Monday, December 22, 2008

Have you started your brand yet?

Much earlier this year, I bought a bag of M&Ms. My excuse was that these were special M&Ms, a tie-in with the Indiana Jones movie. (Remember that? A big deal, and a so-so movie, and totally over by now because the hype has stopped and the movie isn’t good enough to generate further interest.) I keep the empty bag in a kitchen drawer where I can see it occasionally. To remind myself that I bought the ad, not the product, and that I got caught by the hype.

Eating M&Ms is pretty much a complete waste. Great candy if you like sugar and are about eight years old. But I like dark chocolate, and the chocolate content in M&Ms is low. I figured this out a long time ago. So what does that M&M bag signify? That we can all be lured into buying something whose value is negligible, simply because of its tie-in. If I really care about M&Ms, if I want to associate myself deeply with them, then I can buy all kinds of alternative products wrapped around some candy. I can litter my house with M&M seasonal packages and useless containers, and other tie-ins, and more. Or if it’s Harrison Ford I want to identify with, I can buy a poster of him and put it where I’ll see it every day. This is a complete waste of my time and money, though. I don’t know Ford and I never will and he isn’t important or even real in my life. When we buy the M&Ms or the licensed product that makes the M&Ms attractive, we are affiliating ourselves, identifying ourselves, with a commercial entity that we see as attractive and strong. Perhaps unlike ourselves.

The reason to not do this is that we each need to create our own brand. The Internet allows us to create new brands every day via new online names, and then try them out on various sites. If we get tired of our brand, we can abandon it with no one the wiser except Yahoo or Google. Not that they actually care if ViolinGenius and MashupMaven are identities generated from the same computer.

But why our own brand, instead of buying into and/or wearing the symbol of someone else’s? This is a good question, because historically, many people have been happy to draw their identities from their service to someone else’s brand. The lackeys of the nobility wore their masters’ crests, just as today, a factory worker might wear a company uniform. But this only works if it’s a two-way street. The serfs were legally tied to the land of their baron and he in turn had legal responsibilities to them. Today in America, we can no longer pretend to ourselves that we will hold any job for a decade, let alone even five years. Given that, we can’t afford to put our identities into some company’s hands. They’re going to dump us and we’ll feel all empty and miserable because we lost our brand affiliation. So we have to create and maintain our own identities.

I admit this is scary. The best example is the difference between a secretary versus any other employee. Both have a boss. But the secretary is shielded by the boss directly, is answerable only to that boss, and can assume the mantle of the boss’s power to enforce her or his needs in the office. The office worker is one of a pool of workers who are supervised by a boss, but who cannot act for or in place of the boss, and who is not shielded by the boss directly. The office worker acts on his or her own. The secretary does not.

What we are seeing more and more today in our employment milieu is the absolute need for each worker to act primarily in her or his own interests by becoming a self-directed sole proprietor of her or his own business: A brand. If the employee doesn’t pay attention to what is good for her or him, then the employee gets caught by layoffs and downsizings. If she or he has created a brand and invested in it, the employee is already seeking another job before the catastrophe occurs. Or has forged the office affiliations to keep being seen as a value to the changing company and survive to fight another day. Being nimble and agile is very important to continuous employment today. Trying to meld with a company’s brand, and become a company man or woman, is a mistake.

When it comes down to dollars and cents, so is buying a branded product unless it fits our own brand’s goals. Thus, it’s okay for me to buy the M&Ms for an upcoming party, because they are finger food that doesn’t cause a mess, and people like them. But it’s not okay for me to buy M&M souvenirs such as dolls holding the M&M logo, because I don’t own M&M, nor do I work for M&M. Sure, maybe I root for the company.

And that leads us into the area of expenditures on sports memorabilia. A bunch of guys (or gals) is paid to play games for us. We choose which teams we like, and then we show our loyalty to them by buying tickets to watch them and licensed products as souvenirs. It’s a phenomenon that has been studied a lot so there’s no need for me to go into the psychology of it. But quite obviously, it’s another instance of buying into somebody else’s brand.

But what is left at the end of the day, as the team advances to the Superbowl or the old M&Ms holiday packages are discounted on the store shelves? The memory of someone else’s athletic achievement and an empty bag from the M&Ms. No progress made towards creating our own brands, and forging ahead to our own better future.

We need to think of ourselves first. Of what will help our brands, our lives, first. Back in high school, we were briefly encouraged to think strategically when it came to choosing a college. We weighed each school’s academic and social strengths. We asked ourselves if we were personally suited to certain schools. But after college, the choice did not appear to be in our hands anymore. It was all up to the employer to pick us. This is not true.

Do you want to work for a specific company? What are you doing to prove it to the company? Are you frequently contacting hiring managers, HR managers, or even clients of the company? Have you been carefully following the company in the financial press (which includes the Internet) so you know where the company is heading and what are its obstacles and strengths? Have you made an effort to train in the specialties that this particular company values? If you haven’t, then not only are you not branding yourself, but you aren’t paying attention to the company’s brand. When you get an employment interview, you want to come across as knowledgeable about the company, and knowledgeable about your own potential value to the company. And you don’t want to be vague. You want to be specific.

This requires work. But the fact is that it is easier to hire someone who knows all about a company than someone who knows nothing. Training takes less time. Integrating with the other employees and getting up to speed takes less time. That’s why a would-be Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader has an advantage over the other contenders if she takes dance lessons before trying out, if she makes sure her BMI is correct for the skimpy uniform, and if she also educates herself about the football team. Her goal is to take on the Dallas brand. It helps to know what that is, in detail.

But I don’t want you to do that without previously deciding what your own brand is, and how working for this other brand will help your brand. Don’t just buy a package of special M&Ms, or a Redskins hat. Know what that brand is, and most of all, what you will get if you associate yourself with it. Maybe for some people, wearing a Yankee cap is like being on the team, and that’s good enough. But recognize you are drawing your identity from something outside yourself, and thus you risk being hurt by situations in which you play no direct role. It’s a substitute for real life. And meanwhile, real life is happening to all of us, willy-nilly, and we need to find our brand and burnish it and make plans for our future. Not for the future of M&Ms.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Things to do Before You Lose Your Job

The economists are finally willing to admit we’re in a recession, because we actually could be heading into a depression and they certainly won’t admit that. The biggest problem most individuals may have to face in the coming months is job loss. Tens of thousands of good jobs, jobs with health benefits, have already been lost this year. More jobs will be lost in the ripple effect.

So today let's think about what to do prior to losing a job:

1. Start or increase your rainy day savings. Right now. You might not have much time before every dollar saved becomes critical. Even an extra $100 is going to look very sweet when you’re struggling to make ends meet on unemployment compensation.
a. Create an emergency savings plan and put it on automatic immediately by having deductions made directly from your paycheck.
b. If retirement is far away, consider reducing (not eliminating) your 40l(k) contribution to increase your rainy day savings quickly. Remember, if you have to break into your 40l(k) early, you pay a 10% penalty and income tax on that money. You need at least eight months in living expenses in your rainy day savings. They must be in an FDIC insured account and accessible without any penalty.

2. Make a list of areas where you can cut your expenses. You don’t have to stop these conveniences or lifestyle choices immediately. But you should list them and the dollar amount they can save, so if the worst happens, you know what to do immediately. Sample expenses you can list for cutting:

• Smoking. Duh. Pricey. Cut down or quit.
• Drinking. Alcohol is an expensive luxury.
• XM Radio, OnStar, Netflix, or any other service billed monthly as an automatic charge on your credit card. Try a less costly level of service or cut it out altogether.
• Cable/satellite television. Investigate cheaper deals.
• Phone service. Keep your phone number so you won’t miss out on any employment calls. But try cheaper phone suppliers, or month-to-month minimal service, or even pay-as-you-go service.
• Haircuts, massages, manicures, etc. Go less frequently or find a cheaper-but-still-good supplier. Or stopping altogether. Most of us can skip pedicures, since no future employer will see them unless we’re going to work in sandals.
• Newspaper/magazine subscriptions. Do you read what you pay to receive? Can you get the same information elsewhere?
• Buying drinks and snacks whenever you are doing errands. It’s good for your waistline, too.
• Yoga and other exercise classes or gym memberships. Yes, they reduce stress, but look for less expensive adult education leisure classes or free classes instead. Or start your own at home.
• The best seats at sporting or cultural events. You might still go, but go to fewer events and buy the nosebleed seats. And don’t eat while you’re there; you’ll save a fortune. If you can use public transportation or park a little farther away, you’ll also save a bundle.
• Attend movies or other events at bargain times. And don’t buy from the concession stand.
• Entertain friends as a lunch date instead of a dinner date. Limit alcohol when dining out since it’s very expensive.
• Stick to a budget for presents, seasonal decorations, and foods.

3. Do not take on any new, long-term expenses. Samples of long-term expenses you should not sign up for at this time:

• Car leases. Nearly impossible to break, and you won’t own the car.
• Luxury car purchases. Any car you can’t afford is a luxury car. The payments and upkeep should be easy to cover each month, or don’t buy it.
• Magazine subscriptions. You pay it all in advance and you can’t get a refund.
• Sporting and cultural subscriptions. This is not the moment to commit hundreds or thousands of dollars far in advance. Put the cash in savings instead, and buy as you go. You could lose your job and have to move to another city and miss seeing the games or the shows.
• A purchase loan at a fixed rate whose total you couldn’t pay off this month if you had to. This could be for furniture, appliances, home improvement services, or any other big ticket item. This is not the right moment for big-ticket items. Sometimes they offer a nice deal, but what if you lose your job tomorrow? How will you pay off your debt?
• Any debt that you will not be able to pay in full if you lose your job tomorrow.
• Buying a new house unless you have the cash. Yes, it’s a buyer’s market. But unless you plan to live in the new house less expensively than in your current home, and have already sold that house, don’t do it.
• Overshopping, such as buying multiples of clothing or accessories. Assume that soon you may have no money to put in those handbags.
• Travel or other luxury spending, including electronics, clothing, and other toys. Don’t treat yourself to a blowout expense right now. You might very much regret that week at the beach or huge television when you’re scrambling to pay your power bill.
• Committing in advance to specific dollar amount of charitable giving. You might end up unable to make good on your pledge. Or you might try to sustain it at the cost of being short in some other area. Make your dollars go further by utilizing corporate matching funds or joining matching funds drives.
• Voluntary plastic surgery, lasik, braces, or other items that would lock you into a loan for a year or more. The exception is when disfigurement is too obvious and could cost you socially or financially.
• Organizing containers. You can organize your stuff without buying new stuff.

If we all followed this advice, then we’d be helping creating a depression by not spending. Which would not be a good thing for the nation’s economy in the short term. But we aren’t all going to be smart about our money. Some of us are going to keep on spending the same old way, buying too much junk, overextending ourselves with loans, and just hoping that it won’t all come crashing down on us. Not a good approach in an uncertain economy. Choose not to take this dead-end route. Instead, be one of the smart people. Think ahead to what you’ll need in the coming year, and take action.