategic decision (let me repeat that: every strategic decision) he and his leadership team make starts with a discussion of people. 

That’s because they’re not about to allow an idea to take on life that contradicts the nature of the talent in the organization. Simply put, it’s about playing to one’s strengths but in a massively important way. 

As a communications strategist, I learn a lot from successful entrepreneurs. Jeff Stibel sees what’s going on in the world and finds a way to commercialize an intellectual advantage. He also knows how to identify talent and lead people into the realm of greatness. Those are things you can’t do without an ability to communicate your intentions and aspirations – to use your words to influence. 

Next blog: D&B Credibility’s Failure Wall. There it sits, bigger than life, staring you in the face. And you ask yourself, “Why?” 


Just do it: It pays to move your story from the telling to the doing

Long before television, newspapers and the town crier, our ancestors shared experiences by telling stories. The ancient storyteller had only his voice and words, but if he used the right words and told his story with conviction that was enough.

In our current world we put a premium on storytelling. What’s old is new again.

Marketers and communicators have rediscovered this art, with great success. It’s far more effective to tell about a customer’s experience with your brand than to simply tout the virtues of your product. You don’t have to look far to find examples of great storytelling. The shy kid going solo to prom is emboldened by driving dad’s AudiA winery owner tells how Prudential helped him start his business.

Along comes the turbocharged version called “storydoing.” In a recent HBR blog about this phenomenon, Ty Montague says storytelling through advertising isn’t enough. A whole new class of companies is emerging, he says, that “advance their narrative through action.” While it’s difficult to define the model, you know it when you see it. Your experience with a storydoing company is so memorable you want to tell a friend – or two or three. Characteristics of such a company, according to Montague, are:
  • They have a story
  • The story is about a larger ambition to make the world or people's lives better
  • The story is understood and cared about by senior leadership outside of marketing
  • That story is being used to drive tangible action throughout the company: product development, HR policies, compensation, etc.
  • These actions add back up to a cohesive whole
  • Customers and partners are motivated to engage with the story and are actively using it to advance their own stories
Montague took a whole slew of prominent companies and divided them into two groups – those that fit the criteria and those that don’t – and examined their revenue, share price and other financial metrics along with quantity and quality of social media mentions. Not surprisingly, the storydoing companies outperformed the pack. Think Target, Disney, Starbucks, American Express, Apple, Jet Blue and IBM

My latest fave is Trader Joe’s. They’ve made my life better in numerous ways and that’s probably why I don’t hesitate to share my experience – like when I shopped at a new location and had to ask practically every associate where to find something. Instead of being ashamed, I was proud to tell my Facebook friends, because I wanted them to know every associate treated me cheerfully and I’m kind of proud to tell people I shop at Trader Joe’s.

Point is, storydoing companies partner with their customers to create a unique experience – and customers come away delighted, energized and inspired to talk about it. It’s a phenomenon as old as time, re-imagined and reinvigorated by a high octane fuel called social media.        

What do you think? Is there a brand, company or product that you'd shout about from the mountaintops?