The Painful Road

I ended 2009 with a catastrophic hard drive failure.

Literally on the morning of the last day of the second crappiest year of my life, that sight all Mac users fear appeared on my screen: 

The Question Mark Folder

. What a cap to the year, huh? It epitomized the feeling of failure that was so pervasive in the ad industry during 2009. Crash. Lose everything. Reboot. Start over. Erik Proulx even made a movie about it called Lemonade.

Which kind of brings me to the point of writing about this. Erik was on the show this week, and after discussing his movie and the new transparent turnaround effort from Domino's (along with all the hell I went through rebuilding my computer) I had an epiphany: As painful as admission and acceptance of our shortcomings can be, it's sometimes exactly the path we need to walk for a better future.

You Can't Be What You're Not

Now don't mistake all this for sentimentalism. This isn't some kind of Zen statement of balance to the universe. This is a practical truth for all marketers. When it comes to turnarounds or rebranding efforts, too many times I see examples of brands that simply ignore who they are in the eyes of their customers in an effort to create something new.

In theory, there's nothing wrong with this. WalMart was a big blue box with a happy face. Now they're a big blue box with a disclosure mark. Done and done. We all feel better with WalMart looking a little less like a cheap dime store. And yet, there's a part of me that remains reluctant to go there because their brand is so intrinsically tied to being the cheapest of the cheap. They can tell me "Save money. Live better." (a great tag that hearkens to their roots), but all I wonder is, "What do they know about living better?"

What Domino's is doing is different. As painful as it was to admit, their brand was synonymous with "pizza that tastes like cardboard." But instead of just burying the past and launching fresh with a new recipe, they embraced the truth.

Why is this great? Two reasons.

Proof That You Understand

No matter what your brand stands for, it's still your brand. And ignoring what your brand is to your market is tantamount to saying you don't understand your market. Even if that brand is rife with negatives, pretending those negatives don't exist doesn't make them go away. A large portion of your audience will always remember.

But more importantly, a change without an admission of failing doesn't really say you understand where you went wrong in the first place. How can you establish a new trajectory for operations when people aren't sure where you're coming from in the first place? No matter how right you get the turnaround, a part of your market will grudgingly hold onto the perception that you're bound to fall back into how you did things before.

Leave No Customer Behind

The other thing that can't be understated is that leading with your weakness acknowledge 


 of your market, rather than just focusing on the part of your market willing to believe in you. You're bringing along everyone for the ride -- naysayers and advocates alike. Certainly there will always be those who remain reticent (

our very own George Parker, for one

), but every sales person knows you acknowledge the pain before you go for the sell. It's the surest way to establish affinity and relationship, as well as position yourself as a problem solver. And we all know the best customer is one who gets a problem solved, not the ones who never had a problem or never had their problem even acknowledged.

God knows if all this will work out for Domino's in the end. For one thing, all the best strategy advice in the world can't fix bad dough or sauce tasting like ketchup. But if all the forces align and they hold to their guns, and people actually like their new product, the marketing portion of things is some solid thinking. And just like with my own hard drive fiasco, they should wind up with a more functional and nimble system of operations (and back-ups) that they should have had in place all along. It's a bitch admitting you were wrong. Kudos to them for having the guts to do it.

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