Posts tagged “Brands

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.

Hiding in plain sight

So now we know that all this time the world’s most notorious terrorist was living in a suburb of Islamabad.  And not only that, the town was also the home of the Pakistani military academy.  Not exactly a cave in the hinterlands.   It would be like this guy to have hung out for years in duplex outside of Quantico Marine base.

Hiding in plain sight.  This, my friends, is the story of life.

We miss stuff all the time, and it is hiding in plain sight.  Like the housing crisis.  Or the oil crisis.  Or the next retirement crisis.

This stuff is / was there.  Like, right there!  Right in front of us.  Clear as an unmuddied lake.  But we don’t see it.  Sometimes it is because the object of our affection or interest has craftily gone to the once place we’d NEVER think about looking.

Sometimes we fail to see or acknowledge what is in plain view because we’re either focusing on something else.   A version of the latter is called inattentional blindness.  It was the subject of a recent popular book which I highly recommend titled “The Invisible Gorilla”.  According to Daniel Simons:  “Inattentional blindness is the failure to notice a fully-visible but unexpected object when you are focusing attention on something else.”

Finally, there are those times when things can hide in plain sight because we find them too uncomfortable to face.

So which was it for the Pakistani Army?  Was it simply that the terrorist had outsmarted them by going to the ONE PLACE that no one would have ever guessed (including, by the way, the Bush and Obama administrations)?  Or did they not see it because they were too busy with other things?  Or did we not see it because they didn’t want to see it?

Most of the challenges we face are hidden in plain sight.  We know they are a problem.  But we don’t see them because we’re either (a) caught up paying attention to other less pressing but often more pleasurable things; or (b) find them too painful to confront so we pretend they’re not there.

Most of the solutions to our problems are hidden in plain sight.  We just don’t pursue them because it is inconvenient or uncomfortable.  This is certainly true for people.  Overweight?  Exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables.  Financial concerns?  Save more than you spend.  Unfulfilled?  Do only those things you are passionate about.

This is true for every organization and every brand.

We know we’re to focus on core competencies, invest in people, constantly improve the customer experience.  The principles that the big consultancies come up with aren’t rocket science.  They are pretty basic stuff.  They are things that most people in the organization ALREADY KNOW!  But they hide in plain sight because we are either distracted or inconvenienced.

Like our now deceased terrorist … most of our problems and their solutions are … right there hiding in plain sight.  And like the folks in the Islamabad suburb, most of the time we find ways to ignore what we know to be true.

Death of a Brand

R.I.P. Pontiac.  It has gone the way of the mullet.  That was part of the problem.  Think of one and you eerily begin to think of the other.

The venerable brand that brought us the GTO, the TransAm, and many iconic V-8 muscle cars is quietly being put to rest.

What happened?  Seems to me that the Pontiac was the case of the non-adaptive brand.  Think StudebakerEdselSaturn (one of which I still own!).

pontiac logoAdaptive brands change, morph, reconfigure and adjust to the times.  They broaden their aperture and constantly develop new points of relevance.

A good — should I say ‘classic? — example is Coca-Cola.  A Coke bottle would feel just at home in a Frank deCapra movie as it would Mad Men or Jersey Shore.  It has a palette of personalities, images, and experiences that is so vast it fits in every context, every emotion, every age.  As one of its many taglines put it, “Coke is Life!”

Then there are the brands that adapt in a more sudden even violent manner.  Here are three I remember from my youth.  (BTW, my youth was a very long time ago.)

Mountain Dew.  Back then, Mountain Dew was the hillbilly 7-Up.  It was tank tops, cut off jeans and a tire swing into an Arkansas mill pond on a hot summer day.  It was syrupy with a funny yellow color.  Most of all, it was cheap.

Old Spice. That was my father’s brand.  Ironically (or iconically!) my Dad was a sailor, a Chief Petty Officer, WWII veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor.  He was a mans man.  He went to the barber shop monthly, shunned shaving creme (hot soapy water worked just fine) and was suspicious of cologne (Old Spice was an after shave).

Cadillac.  Our German-Italian neighbor in New Orleans, Mr. Doescher, drove a Cadillac.  Mr. Doescher was a devout Catholic.  He was also the head of a longshoreman’s union with shadowy wealth that combined with strong middle-class, blue collar values.  You could find him every Saturday in his t-shirt and boxers watering his lawn with a garden hose.

That was then.  Now is now.  Today all three of these brands are edgy, hip, young and very, very current.  They are X-games, retro-cool, hip-hop and — in the case of Cadillac — a dash of classic rock and roll.

For Pontiac, something got lost in the transition from the Grand Prix to the Vibe.

It stayed Smokey and the Bandit in a world of Glee and Dexter.

Rest In Peace.

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.

Brand personality and brand Obama

Let’s see.  Eighteen months ago President Obama’s public approval ratings are through the roof.  Today, not so much.

What happened?

Others have written about policy, the economy, and the politics of it all.  I wonder about how all that can be viewed from the perspective of brand.  So I combed through the files and pulled up a structure from our friends at Leo Burnette.

Burnette’s brand structure is simple.  There are three components:  brand personality, brand promise, and brand essence.  The brand personality is the part that helps a person ‘relate’ to the brand.  That is, it is what led to those hideous questions in focus groups like, “if Dove soap were a famous person, what type of famous person would that be?”

Then there’s the brand promise.  The brand promise is the value statement.  Ir addresses the specific thing that the brand will do for you.  It is the ‘what is in it for me’  part of the brand.  Most often this is captured in the tagline.  I buy a BMW and I get the ultimate driving machine.  I buy Panasonic and I am one a step ahead.  I drink a Coke and get the real thing.

And yes.  Most brands don’t actually keep their promises.

Finally there is brand essence.  That is the emotional thing.  It is the Disney magic.  It is the Nieman Marcus return policy.  The service at a Ritz Carlton.  The reliability of a Honda.  This is the hardest one to pull off because it is supposed what people ‘feel’ when they interact with the brand.

Let’s apply them to brand Obama.  First, the brand promise.  It is a good place to start because, by definition, a political figure’s brand promise is not going to appeal to everyone.  It is the reason we have Republicans and Democrats.  Delivering on his brand promise — which President Obama reminds people that he is doing — is not just something people won’t relate to (a common problem among package and service brands) but is something that Republicans will hate.

Now let’s go to the brand personality.  Seems that the Obama brand personality seems to be rubbing Democrats the wrong way.  What once was the everyman presidency is now being seen by many liberal Democratic activists as effete, elitist, and arrogant.

Which leave us with the brand essence.  The emotional element.  And there the brand Obama has serious competitive and circumstantial challenges.  It is hard to keep excitement about “hope” when employment flirts with double digits and every morning you click on the Dow Jones to see if your retirement fund is still there.  (Not that any President can do much about it …)

My read is that it is the brand personality that has suffered most and is the key to brand Obama’s revival.  The President can’t change who he is – a Democrat – and therefore the promise is set.  Nor can the President do much to change the macro picture of two wars and an economy that daily veers drunkenly on the knife’s edge of a cataclysmic abyss.

But by most people’s read, there is work to be done on how people relate to him as a person.  The personality of his brand that was built on a certain populism.  An appeal to a ‘higher calling’.  It wasn’t divisive or bitter.  It was both reasonable and aspirational.

Not an easy thing to do when folks are calling into question just about everything in your life — from where you were born to your faith.

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.

“I hate you!”

[NOTE … this post is about phones and one of my clients is Research In Motion, the maker of the BlackBerry.  This post represents my thoughts, not anyone else’s.  If anyone agrees with this it was simply dumb luck.  I never consult, advise, or otherwise communicate with any of my clients about this or any other JuiceBar post past, present or future.  And sadly, no one pays me to do this.  Just me doing my thing.  Now that I’ve made the FTC happy …]

Quick.  How many recent rivalries can you think of?

stewieLet’s check.  In entertainment there was Leno and O’Brien dust up.  In politics we recently had Cheny vs. Biden.  And in business there are those great Apple vs. Microsoft ads.  I’m a Mac!  I’m a PC!

Enter Google vs. Apple.

With a vengeance.

This is no Coke vs. Pepsi or Starbuck vs. Dunkin Donuts.

This is personal.

First there was the piece in the NYTimes about how much Google CEO Schmidt and Apple CEO Jobs hate each other.  That included reports that Jobs believes Google is the devil incarnate.

Now newly hired Google tech wizard Tim Bray claims that he indeed wants to ‘kill’ the iPhone.  In his blog, Bray writes:

The iPhone vision of the mobile Internet’s future omits controversy, sex, and freedom, but includes strict limits on who can know what and who can say what. It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord’s pleasure and fear his anger.

I hate it.

My my.  Tell me how you really feel.

That’s a lot of hating.

It makes the Israeli-Palestinian discourse sound civil.  At least the Irish can hate each other based on centuries of history and theology.  While you may think both are assholes, at least Olberman and O’Reilly hate each other based in part on some basis in public policy and the role of government.  Even Kill Bill Uma Thurman’s hate — while excessive — had a legitimate source (torture).

But all this this vitriol?

It is about a freaking phone.  That’s right guys (and gals) … a phone.  Does phone technology merit us to rise (or sink) to the emotion of hate?  Killing?  It can’t be about the money because as best I can tell all these guys (and they are guys!) are filthy rich.

So what gives?  I suspect it is egos and marketing.

I’d note that the dictionary defines ‘bray‘ as to ‘make a loud, harsh, disagreeable sound.’

Hard to say “I hate you” and not have sound like … a bray.