Posts tagged “Authenticity

The ‘self’ virus

I live in Washington DC.  I work in public relations.  I used to work in politics. I am a human being.  Consider me an expert in the self-driven life.

I was thinking about that a lot lately; trying to stitch together and make sense of some crazy things I saw at work, around me outside of work, on television, on the campaign trail.  Have you seen it?  Man, there’s some absolutely crazy stuff going on out there.   How could we get so dysfunctional?  I’m thinking that there’s a new disease, worse than HIV/AIDS, ebola, and avian flu combined.  It is the attack of the self-driven and the self-absorbed.

This is a bad thing, by the way.  A very bad thing.  I’ve a sense that we’re all infected with this virus in some form.  Because it is all about me, right!  But what happens when everyone, all around you, say the same thing:  “It’s all about ME!”  Well, when that happens you have a lot of the madness that is going on right now.

As best I can tell, here are the main symptoms of this virus:

A warped perspective of reality. If it is all about you, the reality of the outside world slowly begins to fade.  Why?  Because you can’t see the important things happen that don’t relate to you.  Just like pre-Copernicus astrologers, you have this mistaken impression that life evolves around you and your well-being.  The ‘other’ is only a consideration in as much as they (a) cross your path; or (b) provide you a stepping stone to the other side.  After awhile, this is not only a sick way of looking at life it is a false way of looking at life.  Living in your own self-absorbed cocoon, everything looks rosey.  You can’t see outside yourself (another word for ‘outside yourself’ … ‘reality’!)  Then, BAM!  That nasty real world slams you up side the head.  And you never saw it coming.

Destruction of meaningful and lasting relationships. This is close to a tautology but worth noting.  You can’t have a meaningful relationship with anyone or any thing if you are the #1, #2, and #3 most important things on your daily todo list.  When you hold the top position of what’s important in your life, relationships become shallow and matters of convenience.  People no longer become people.  We’ll all playing a game of “Survivor” or “Big Brother”.  People are disposable.  Relationships are transitory.  And you wake up one morning and there’s no body around you.  Go figure!

Death of moral values.  Objective moral values – universal truths of right and wrong – suffocate in the oppressive and feckless nature of the self-absorption.  Self sucks up all the oxygen.  The old fashion ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have about as much chance as a polar bear on a melting ice cap.  When it is all about you, concepts like honesty, integrity, service, dependability, and trust eventually lose their original meaning.  Everything becomes a function of what is good for you.

It is a nasty, nasty illness.

So what does any of this have about companies, organizations, and brands?

A lot.  I’ve seen this virus spread to them as well.  In this I’d go so far as to agree with Governor Romney.  Companies are, indeed, people.  And when they turn inward and begin organizing around self, they lose perspective of what is going on in the marketplace, the bonds they’ve built with their customers begin to fray, and they end up making really dumb decisions.

The vaccine?  Try putting something or someone ahead of yourself.  Maybe even more than one!

The people I admire are those who put themselves last, and put others first.  The same is true for companies, organizations and brands.

Kids games … the social media version

When I was growing up we had games like ‘tag’, ‘hopscotch’, ‘kick the can’, and ‘jump rope.’   Most were a variation on a form of chase.  Some required some hand-eye skill.  Throwing a top.  Spinning a yo-yo.  Picking up jacks.

Those days seem to be on the way out.

Last month I spent a week with the youth from my church at work camp.   They introduced me to a whole new world of kids’ games, none of which involve a whole lot of skill, speed, or coordination.  They do, however, require a bit of daring, a quirky sense of humor, and a Facebook page.

Let me tell you about two.

The first game I was introduced to was ‘coning.’ I don’t know what you immediately think of when you read or hear the word ‘coning’.  I can tell you that when I first heard the term, I said to myself:

“This can’t be good.”

But it turned out to be neither risque nor illegal. Just a bit odd.

Going ‘coning’ involves three things – a drive up window, an ice cream cone, and (optional) a phone that takes pictures or movies. The game is quite simple. You go to the drive up window. Order an ice cream cone. And when the attendant hands you the ice cream cone, instead of grabbing it by the cone you grab it by the top … by the ice cream.

That’s it.

Fun, huh?

If you missed it (the fun, that is) that’s ok. So did I. But that’s because you didn’t know where to look. The fun lies not in wasting a good ice cream cone that you only recently paid for. The fun lies in the experience.

The first experience is deciding to do it.  And believe it or not, acting out on something as disturbingly silly as grabbing an ice cream cone by the ice cream requires some gumption.   If you don’t believe me, try it.   Go ahead.   I dare you! (which is how I think this game began, by the way!)

The second experience is recording and sharing it.   In the van full of teenagers that I was driving there was story after story of “oh, I remember doing it back at the McDonald’s in so and so …”.  But beyond just telling stories there’s the video phone recording and posting on Facebook.  That is the real badge of honor.  And it is really the only way anyone can convey any meaning behind an act that on its surface seems so silly.

Don’t believe me.  Check this out.  (Or search on ‘coning’ on YouTube.)

Which leads me to game number two – planking.

Again, I don’t know what ran through your mind when you read about the act of ‘planking’ but when I heard it I didn’t think this was something that teenagers should be doing.  At least not in public or without protection.

But planking is an international phenomenon.  I understand it has been banned in Australia.

Planking goes something like this. Identify a spot where you think it would be odd to find a person lying face down – preferably some location where it would be physically difficult to do so (think narrow, sharp, and high). Then figure out a way for you to lay on that space in a yoga ‘plank’ position. Have someone take a picture.

That’s it.

Fun, huh?

Apparently so. Planking does require some physical skill. And like coning, there’s quite bit of chutzpah associated with it (more points the stranger and odd the location).  It isn’t about who is faster, quicker, stronger.   It is who is sillier, goofier, and more imaginative.

What both have in common is that their fun derives from SHARING the experience (either video or photo).  It isn’t about being the fastest or most coordinated.  It is about being able to make another person laugh, smile, or say “wow”!

And I think that is pretty cool.

What is your favorite kids game these days?

The myth of independence

Happy Independence Day.

This is the day that we celebrate those who went before us some 200+ years ago who sacrificed everything to gain independence from Britain and King George.  In America, we LOVE independence.  We idolize the rebel.  We venerate the ‘self-made’ individual.  We mythologize the pioneer spirit that accepts no limits, little authority, and absolute self-determination.

But of course the idea of independence – at least as it is known in popular culture – is a myth .   We all exist in a state that is “in” dependence.  Dependence from King George was simply traded for dependence on a band of vagabond (but quite erudite, stubborn and opinionated!) colonists.  It wasn’t that we suddenly became independent.  Rather, we simply shifted our dependence from King George to each other.  Consider the last line of the Declaration of Independence:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Independence from George.  But “reliance” on God.  And a mutual pledge of our money, honor, and life.  Sounds like a lot of dependence to me.

No, dependence is inherent in the human condition. More than that, dependence is something we strive for.  If you’re in business you’re hoping clients depend on you for goods and services.  If you’re part of a family or community you hope you can depend on them for support.  If you’re a spouse you’re hoping that your partner is dependent on you for love and affection.

It works the other way around as well.

I want to depend on the people I work with.  My wife and family.  My faith.  You don’t even have to go high concept.  I want to depend on my car.  The mailman.  My dentist.

Dependencies are what make societies (and economies) function.  So it isn’t a question of being independent or not.

Rather, it is a question of upon what and whom you depend.

A lot of people tell me, “I’m not going to depend on anyone but myself.”

Good luck with that.

Even the Founding Fathers were smart enough not to go there.

Assessments, Predictions and Resolutions – Happy New Year!

December is the month to look back, pretend to see forward, and resolve that the things we’ve failed miserably to accomplish in the past will somehow — with a mix of grit, will, and magic — finally happen.

It is the time we assess, predict, and resolve.

First, there are the assessments.  For some reason they follow the decimal system.  We come up with endless ‘top ten’, top twenty’, and ‘top one hundred lists.’   Of the ‘top ten’ claims and lists I’ve seen, the most audacious is that of  They claim to have the ‘top ten of everything in 2010.’  According to ‘everything’ conveniently falls into less than 50 categories.


So here’s an interesting way to spend (waste?) an hour of your time.  Google “top ten for 2010”.  You probably won’t have time to go through the 8+ billion entries.  But along the way you’ll find the top ten buzzwords of 2010.  Can you say ‘vuvuzela?’  There is  everything from a list of the top comedy movies to a list of the top ten depression blogs.  I love Google!

Then there are the predictions.

I find the urge to predict the future peculiarly interesting.  We know ‘next year’ predictions rarely come true.   There’s always something we didn’t see.  Some event no one could predict. Unconvinced?  Read J. Conboy’s piece on the ‘worst predictions for 2010.’  The Google Wave that never came ashore.  The netbook sales that never happened.  The jobs that never appeared.

We know (at least I do) that when we say this stuff it amounts to a wild-assed guess.  So we package our predictions instead as ‘bold’.  Bold means it is a real crap shoot.

When we come to grips that we are much better at taking stock of what was than predicting what will be, we turn to the ‘resolution.’  Specifically, the New Year’s Resolution.

There are many definitions of resolution.  You can look it up (or click here).  But the New Year’s Resolution usually follows this one:  “the act of resolving or determining upon an action or course of action, method, procedure.”

The New Year’s Resolution is typically personal.  We resolve to do this, to achieve that, to become something (or someone) else.  It is as if we’ve admitted that we can’t predict the future and have little control over what is ‘out there’ …  so at least we’ll make a stab at regaining some portion of self, some piece of dignity, some glimmer of a more hopeful lifestyle.

So we resolve.  And most of us fail.

Actually, those who keep statistics on such stuff say that only 46% succeed past six months (I would have guessed a higher failure rate).  And those who study this also claim that regardless of whether you keep a resolution or not, simply the exercise of trying makes a difference.

So we try again.  Knowing that next year there’s a very good chance we’ll be back wrestling with the same old issue, striving for the same elusive goal.  But that’s ok.

So here’s to 2011.  And to never giving up on making resolutions even when we know the risk of failure is high.

Happy New Year.

Brain 1 – History (and Thanksgiving) 0

I’ve been plowing through a stack of books about the brain … how we process information, store it, understand it, and incorporate that information into our lives.  There’s no shortage of them.  The brain and its vagaries are hot topics, especially if you are in the behavioral marketing or communications sciences (that would be me).  I just finished a great read by Robert Burton.  It was the title that got me:

“On Being Certain:  Believing your are right even when you’re not”

Of course he wasn’t talking about you and me.  To steal the tag line from the late Senator Long, he was talking about “the person behind the tree”.  You and I … well, we’re sure we’re right.  Right?


Fact is, what we THINK happened in the past likely did not … at least not in the way we think.  We didn’t party as much (or as little) as we think we did in high school and college.   We weren’t as cool (or dopey) as we thought we were in our twenties.  And that summer road trip wasn’t as fun and bizarre (or mind stultingly boring) as we imagined.

Indeed … the road trip may not have even happened!

Fact is, after you finish reading Burton’s book you begin to rethink everything about what you think you know.  Because according to him a good chunk of it is something we made up along the way.

Burton explores the ‘hidden layer’ of the brain that enables us to – among other things – reinterpret history.  It is this subconscious layer that makes us certain about things that either allows us be certain about things that are either (a) dead wrong; or (b) didn’t happen.

He gives the example of Ulric Neisser‘s famous Challenger explosion study.  Ulric, a professor and psychologist, the day after the Challenger study asked his students to write down the details of that day.  Two and a-half years later he asked them again and guess what.  In a mere 30 months less than 10 percent told the same story.  A quarter of the participants told a ‘strikingly different’ story.  Most interesting was this – when shown their own original account many clung to the ‘new version’ of history.  As told by Burton:

“Many expressed a high level of confidence that their false recollections were correct, despite being confronted with their own handwritten journals.  The most unnerving was one student’s comment, ‘That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.'”

I’m imagining it is why all those politicians – both left and right – say stuff about themselves that isn’t true.  Maybe it is why Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have – as noted recently in the New York Times – created their own myth about the origins of Thanksgiving and the demise of American socialism and rise of American capitalism.

Doesn’t have much to do with truth.  But for them it has become their reality.  The past is metastasized, digested and recast.  And viola!  Out pops a new reality.

This is a sad reality for people like me that are in the communications business.  Every day someone can wake up and decide that they are going to change history.  Their ‘hidden layer’ is going to process the next wave of information and decide that you’re no longer cool.

Shoot, they may even decide that you are downright evil (e.g. you may have THOUGHT that those Pilgrims were nice folks yearning for religious freedom in funny hats but in reality they were communist, collectivist, fascist zealots that were only saved when unshackled from their socialist roots and given a heavy dose of capitalism and an across-the-board tax cut.)

Seems we have to work hard just to keep history the same.

Doesn’t leave much time to make for a better future.

Fact is, what we THINK happened in the past likely did not … at least not in the way we think.  We didn’t party as much (or as little) as we think we did in high school and college.   We weren’t as cool (or dopey) as we thought we were in our twenties.  And that road trip wasn’t as fun and bizarre (or mind stultingly boring) as we imagined.

Indeed … the road trip may not have even happened!

Is social media small change?

The latest kerfuffle in social media circles has been Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece in the New Yorker headlined “Small Change.”

In it Gladwell has the temerity of asserting that social media’s impact on social change is not all that it is cracked up to be.  Some of his jabs are sharp.   Like calling innovators ‘solipsists’ and saying that ‘they’ – that is the vaunted social media futurist gurus – ‘often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model.’


Gladwell’s argument is characteristically simple and trenchant – that online social networks do not engender either the strong commitment (and risk!) nor the organizational structure that make for social change.  Using the civil rights movement as an example, he notes that real change – substantive action in the face of entrenched power – is not social media or social networking’s strong suit.  Social media, Gladwell writes:

“is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that “give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.” (my emphasis added)

This bold assertion – that social media is just window dressing and doesn’t represent any fundamental change in how social change is achieved – has got the preachers of social media gospel in a tizzy.

One writer on MediaPost blasted back with an article eloquently entitled, “Malcolm Gladwell is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong.”

Clearly Mr. Gladwell has hit a nerve.

And in my view rightly so.  It is still early in the social media revolution.  But what we have seen to date doesn’t appear to have prompted many fundamental changes in attitudes, behavior, norms, or even public policy.

One of the better rebuttals comes from Brendan Smith and Jeremy Brecher.  In it they quibble with many of the characteristics that Gladwell attributes to past social movements.  But their main point is to remind Gladwell (and all of us) to keep a clear distinction between social media as a tool and social media as an end in itself.

“Gladwell is surely right when he says social media ‘are not a natural enemy of the status quo.’ But that is only the beginning of the discussion. The pertinent question is whether social media can contribute to the process of forming social movements and effective social action, not whether social media can substitute for that process. (A telephone system is not a PTA, but it can sure as heck be useful for getting a few hundred people out to confront the school board or vote in the school board election.)”

That is — in the JuiceBar’s view — the better way to look at this.  Social media and social networks are tools.  They are to the 21st century what the telegraph was to the 20th (although I must say that better stories came out of the events around the Pony Express than out of the building of the telegraph network.

But Gladwell’s most damning criticism is the inherent conflict that arises when information and content are ‘free’.  And that is the simple fact that sustaining value and relevance is difficult when everything is free and no one has a price to pay.

When Good Isn’t Good Enough

The history of brands is littered with good — sometimes even great — products that failed.  Can you spell (or remember) Betamax?

A recent case in point can be found in the litter of the aftermath of what many seem as the most colorful political primaries in record.  Amidst scandal, write-ins, and Tea Party surprises there was the DC mayoral race.  A race lost by incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Mayor Fenty.  Young.  Smart.  Aggressive.

And effective.

By any objective standard he was a good mayor (and we’ve not had many in the three decades I’ve been here!).

He inherited a budget mess, and fixed it.  He said he would take over the city’s schools and make them work.  And he did!  He reduced crime, kept spending in check, modernized city services, and boosted private investments.

And he lost.

There were some immediate issues.  He addressed the budget by cutting jobs and fixed the schools by laying off teachers.  Not very popular in a city with a high unemployment rate.  But the real reasons were at the same time ephemeral and substantive.  It was a question of attitude.
Fenty’s intensity and intellect often led to arrogance.  His doggedness sometimes became insular.  His purity could be strident.
In the end, his base deserted him.  And he lost.
There are plenty of brand lessons in Mayor Fenty’s fall from grace.
One being that just because you’re ‘good’ doesn’t mean you’re ‘good enough’ for the next choice or purchase.  Substance matters.  But substance isn’t everything.  You can be ‘right’ and still have your customers think you are ‘wrong’.
Remember the advocates, supporters, purchasers, and fans that got you where you are.  Be nice to them.  Maybe even listen.  Ok, at least pretend to listen.  Don’t expect that they’ll follow and support you just because you think you’re doing the right thing … just because you’re so … good.
Just being good isn’t good enough.

Glittering Generalities

Watching the news this morning from one of my favorite ‘hidden gem’ hotels – The CharlesMark in Boston (Back Bay).  I stumbled across an interview with Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  I liked her.  Seemed like a genuinely smart person and skilled operator.  And she’s been working hard making the rounds this days as educations reform and charter schools take the spotlight with the new documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

But I was unimpressed with her work this morning.  The exchange went something like this:

Reporter:  “But isn’t there a real problem with teachers who don’t have the skills or drive or ability to teach our children yet they continue in the classroom year after year?

AFT president:  “No one wants bad teachers in the classroom.  We don’t want that.  We’re not for that.  We’re against that.  But that’s not the real problem.  The real problem is getting everyone together.  We all have to address this educational challenge we face together.  We need to bring everyone to the table.  All parties have to work together to address this collectively … to do it together …”.

Blah, blah, blah.

She punted on recognizing the reality of the problem – bad teachers in the classroom.  And if you can’t step up and admit that a problem exists, how can you formulate a way of solving it?  She might as well have said, “If we can all just hold hands and sing the Coca Cola song …”

Then I read about the GOP’s “Pledge to America”.

We’re for families.  We honor the constitution.  We hate deficits (as well as the government we long to take control over).  We support our troops.  We believe in a strong America.  We hate terrorists.  And we are not fans of illegal immigrants.  We love America.  We love America a lot.

So what exactly to we do?  Not so much.

My fifth grade teacher used to term all this “glittering generalities.”  Kumbya on the left … Kumbya on the right.

I don’t know about you but the kumbya talk doesn’t work much in my world.

My mortgage company wants the check.  My clients want me to show them how much stuff I helped them sell.  The folks in the class I teach expect to learn something.  My wife expects me to fix the garbage disposal.  The people in my world want specifics.  They want tangibles.  They expect problems to be confronted and addressed.  You don’t even have to solve them all the time.  But if you show that you acknowledge it and doing everything you can to fix it, people will often give you the benefit of the doubt.

Does straight talk make a company or brand stronger?  I think so.  We can all cite popular brands that don’t.  But my experience is that if you dabble in glittering generalities long enough, the real problems catch up with you.

Not only that …

You become boring as hell.

The New Minimalism

People are paring down, cutting back.  Will it last?

And if it does, what does it mean for the consumer or business brand of tomorrow?

I thought about this as I read a great piece in the Sunday New York Times by Stephanie Rosenbloom on the link between consumption and happiness.  According to Rosenbloom in the downsized economic world people are discovering that the Beatles were right … money does not buy you love … or happiness.

While the current round of stinginess may simply be a response to the economic downturn, some analysts say consumers may also be permanently adjusting their spending based on what they’ve discovered about what truly makes them happy or fulfilled.

Of course we all know that, right?  Well we should.  We read about it in the Great Gatsby (something I’m reading for the first time at the recommendation of my daughter).  Poor Gatsby.  Poor Daisy.  Awash with riches and beauty and … absolute boredom!  But we need not rely on F. Scott Fitzgerald and works of  fiction.  Watch an evening of “Access Hollywood”.  The misery to fun ratio leans decidedly to the former.  Addictions.  Infidelity.  Rehab.  Prison.  Divorce.  Abuse.

We’re not talking Leave it to Beaver.  For all their money, the jet set seem a pretty tawdry, depressing, miserable bunch.

No wonder people are paring down.

So is there anything worth buying?  According to the experts the money shot is on things you do, not things you do things with.  That is:

One major finding is that spending money for an experience — concert tickets, French lessons, sushi-rolling classes, a hotel room in Monaco — produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on plain old stuff.

“  ‘It’s better to go on a vacation than buy a new couch’ is basically the idea,” says Professor Dunn, summing up research by two fellow psychologists, Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich. Her own take on the subject is in a paper she wrote with colleagues at Harvard and the University of Virginia: “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right.” (The Journal of Consumer Psychology plans to publish it in a coming issue.)

Good news for hotels and cruise lines, bad news for Best Buy and The Furniture Store.

But some are going beyond the reductionism of consumerism to experiences.  Some are pushing a new minimalist lifestyle.  Not the least of whom is the author of RowdyKittens, Tammy Strobel.

Could this be the ‘new’ normal?  I actually think so.  At some point the cacophony of modern life takes its toll.  And the uncertain economic climate only reinforces what most people already know.  That the delight in life is in simple, genuine experiences.  Which brings us back to brands and what may be the modern test for brands in these lean economic times.

What simple, genuine experience do you generate for your customer?

I’m Good … I’m a Leader … Really!

I recently read an excellent article on resume writing.  It was so excellent that I now can’t find it which is usually the way things work.

The really good stuff I forget to tag or file away.  All the mediocre stuff ends up stacked up on the desk, clogging up the inbox, filling up the hard drive and overwhelming the Delicious file.

But I digress.

The point of the article on resume writing was that people waste valuable resume space — and more importantly valuable resume reader time — telling people about personal characteristics that are either (a) presumed; or (b) best judged by someone other than the writer.

How many of you have read — or have! — resumes that include phrases like …  “hard worker” “detail oriented”“team player”“self starter”.

You read those things and you think to yourself “gosh, this person thinks pretty highly of him or herself.”

And you wonder when you are going to read a resume where someone writes:

“sometimes I’m lazy” … or …

“I’m tough to get along with” … or …

“I am capable of doing exceptional work but every now and then I need a good kick in the ass or else I’ll blow it off.”

Fact is we  often promote character traits that most people should expect of someone.  Like being honest, punctual, dedicated.

More importantly, we are rarely honest with ourselves about anything that concerns ourselves.  And while we may think that we are all these things, could it be that we are somewhat biased?

Shouldn’t others be the judge?

I often work with corporate clients on positioning and messaging their corporate brand.  Inevitably they will want to include the term “leader” in the messaging mix.

Funny, I’ve never have a client who wants to be a “follower” … they all want to be a “leader”.

But shouldn’t that be the judgment of others, not the brand?

Better to talk about your accomplishments, philosophy, and what you stand for.

Then letter others make their own judgment about who you are.