Many businesses too often act like zombies, behaving like the blundering walking dead, driving customers away. So said Elon University communications professor Julie Lellis at the Internet Summit.

Lellis, who authored the book “The Zombie Business Cure,” highlighted the traits that make even well-meaning companies zombies and how to avoid them during her presentation on stage as the two-day Internet Summit got underway.

​Zombies, she explained, make horrendous communications decisions that don’t prioritize customers. She cited several recent much reported airline incidents as examples.”

“​Companies that are zombies communicate in dreadful and destructive ways,” she added.

​Zombie traits include following trends blindly, getting hung on minor issues and ignoring major problems, creating content without a strategy, and understanding audiences only partly, among others. Zombies are reckless, lack awareness and consideration of others, and are not patient, calm and deliberate. They are haphazard and don’t know what they will say or do next. They sound and look alike and their actions are the same as all the other zombies around them.

Zombies, Lellis said, “are indistinguishable.” For instance, she recently received an email from a company she does business with that sent her an email marking her anniversary of being a customer. The email used the occasion to urge her to write a review of the company.

That’s opposed to say Facebook, which marks a similar anniversary by showing the user past photos and posts and makes them smile but asks for nothing.

Companies would be better off marking the anniversary more like Facebook than by asking for something, a generic, zombie response, she said.

The remedy to being indistinguishable from the other zombies, “Is creativity within the limits of your own identity,” Lellis added. “Do something off the wall that resonates with your own identity. Discard fear and doubt.”

Case studies

She cited a number of case studies from her book.

Reverend Nat, for instance, an Oregon hard cider maker, who was ordained so he could marry friends, used to gather fallen apples from orchards. He started brewing hard cider in his basement. With encouragement from friends, he began making “The most unusual ciders no one else would make.”

They included one made from passion fruit, for instance, and others called Hallelujah Hopriocot and Deliverance Ginger Tonic. If larger commercial hard cider makers copied a successful brew, Nat dropped his and moved on. He said his ciders are “The apple’s deepest purpose realized.”

So, that’s one way to avoid being a zombie: “Be uniquely yourself,” Lellis said.

In another example, she pointed to Brand Kid in Portland, Oregon, where she was doing research for her book. “He plays the bagpipes while riding a unicycle,” she said. How did this happen, she asked.

He told her, “I was learning to play the bagpipes and found a unicycle in a dumpster.” So, she noted, “He found something in a dumpster interesting enough for him to pair it with what he was currently doing well and put them together to make a connection no one else did. He made more money riding up and down the coast of NC than he did working at an aquarium and when he moved to Oregon, it fit will with Portland’s city identity of “Keep Portland Weird.”

“He created something new and everything he does, he does because he wants to,” Lellis said.

Another example of creative thinking, she said, was the Krispy Kreme’s donut burger. “It was a cardiologist’s nightmare, but something that had never been done before.” People flocked to try it at the recent NC State Fair and at other events nationally.

“Take a virtual dive into a dumpster,” Lellis suggested. “Write “Dumpster Dive” in a notebook and write down everything you think is possible.”

Other ways human marketers behave – as opposed to zombies – is that they are “Mindful of who the customer is and put clients first” in their thinking.

“Say what you mean and mean what you say,” she said.

Pledge against the undead

She concluded by having her audience stand and recite the “Pledge Against the Undead.”

It goes:

“I pledge to my fellow human communicators

Of the superior organizations for which we stand,

To develop and strengthen my core,

To always pause and breathe,

To be mindful and stretch myself,

Perhaps riding a unicycle,

Alongside a workout buddy

With whom I share values,

So we are healthy together with no

Zombies in sight, not even on airplanes,

With a happy audience and increased profit for all.”