The Sins of Marketing in Silos

Jul 01, 2010 9:30 PM  By

Are internal company silos keeping your brand from becoming the best it can be? You know what I mean: competition between departments, information withholding, work arounds (people, products, processes), sacred cows, complex procedures, multichannel turf wars.

The sins of silo behavior can take many forms, but it all comes down to the same result: brand distractedness. Author Bruce Sterling cautions us that “one of the points about distractions is that everything that they do is destabilizing.”

The time and energy involved in silo behavior robs your brand of creative potential that could be harnessed both toward your customers and against your competitors.

DOUBLE-SIDED DESKS

Most businesses would benefit greatly from double-sided desks with a member from the company on one side and an actual customer on the other. This would take the “walk a mile in your customers’ shoes” concept to the next level.

Instead of Twittering or Face-booking or Survey Monkeying or focus grouping or, even worse, simply guessing, the brand team members would have ready access to their customers’ thoughts and desires.

The brand team member could ask customers functional questions like, “So would you pay $39.95 for this widget?” or “Is this design too complicated?” or “Would your child really wear this striped and polka dot combo?” More emotional-driven queries might include, “How have we let you down?” or “What do you like better about our competitors’ shopping experience?” or, simply, a no-agenda “What’s on your mind?” probe.

Customers could come in for meetings and spend time in various departments having meaningful across-the-desk conversations. It could become the best business practice ever.

What seems to be more prevalent in the business world, however, are large, can’t-see-over-the-top, often-times quite intimidating silos.

Yes, silos like the tall, cylindrical ones you see in farm country holding grain and hay. Silos are a huge problem in the multichannel selling industry. Companies tell me either that they don’t want be siloed, or that they don’t believe they are.

Both are troublesome dilemmas. The ones that say they don’t want to be siloed often have a great desire to act as one company, but don’t want to do the work it takes to actually de-silo. The ones that think they don’t have silos are often mistaken.

Silos exist in companies of all sizes. Silos can be as prevalent in two-person partnerships as they are in family-run businesses as they are in Fortune 1,000-size companies.

From both employee and customer points of view, silos are the antithesis of double-sided desks.

Silos sap brand energy and turn the focus way from the customer and the competition to the company itself, often building self-serving fiefdoms and using brand-building potential on internal turf battles.

Patagonia, the environmentally responsible outdoor clothing company, is one merchant that doesn’t believe in silos. When I spoke with Kevin Churchill, its director of merchandising, he shared the practical example of all their channels sharing one warehouse.

“Patagonia believes in a one brand, one message, one customer philosophy,” Churchill says. “We all support the company in total. We want our customers to get inventory wherever it suits them best — whatever channel is best for them. If our warehouse is out, we’re okay with REI getting it for them, or Moosejaw. We don’t compete against ourselves. We’re all on the same page.”

This global company lives and breathes a non-silo culture. There are no divisions at Patagonia.

BEACH BALL BRANDING

Susan Scott, author of Fierce Leadership, uses the analogy of a beach ball to make her point about silos. Scott says that people in the various divisions of a company naturally work all day every day in their particular colored stripe — accounting, marketing, customer service, operations, merchandising and so on.

The workers therefore see all corporate decisions through that particular color or lens. They see a red perspective all day, or a green or a blue or a yellow perspective. We need each of those perspectives, but we need a more comprehensive, outer-directed view as well. Customers look at a company and its actions holistically; they see the entire beach ball.

Think about one of your own personal shopping experiences: If you try to order an item online and it’s out of stock, you don’t necessarily fault the forecasting or inventory department. You simply get frustrated with the company overall.

The more that companies can operate as a beach ball culture, collaborating, talking across desks with one another, seeing things from multiple perspectives, putting the needs of the customers before those of their own departments, the better.

Scott is against image management, false corporate nods (where you seemingly agree but have no intention of following that particular course of action), and hiding behind the status quo. When I introduce her work to all my clients, I give them a large inflatable beach ball as a visible reminder that beach ball branding behavior is much more productive than silo-driven antics.

Companies accomplish de-siloed, beach ball-esque behavior in several ways. Procter & Gamble has “huddle rooms” to encourage collaboration. Other companies have blogs or their versions of fireside chats.

The Ritz-Carlton has a tradition called the “lineup,” which the luxury hotelier’s president/chief operating officer Simon Cooper explained in Forbes: “The concept comes from the early restaurants of France, where the chef got the whole team and all the waiters and waitresses and the maitre d’ together at 5:30 in the evening. It’s a sort of round table. Everybody is there. The chef communicates what they are going to be serving.”

For the Ritz-Carlton, Cooper said, “we want every single hotel, everywhere in the world, every partner, every shift to utilize lineup, which typically takes around 15 minutes every day.”

Part of the lineup everywhere around the world is a “wow story,” he said, “which means talking about great things that our ladies and gentlemen have done. That is a wonderful training and communication tool, where every department layers on the department message. And it’s based on having the same message everywhere, everyday, and then each hotel layers on its own message.”

How well and how often do you actively listen to team members in different stripes than yours? What are your brand leaders doing to encourage more collaborative, customer-centric behavior?

Don’t let the sins of silos creep into your brand and divert your business energies.

Why not conduct an honest evaluation of your brand behaviors and see where there might be more room for beach ball-esque behavior? What do you have to lose?

Andrea Syverson (asyverson@ierpartners.com) is president of the consultancy IER Partners, and author of BrandAbout: A Seriously Playful Playbook for Passionate Brand-Builders and Merchants.