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Erika Napoletano holds no fancy titles and is an expert at nothing except screwing up royally and learning from her mistakes.
As the person behind the RedheadWriting online persona, Erika’s been hailed by Forbes as a “spinless spin doctor” for her BS-free perspectives on business, marketing, branding, and life in general. She’s a twice-published author, including The Power of Unpopular (Wiley 2012), a columnist for both Entrepreneur Magazine and American Express OPEN Forum, and speaks at conferences across the U.S. on the inherent power of truth in business… or as she refers to it, the power of unpopularity. A recent speaker at TEDx Boulder – the world’s largest independently organized TED event – she’s a gal who’s come to be quite comfortable living in her “unpopular” skin . She lives in Boulder, Colorado and is the Head Redhead at RHW Media, her branding and business strategy consulting firm that helps businesses get UNstuck and over those annoying problems that keep them from being awesome.
MO: What are the most common issues you see plaguing people or businesses that keep them from being awesome?
Erika: People get stuck on describing their business as either B2B or B2C. I think both are bunk. Business is always H2H – human-to-human. We do business with people when we do business, period. When you put the people who make your brand a success first, that’s when you begin to see amazing shifts in your business and the impossible becomes possible. I always ask – are you willing to change the way you think about “impossible”?
MO: What inspired you to write The Power of the Unpopular and can you share some of your favorite tips or highlights with our readers?
Erika: I’ve always thought that the middle of the road was an exhaustingly boring place to be. Think about it – you never describe the people you love in your life as “meh.” So if you’re building a brand, why would you think “meh” tactics would result in getting people who love your brand behind you and spreading your message? The last thing you want to build is an army of “meh” – so you’ve got to pick a ditch to die in. I shared those thoughts with one of the editors from my publisher and they asked me, straight-out, “That sounds great, but how do brands actually do that?” That’s what became The Power of Unpopular – it’s a guide to help businesses and brands build a kickass audience that will help them get from where they are to F*ck Yeah. And they key is that it every successful brand in history is unpopular with someone – but that didn’t hinder their chance to succeed. It won’t hinder yours, either.
My favorite parts of the book are the case studies, hands down. I didn’t want to focus on the massive international brands you always see featured in business books. Not only are folks tired of reading about them, they oftentimes feel like the tactics those brands use are inaccessible to them since their businesses are of a smaller scale. My mission over the course of a year was to uncover eclectic, privately-owned brands that embodied the five components of an unpopular brand (Personality, Approachability, Sharabilty, Scalability, Profitability). Their individual stories offer insights and tops that brands of any size and scale can use – and today – to bring their audiences closer.
MO: Can you talk about being a speaker at TEDx Boulder 2012 and what it felt like to get a standing ovation that evening? How did you prepare for the event and what did you learn from the experience?
Erika: Lots of people ask me how long it took to prepare for my TEDx talk. The easy answer is two months – from the moment I was selected until the moment I walked on stage. The more accurate answer is 39 years. I don’t think anyone is capable of giving a talk like that without tapping into their own lifetime of experience. And let me tell you – I was entirely humbled by the company in which I was placed at TEDx Boulder. From an advocacy icon I’d followed for years to a gal who taught bridge building, a cancer survivor to a fire chief, a teenage musical wunderkind and a seasoned beatmaster – all I could think was, “What did I do to deserve this?”
And that standing ovation – hell. Let me tell you a bit about that. I’ve been a part of many standing ovations in my lifetime – on the giving end. The receiving end is a moment I wish everyone reading this had the opportunity to earn and realize. I finished my talk and simply walked off stage. Mind you, I was about to pass out from the nonstop endorphin high I’d been on for the past 16 minutes. Suddenly, I hear the organizer from onstage saying, “Ummm, you need to come back out here.” So I take a deep breath and walk back out…and the entire auditorium is on their feet, clapping. Two thousand people. And all I could do is feel like I couldn’t breathe and the tears started to roll. I turned my back and put my face in my hands because I didn’t want anyone to see me cry. Now, my talk was titled “Rethinking Unpopular.” When I’d collected myself, the organizer said, “I think you failed miserably at being unpopular here tonight, Erika.” I just had to laugh. The only reply I could come up with was the stark named truth: “Well, I think I finally found the right audience – and don’t delude yourself. Someone in the audience out there f*ckin’ hated my talk.” And that’s perfectly OK.
MO: What buzzwords drive you crazy?
Erika: Moist. Just kidding! Even though that words gives me scrunchy-face every time I say it. The words that seems to stick in my craw the most are the ones that have become overused and diluted so that they’re the Cosmo of the happy hour scene – you totally tune them out as an option. Words like overarching (you mean like a suspension bridge or the St. Louis Arch?), engagement (which my friend Merredith has me trained to think of as putting a ring on someone’s finger), innovative (which you can never say you are – this is only a word other people can use to describe YOU), silo (which is where farmers store grain). Whenever I heard words like these, I just feel like the person in front of me is playing a game of Bullshit Bingo. If the solutions they’re describing using these words were really smart (and actual solutions), they wouldn’t have to wrap them in a blanket of fancy, albeit meaningless, words.
MO: You pride yourself on delivering nothing less than the straight-up truth. How often do you have conflict with clients or have to turn them down due to your resistance to gloss things over?
Erika: Here’s the beautiful thing I’ve discovered about being who I am – it’s rare that I attract a type of client or prospective client who isn’t smelling what I’m stepping in. I love nothing more than having clients who will challenge or ask me to substantiate my recommendations and observations. If I can’t do that, fire me or never hire me in the first place. I’m always willing to be proved wrong. I want a client who is just as plugged into their brand, cause, or campaign as I am – and I don’t take clients who aren’t. So I guess the long and short of it is – I don’t have conflicts with my clients. Conflicts are about a lack of communication. I have fantastic conversations with my clients and I know better than to take clients on who aren’t interested in (1) achieving unbelievable things, and (2) willing to own their role in making those unbelievable things happen.
MO: What are some steps you recommend for building an approachable brand that invites conversation and a high level of customer input?
Erika: To get any brand going on a path that will have more of their audience talking with them than not, here are three shifts you can make today to put that goal in motion.
1. Ask. Invite your customers, clients, and people who matter most to share their thoughts on an issue you’re curious about. Maybe you’re thinking of adding another product. Taking one away. Expanding. Contracting. Charging an audience segment where you’ve never charged them before. Prior to making the leap, just ask the simple question directly to your audience. You might be surprised what they’re willing to tell you.
2. Listen. Asking is only the first step. You have to do something with that information and let your audience know they’re being heard.
3. Invite. Even when you’re not looking for ideas, make it easy for your audience to share them. Establish a prominent “suggestion box” for your business. Brick and mortar stores can do this in-store or on your website. Online folks can use platforms like Get Satisfaction and User Voice to build nearly instantaneous online feedback communities. When your audience knows their insights are welcome and how to offer them, you’re building a nonstop and long-lasting loop of feedback about your brand efforts that will only benefit you in the long run.
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