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Systems Alliance Blog

Opinion, advice and commentary on IT and business issues from SAI

It’s been over a year since the death of Freddie Gray in police custody sparked outrage and several days of riots in Baltimore. On May 23rd a verdict in the trial of Officer Edward Nero, one of a group of Baltimore police officers implicated in Gray’s death, was announced. That verdict was not guilty on all counts. But more interesting than the verdict was the judge’s explanation for his not guilty ruling.

One of the key questions was – did Officer Nero follow proper procedures during the arrest of Freddie Gray? That question centered on whether or not this police officer acted properly in helping to place Gray in the police van where he later sustained fatal injuries. The prosecution’s case against Nero was largely based on the fact that the Baltimore Police Department recently enacted a policy that arrested individuals must be seat belted when transported in a police van. Freddie Gray was not secured with a seat belt, which was considered a critical contributing factor to his injuries, and ultimately his death. This new policy was enacted shortly before Gray’s death and Baltimore Police Officers were notified via email.

At this point in the story, the facts ended and the questions began. Had Officer Nero read the email detailing the change in policy requiring suspects to be seat belted? Was he aware of the procedure for properly seat belting a suspect in a police van? The defense argued that Officer Nero had not checked his email and was not aware of the policy change or of procedures to seat belt suspects in police vans. The prosecution’s challenge was that the Baltimore Police Department did not have a process in place to verify that Officers read or understood policy changes. It was also apparently common for Officers to not check their email regularly. Bottom line, the prosecution could not prove that Officer Nero was aware of the change in policy requiring suspects to be secured with a seat belt. This fact was a key reason the judge cited in his not guilty verdict. Since the prosecution could not prove Officer Nero was aware of the seat belt policy, the judge ruled his actions were reasonable, not negligent or criminal.

That’s a profound sequence of events – gaps in effective process and a lack of audit trail for policy and procedure communication becoming critical factors in a high-profile, politically-charged criminal trial. To avoid a repeat of the process gaps surrounding the Freddie Gray case, the Baltimore Police Department has since implemented a technology solution to ensure that policy and procedure changes are distributed to Officers and an audit trail is maintained as Officers read and acknowledge that content. While technology is no panacea for a flawed process, it is an important component of creating an effective process.

Not a Unique Challenge

While this example of gaps in policy and procedure communication focuses on police, we see similar issues in other industries as well; healthcare is a great example. Just like the police officers who rarely checked their email, the same is fairly common among clinical staff in healthcare environments. These individuals – doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants – are not spending their day at a desk in front of a computer. So getting their attention via email is a challenge and acknowledgement of policy and procedure changes is often haphazard in these settings.  We’re actively working with organizations in the healthcare space to help address some of these challenges.

The Lesson

Whether the environment is a police department, a hospital, a manufacturing facility or even a restaurant, ensuring that critical policy, procedure and training information is distributed to staff, and an audit trail of their acknowledgement is recorded, are critical factors to minimizing risk and legal exposure. The first key component is having an effective business process in place to ensure that relevant content is accurate and up-to-date. Next staff must be educated on why understanding and following these policies, procedures, guidelines, and work instructions are critical to their own, and their organization’s success. Then we have to make it easy for them to comply and for us to keep track of their compliance. That’s where the technology comes in. To effectively enable this process change with technology, a platform with the following capabilities is crucial:

  • Web-based – the content you’re distributing should be accessible across any device that your staff may have available to them. Providing the content in a web-based format is the most effective way to ensure usability across the broadest array of devices possible.
  • Easy to use – if it’s difficult to find or access the content, your staff will not embrace the process. The platform you choose must be easy to use to make it simple and quick for staff to access the content, read/digest/acknowledge and get back to work.
  • Mobile-optimized – the individuals to whom we need to distribute content are not necessarily sitting at a desk in front of a computer, they’re walking the halls of a hospital, driving a police car or repairing a production line in a factory. The content must be accessible and optimized for use via smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices so that staff don’t have to stop and walk away from what they’re doing to access the critical information we’re making available to them.
  • Audit trail – in order to keep track of who has accessed and read the content, the platform should allow staff to acknowledge reading the content, with a permanent audit trail of that acknowledgement maintained by the system.
  • Quizzing – while acknowledgement helps to check the compliance box, it doesn’t really guarantee that the staff member read or understood the policy before acknowledging it. Distributing a brief quiz with a policy or procedure, and requiring staff to complete that quiz as part of the acknowledgement, helps you validate that the content has been read and understood.
  • Reporting – effective reporting to show managers which of their staff have/have not acknowledged critical documents or satisfactorily completed quizzes to demonstrate their knowledge.

I stress again that technology alone is not a solution to a process issue, but the right technology platform in conjunction with an effective change management process can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of an organization, and on the reduction of risk. We’ve gathered tremendously valuable information around these topics through hundreds of hours of interviews during the recent launch of our Acadia product. Call or send me an email and we would be happy to share information with you.

This election season, as brutal as it is for those of us not fond of discord, holds an important lesson for marketers – the value of having a brand that feels authentic. Whatever your personal feelings toward a disheveled 74 year-old socialist or an abrasive billionaire with bad hair, the fact that these men are unabashedly true to themselves certainly accounts for a big part of their immense popularity in certain circles. What’s more, it proves that authenticity can make up for a number of sins. How often do you hear voters point to the way these candidates present themselves as the basis for their support? Clearly, voters are willing to forgive words, actions or even policies that might sink a less authentic candidate. That is a quintessential illustration of the power of a brand.

We’re certainly not suggesting that being authentic requires being outrageous or even anti-establishment, but if you look past the hullaballoo, there are marketing truths to uncover in our current political climate. 

Anatomy of a Brand

Originality is inherently compelling

Whether you like them or not, you can’t help but take notice of candidates like Sanders and Trump. These two political phenomena are using their identities – warts and all - to carve out an advantage. In other political seasons, being a political outsider or not being a party’s chosen candidate could be the kiss of death for a campaign, but when these attributes actually become an integral part of one’s brand, it certainly sets them apart from other candidates. In a similar vein, we encourage our clients to find ways to be different, whether that’s in their product/service offering, their style or a method of delivery. If you haven’t read our last brand blog about differentiation, we encourage you to do so.  

If you’re able to control the conversation, you have an advantage

Trump and Sanders established themselves by confronting topics that other candidates were largely unwilling to discuss – immigration and income inequality, respectively. As a result, they were able not only to connect with voters in a unique way, but also to force the other candidates to follow suit. In branding, the first-mover advantage applies as much to messaging as it does to technological superiority within a market. In the end, however, it’s important to understand that what you say is often less important than how you say it. For example, Donald Trump’s opponents have long criticized him for lacking  substance on the issues, yet his is the campaign generating the most excitement among Republican primary voters. And it’s not even close.

Directness is refreshing

Related to controlling the conversation is tackling subjects that can be difficult to broach.  Bernie Sanders acknowledged that his agenda would require raising taxes – obviously an unpopular position to take in a campaign season full of promises – and a pretty distinct departure from the messages of his opponents. For his part, Mr. Trump’s abject disregard for political correctness is a critical component of his persona, and thus, his appeal. What does that tell us about voters, or consumers? Getting a real answer – even one you don’t like – is preferable to getting a contrived or phony one, in politics or anywhere else. Whatever industry you’re in, being perceived as a straight shooter gives you an immediate advantage. 

Perceptions can be adjusted – if the adjustments ring true 

Like any good brand marketer, Mr. Sanders is attempting to turn a negative into a positive by saying that the tax increases he’s proposing will actually save taxpayers money in the long term. Sanders polls highest among all candidates on honesty and trustworthiness by voters in both parties, so whether they agree with his assertion or not, that integrity is carrying him a long way in public perception. Similarly, if your brand is priced at a premium or has some other perceived disadvantage (e.g., a difficult location), striving to reframe your total value proposition is important – provided it comes from a place that is genuine. And no matter what you’re selling, no matter what the message, being authentic means talking to your audience like they’re smart enough to know what’s good for them.

Playing it safe is almost always a fatal mistake 

Above all, Trump and Sanders are not trying to be all things to all people. For better or worse, they are taking stands and presenting themselves in ways that, although they may be highly polarizing, engender rabid support among certain portions of the audience. They watch the polls, but they don’t play to them. You’ll rarely see either candidate reading from a teleprompter or, especially in the case of Mr. Trump, mincing words when asked a direct question. As different as they are, personally and on the political spectrum, these men do not exhibit “typical politician” behavior, and in 2016, their brand of politics has become an enormous disruption to the status quo. It’s quite possible that more qualified candidates have fallen by the wayside in this election year, but regardless of Mr. Sanders’ or Mr. Trump’s ultimate success or failure in the presidential race, theirs are the brands that elicit the most authentic emotion among voters. For marketers, this comparison example underscores the need to connect with target audiences on a gut level. Avoid generic messages. Don’t blend in. Don’t talk at people; instead, strive to build a relationship with consumers on multiple levels – and above all, make sure your identity rings true and is consistent across every brand touchpoint. Which brings us to our next topic in our Anatomy of a Brand series – Consistency. Stay tuned!

When marketers began differentiating brands in earnest after World War II, there were fewer goods and services in the marketplace, so it was a relatively easy proposition to draw distinctions between them. Decades later, the marketplace has exploded; branded offerings now encompass complex and intangible products and services. People are brands, politicians are brands, and branding techniques are now routinely applied even to ideas to gain share of mind. As a result, there are many more factors by which we can and do carve out unique identities for our brands. Since we made the case for doing so in our last blog, we will now explore some of the ways you might go about it.

Before we work on expanding anyone’s concept of what factors can be differentiating, it’s important to note that this is all about perception. For example, Brand X may enjoy undeniable product superiority in a category, but if target customers don’t know about it, there is no competitive advantage – there is only potential. Conversely, Brand Y might pale in comparison to X on actual performance, but other factors may contribute to making Y the preferred brand. Further, brands can “own” things that aren’t necessarily unique to them (again, perception) if the message itself is unique and delivered consistently.  

The factors that contribute to brand differentiation are countless, and they are often used in combination.  Intrinsic differentiators emanate from the product or service itself and generally deal with the way the specific product or service functions or performs, which we won’t get into here. Instead, we present the following, more external factors in hopes that they will inspire you to fine-tune your brand strategy.

 Anatomy of a Brand banner


Ease of access, proximity, focus, local knowledge – these are among the perceived advantages when a product or service is convenient and readily available.  Your value proposition doesn’t need to be unique in the absolute, just unique in your market area. Geographical factors can stand alone (the only hospital in a city), or they can be combined with other pillars to help create separation from other brands, e.g., the largest 4-year BSN school of nursing in South Florida.


An obvious choice in the struggle for differentiation, price is also an inherently tricky one. To be the cost leader in any category can be a real competitive advantage, but it can also a precarious position to be in. As we marketers are fond of saying, “If a customer comes in on price, they’ll go out on price, too,” meaning that cost alone does not typically drive loyalty in any meaningful way.  Nor is price leadership necessarily ownable.  Depending on the category, temporary or short-term price promotions by other players in the market can quickly erode consumers’ perception of Brand X as the low-cost provider.  On the flip side, brands that are differentiated by their premium positions have additional factors at work, whether real or perceived, to justify their higher price.

People/Personal Service

In service-based industries or in those with complex, intangible products, the organization’s human resources bear much of the responsibility for fulfilling the brand promise. A university, for example, may have high-profile faculty who are synonymous with the institution’s brand. However, the people in any given organization don't necessarily need to be well-known to help differentiate the brand. In fact, they don’t even need to be identified. Collectively, an organization’s people can be an important driver of brand value. Think about Southwest Airlines and their culture of friendly employees. At Zappos, where customer service reps are fully empowered to “wow” their customers, they managed to carve out a distinct competitive advantage in a crowded category not known for the human touch.


Brands don’t need to be in fashion or image-driven categories to have an apparent sense of style. Style encompasses elements like personality, humor and visuals that are distinctive and attractive to target audiences. For example, the American Express brand exudes affluence and taste. Often, a brand’s style represents a departure from what you would normally expect in a category. Yellowtail Wine made the biggest splash in the wine industry in the last 50 years by adopting a look and attitude that was antithetical to anything else in the industry at the time, opening up brand new market segments in the process.

Target Market or Niche

Smart marketers understand that the most successful brands have a well-defined core customer. In some cases, it becomes so well-defined and is such a good match that the target becomes a key brand differentiator. In higher education, for example, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts has driven brand preference among young women with leadership skills who wish to make a difference in the world. On a broader scale, Under Armour began by selling compression shirts to athletes who were unyielding, determined and dissatisfied with the status quo. Two decades later, the company is huge, but the brand is still built for young men and women who can relate to that mindset.


Big is good, right?  It depends. Whatever size you are, embrace it, and communicate it with abandon if it results in something important to your target. For example, if you are a small college surrounded by large universities, you can probably find a distinct advantage in there – small class sizes, a ‘family’ feel – but it must be authentic and desirable, and geared toward the right target.

Expertise/Problem Solving

What are the pain points that particular consumers face? Focusing on how you solve key problems can be particularly compelling in certain industries. The problem must be common to many or all organizations within the sector, and you must be clear in demonstrating how you solve it. Done well and with consistency, content marketing is an excellent way to drive perception of your brand as a through leader in the industry.


Perhaps the most common form of extrinsic differentiation is the creation of original and distinctive marketing platform that helps drive brand value. Examples include: an iconic ad campaign such as “The most interesting man in the world” from Dos Equis, Geico’s popular gecko mascot, and on the nonprofit side, a powerful social media campaign such as the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS, or the emotional “Give Thanks” message for St. Jude’s Research Hospital. Note: a marketing campaign does not need to be big or famous to be effective; it simply needs to be distinctive in its category and motivating for its target.

Your Story

This is the only form of differentiation that’s 100% ownable. A brand’s story, carefully developed and creatively presented, can differentiate the brand by establishing a personality and reinforcing the values for which the brand was founded.  This approach is often utilized in higher education, but it can be just as compelling in other categories.

Do you have a great story to tell or other categories of differentiation not covered here? Our subscribers might be interested, so please let us know. In the next installment of our Anatomy of a Brand series, we’ll cover a related topic that’s perhaps the toughest part about differentiating your brand—that is, doing it with authenticity.  

Disruption in Your Workforce Strategy 

The last four or five quarters at SAI have been packed with hundreds of interviews, workshops and conversations with our clients, industry experts and others about changes in workforce learning as we’ve gathered requirements for Acadia and worked through early adopter projects. I’ll attempt to distill some of the larger points in this blog and we’ll continue to share our findings in individual conversations if you’re interested in more detail.

I have been reminded several times through this process of Clay Christensen. Christensen has proven to be one of the foremost business strategists in our time and I’ve watched him accurately predict the disruptive innovation of several industries (technology, telcos, education) during my time at PwC and SAI. The increasing pressure being exerted in some segments of the workforce today around learning, compliance and change management are consistent with some of the fundamental changes that Christensen has predicted in the past.

Demographics and Work Arrangements

Whether you like PwC, Accenture, Deloitte or dozens of other consulting firm’s predictive capabilities, all are forecasting an accelerating transition to more part time, contract and contingent workers in the years ahead with a consensus forecast of more than 50% by 2025. In parallel, work component design, Glassdoor, LinkedIn and a confluence of demographic factors are aligning to make employee portability an emerging threat for enterprises as we struggle to build capacity in a workforce that often isn’t aligned with job requirements. Sprinkle in a host of retiring Boomers with little documentation around best practices and you have the potential for rapid deterioration in quality and differentiation among large enterprises.

Our clients have explained in great detail across multiple verticals (retail, healthcare, dining, manufacturing, retail banking) that the cycle time to onboard new team members has been largely unchanged over the last several years despite large investments in technology, staff and processes. While voicing increasing support for automated recruiting platforms that are shortening the recruiting cycle, getting employees up to speed quickly and consistently has continued to constrain organizational growth and effectiveness. Rapid turnover is exacerbating the problem as HR professionals struggle to meet a larger regulatory burden with an accelerating number of staff changes.

Long Live Content; Content is Dead

A second recurring theme across many of our workshops revolves around the idea that organizations have created significant amounts (“mountains” …) of content (LMS content, learning aids, etc.), all with the hope of enabling more effective training and development only to be disappointed that employees can’t find the right content at the right time and quickly give up looking for it. Many of our clients described high six and low seven figure investments in LMS platforms that are essentially unused except for deploying mandatory compliance training as the staff that are most qualified to create the content don’t have the time or experience with the tools to be able to quickly create training content.

‘Content freshness” was identified in multiple workshops as another serious concern, i.e. the inability to figure out how to quickly update content on a timely basis and get rid of stale content before it creates other disruptions; this appears to be a particular problem with HR and other back office content. One of our clients referred to this as “lurking” content, another as “content debt”. The emerging “content debt” problem was identified in approximately 65% of our interviews as the primary obstacle to improving employee effectiveness as content owners don’t have the capacity or detailed process experience to rework, replace or remove the content.   

Access Speed and Mobility

By my count we have heard seven different variations of the “if I can find the answer to who that guy was in “Taken” on my phone, why can’t I find out what our IT policy is about <fill in the blank>.” Problems with content accessibility were most often associated with the usability of the content (scrolling in Office documents) and inconsistencies in the content across different devices. Subject matter expert content creators don’t have the time or experience to figure out how to work around technical issues and no clear owner appears to exist for these problems in either the business or IT.

More to Come

We are accumulating specific industry and functional domain business case and ROI information around these issues through our Acadia Early Adopter program and we would be happy to share that information with you (whether you are an Acadia customer or not J). Please drop me a note at if you have questions or would like to discuss any of this further. 

Whether you know it or not, user experience (UX) is already part of your brand. When people visit your site, they make associations with your organization based upon their experience. Often, the only interaction they have with your organization is through your website, and there is often little or no separation between your website and your organization itself.

If your site is easy to use and the content is worthwhile, your audience will project their positive experience onto your brand. But if they are frustrated, confused or disappointed, they will transfer those negative emotions instead.

Here are some tips for how to start aligning user experience with your brand strategy.

Getting Started

For many, the first step is to make sure UX is part of the discussion. Marketing and design teams are often responsible for creating and maintaining a brand. Unless you are working with a dedicated UX designer, don’t assume someone else is thinking of ways to bring together the brand and UX.

If you’re lucky enough to be part of a team that is already moving in this direction, then you’re off to a great start! If not, don’t worry. Here is an overview of how to make it happen:

  • Find out who's responsible for your brand at your organization and talk to them about incorporating UX into the overall brand strategy
  • Make sure brand UX is part of the timeline, budget and skill set of your team
  • Come up with a few specific ways you can use UX to reinforce the brand (use the tips below as a starting point)
  • Review and revise your UX strategy throughout the process to make sure it aligns with your brand

There is no magic potion that makes it all happen at once. Whether you’re working on a team or alone, the key is to just get started.

Tips for Brand UX

Start a Conversation

When a user comes to your site, they are starting a conversation with your organization. It’s the equivalent of a customer walking up to a salesperson, a student talking to an admissions counselor, a prospective member talking to a representative. Your website should do what any of these folks would do in person: greet them, ask how they can help, listen to their requests, ask for clarification if necessary, and then help them directly or give them the information they need to help themselves.

Try It:

  • Make sure the tone and voice follows brand guidelines
  • Include answers to common questions your audience has when they come to your site
  • Provide clear links to common actions

AACO Website Screenshot

Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Government starts the conversation by asking how they can help, and then anticipates responses by giving a variety of ways to find answers to questions. 

Be Real

Websites are made by people. Organizations are made up of people. Your audience consists of people. You don’t have to pretend to be a robot or a disembodied corporate voice. Your audience will be able to connect with your organization better if they feel that it is made up of people who understand and care about them. If your brand is on the serious side, you can still be personable without being unprofessional.

Try It:

  • Avoid passive voice
  • Write in the first person unless there is an important reason not to do so
  • Be conversational and use language that is familiar to you and your audience

BCM Website Screenshot

Baltimore Collegetown Network connects with their audience by being direct and writing in a friendly and personable tone of voice.

Make a Joke

A common trend in UX is humor. Even if humor is not a main attribute of your brand personality, it can still be a useful way to connect with your audience. If you use the kind of humor that resonates with your audiences, it’s a good sign that you’ve done your homework.

Try It:

  • Use humor to make error messages less painful
  • Entertain someone while they wait for a long screen to load
  • Don’t take things too seriously; try to make dry or boring content more engaging through humor

YCP 404 Page Screenshot

York College softens the frustration of getting an error page by blaming it on the school’s number one fan, Screamer.  

Be Succinct

Try taking the classic web writing advice and reduce copy to a minimum. Make life easier for your audience, and show them that you respect their time by not forcing them to read redundant or irrelevant copy.  

Try It:

  • Be vigilant about editing every line of copywriting
  • Remember that web writing can--and should be--more concise than traditional prose
  • Use headings, lists and short sentences to avoid “walls of text”

Packard Center Websiite Screenshot

Packard Center for ALS Research makes their About Us page easy to read by breaking text into short paragraphs and using plenty of white space.

Write Good Microcopy

Microcopy refers to small pieces of explanatory text (including headings, instructions, notifications, form labels and link or button text). It’s a popular topic in UX because it is essential for usability, but often overlooked. Microcopy provides key information your audience needs to find information and interact with the site.

Try It:

  • Use microcopy as an opportunity to reinforce your brand personality’s tone and voice
  • Identify who will write microcopy, and plan for it in the schedule and budget
  • Make sure your organization has a good style guide that helps you use consistent language for microcopy

Stevenson University Image

Stevenson University uses a clear tagline and coordinated button text to emphasize the brand promise of preparing students for the future.

Make Interactions Easy

A good website experience is made up of hundreds of small interactions. Use intuitive navigation menus to give users clear pathways through your site. Make sure your forms are easy to read and complete.Take the time to design menus and forms that are aesthetically pleasing and minimal.

Try It:

  • Group related links together, and limit the number of options in a menu
  • Avoid long forms by breaking them into sections or steps, and resisting the urge to ask too many questions
  • Build search and filter options to give people alternative ways to find information

JHHR Website Screenshot

Johns Hopkins Health Review online magazine includes a simple dropdown form that allows users to request a print edition.

Be a Guide

Confusion should not be part of any organization's brand. Luckily the web is not a one-way street. As a user moves through your site, you can give them feedback to help guide and encourage them.

Try It:

  • Display friendly tips to reduce errors
  • Make recommendations for related content
  • Use interactive content to create useful and fun ways for your audience to find content and accomplish tasks

HCC Website Screenshot

Howard Community College helps guide prospective students to the content they’re most interested in by letting them cross-search in different categories.

Exciting Opportunities

It’s tempting to look at brand UX as another facet of an already complex process. But it’s actually an exciting opportunity to be creative and differentiate your organization from competitors. Organizations and businesses in every field are creating unique, sophisticated brands by weaving together technology, visual design, marketing, user experience and even offline customer experience.

The payoff is worth it. You can build a powerful feedback loop where a strong brand draws the audience in and positive user experience defines their interactions--which ultimately reinforces your brand.     

May 2016