Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Free Speech Is Most Important When Your Reputation Is Threatened


I'm afraid of dogs. 

Especially big dogs. Especially when they bark.

One time we were looking at a house to buy. There were four dogs in there. Barking like crazy. We ran out like hell, and my older one couldn't be within a mile of a dog for years after.

Five years later we went to a friend's house for barbeque. Another big damn dog. Loud as can be.

I let it jump around me and tried to look happy (straining). Frozen with terror, I forced myself to relax. I had heard that when you tense up, the dog does too.

I was freaking petrified.

(Remember Rooney, the principal in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" when he confronts the dog in the kitchen and it takes him down? Yeah, that's what I'm talking about)

Eventually I learned that dogs are not necessarily dangerous. With a few exceptions. Including when they are backed into a corner or think you are going to re-enact a previous attack.

So I was worrying about the wrong thing.

It's not how big the dog is at all.

Rather it's how cornered the dog feels. (Which is exactly why they're good household pets - not only loving to the family, but magificent at scaring off burglars.)

People are not that far from dogs.

If you corner a dog, it will spring up and lash out at you.

Similarly, if a person perceives themselves boxed into a corner and attacked, they will kick and scream and thrash to get rid of the threat.

One way to do this is with your "fists" - physical self-defense with a rock or a club or a gun.

But another way, a more relevant way for today's times, is verbally - protecting your turf by taking the enemy out with words. 

In fact, today, people both attack and defend themselves using words. By communicating.

This presents a particular problem in a social media-driven world. 

Because where the attacks might have come from a few influential sources in the past, now they can spring up from anywhere. 

And there is nobody who can evade making mistakes.

Remember "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and the way Ferris made a laughingstock of Rooney the principal? The more Rooney tensed up, the worse Ferris got him.

Similarly, a leader's natural reaction to social media is protective. Like someone raising their arms to shield from an attack. 

If you tell them to relax and not tense up, you may get resistance.

"Look how many attackers there are," you may get told. "Be realistic."

To an extent that philosophy is correct. Hackers and social media slanderers can target your work, your family, your reputation, your bank account, and even the various defenses that literally keep the country running.

But just like in the martial arts, the only way to fight a dedicated enemy is to calm the mind and then use their force to your advantage.

To put this simply: It is a waste of time to try to meet force with force in the social media realm. It is time-consuming, energy-consuming, and ultimately counterproductive. In fact, you end up looking paranoid and bad.

Instead, be like the Buddha. Smile. Acknowledge the detractors. Embrace them as people, even as you disagree with what they're saying or doing. If it comes to an actual conflict, use the legal tools at your disposal to engage in it. But don't get down in the mud.

It isn't worth it, and if you do you've let them win the battle.

Peace everyone - have a good day. And good luck!


Photo source here.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Obsessing about the competition blinds you to opportunity: The case of Burger King

Been watching those Burger King commercials lately.

You know these. They compare themselves to McDonald's again. BK's positioned as broiled and fresh, Mickey D's as fried and factory-like.


There is nothing more boring than a brand that feels inadequate.

I read an article the other day about Burger King's current business difficulties. It's been on my mind. They've been around so long, they have so much money, can't they get an idea?

Then it occurred to me: They are obsessed with the competition. They're egotistical. They can't step back and think outside the box (oh G-d, I hate that phrase, but it is really appropriate here.)

If they could open their minds for five seconds they would realize that burgers are not their business at all.

It's not McDonald's, either.

For Five Guys it is.

McDonald's is in the business of feeding families cheaply. It defines Americana, even though it's a global brand too. In that way it's in the same "brand bubble" as Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart.

Five Guys is in the business of making great burgers. They sell other things, most notably the fries, but it's really about the burger. Just like In-N-Out Burger. The focus is very specifically on meat.

Burger King, in contrast to all of these, is about BROILING THINGS. It's a masculine brand. Men like to grill. Men "own" their grills. The fire. The smell of smoke. It's primal. It is such a huge opportunity. And they're missing it.

Hello Burger King, are you listening? The creepy "Burger King" cartoon character to rival Ronald McDonald was a big mistake. You had the winning formula all along - you just haven't realized it.

As a friend reminded me lately, branding is ultimately about differentiation. Doing something separate from the pack. Not imitating them and not competing directly against them.

Branding is just like becoming your own best self. You are inherently unique. You succeed by realizing your own potential. That's it.

So regarding Burger King - you can broil endless things. Let's get started! Burgers, chicken, salmon, corn, vegetables.

While we're at it, lose the name and take up an acronym. Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC. You become BK.

Get a sophisticated color scheme. Maroon, navy, gray. No cartoons, ever.

Burger King is not alone. The most envied brands in the world frequently get messed up by thinking about the competition.

Look at Kate Middleton. The gossip papers have it that she's competitive with sister Pippa, that they have a "friendly rivalry."

I can't even wrap my head around that. I know her life's not perfect, but she seems pretty happy. And she's worrying about her sister? That is just sad.

How can you get to a place where you're thinking about the potential of your brand, and not whether you're measuring up to some imaginary standard set by your competition?

One important thing: Surround yourself with true supporters. People who want to see you become your true best self. People who pick you up, and don't drag you down.

Joel Osteen talked about that in his TV sermon today. (I'm Jewish, but I find his sermons motivational and inspired.)

He recalled taking over his father's ministry. There were friends who doubted Osteen's ability to do a good job.

Eventually, he removed them from his inner circle. "Some people you have to love from a distance."

Similarly, there was an associate of his father who doubted his vision for the future. For the "brand" if you will. To put the ministry on TV.

He admitted to being happy at the good-bye barbeque when the associate left.

None other than Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, re-assumed control of the brand when it became too commoditized and lost its way. It needed Schultz's personal stamp. That uniqueness.

The bottom-line lesson:

If you want to realize the potential of your brand, don't look outside of you. Don't trust the naysayers. Don't let yourself feel inadequate.

Instead, take stock of who you are. What you have to contribute. What makes you unique, and interesting, and special.

That's what the market wants to buy from you. That's what you have to offer that's of value.

Maybe it's different than what you had in mind. That's OK.

We all have a unique destiny, and as Osteen said today, there's a very short time to realize it.

Good luck!

Photo source here

The 10 Commandments of Retail

Just my own opinion.

Thou shalt:

1. Organize the store

2. Have fun interactive displays

3. Display abundance

4. Give a percentage of profit to charity

5. Smilingly accept returns

Thou shalt not:

1. Confuse the customer

2. Abuse the staff

3. Make it hard for the disabled to get in

4. Mislead on prices

5. Profit from exploited labor or crime in the supply chain

Does talking about a problem make it your fault?


Learning to walk requires falling.

I don't know of any brand, any marketing plan, any communication effort that was perfect right from the start.

Every initiative has problems. 

But somehow we have this false idea that "as long as we ignore it, the problem doesn't exist."

Total denial is a survival mechanism we have inherited from past generations.

When the only way to cope with the ravages of abuse, crime, and poverty was to pretend they weren't happening.

Remember those TV shows of the 1950s? They were both comforting and frightening at the same time. Because they portrayed a world where nothing was wrong. Even as there was quite a bit of unrest under the surface.

This isn't going to be a long post. I just want to express a basic idea.

Talking about a problem doesn't mean that you created it.

It doesn't make it your fault.

It makes you a friend.

If you see something wrong, it's your duty to say something. Constructively. Appropriately. 

In communication and in life.

Happy Memorial Day weekend everyone, and good luck!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Zach Galifianakis, bringing the elites back down to Earth


Have you noticed how hard it is to keep up nowadays?

No matter what you do, it seems you're never smart enough, emotionally intelligent enough, informed enough, rich enough, influential enough, have a good enough job, technologically literate enough, a good enough parent, attractive enough, thin enough, feminine or masculine enough, youthful enough, a good enough cook, even religious enough. 

They might as well title every book and magazine article, "How to do everything better." (Actually, they do...more or less.)

To make matters worse, the simplest tasks have become impossible. Because we live in a complicated, litigious society where every single activity is the subject of a possible dispute and/or part of a vast mechanized system that has to keep track of what's going on.

Which leaves the average person feeling sort of scr***d and helpless.

This matters for brands of every kind, including government-as-a-brand. Because it's the job of a brand to help cut through the clutter and get people where they need to go without feeling stupid and without a lot of hassle.

A true story:

Awhile back I made a doctor's appointment. New doctor. Picked name out of the book.

Waited months for appointment.

Show up to office. 

See a square surrounded by what looks like bulletproof glass. Inside the square is where the staff works.

Outside is a TV with some bland ad for the practice.

I walk up to glass, see receptionist, and get handed the clipboard to sign in. Get handed the forms. There are approximately five thousand. I am exaggerating.

Forms appear complicated and are written in legalese. Like all forms nowadays.

I have no idea what I'm looking at here. I fill out the forms, trying not to think about it, till I get to one that looks really bad.

At this point I've wasted time, and I just want to be seen, but also I feel a little bit scared. My husband's not there - I can't get him on the phone - and just don't feel comfortable. I have no advocate. 

I am scared to get them mad at me, or they may refuse me the appointment. But still.

I walk up to the window and say something to receptionist. "Blah blah blah" to the effect that I don't want to sign it. 

She says, "You have to sign it or the doctor won't see you."

I say, "I am going to call my insurance company."

I call them. Operator says, "The doctor can have whatever office policy they want."

Me: "Yeah, but don't you have an agreement with them that gives me any rights?"

She: Equivalent of "no" - hangs up.

I go back to window and say, "I want to speak to the doctor about this before signing it."

Receptionist says, "Oh yeah?"

She goes to the back of the pen and gets the Commandant, or headmistress, leader of the penitentiary, you get the idea.

Commandant walks up to window: "You got a problem?"

Me: "This is unfair."

Big mistake.

Commandant to receptionist: "Get her papers."

Papers in hand, Commandant walks to shredder and they are gone. Before my eyes.

I am gaping in horror. Two hours lost. Visit lost. 

As "Seinfeld's" Soup Nazi would say, "No Soup For You!"

Later, everyone I told about this implored me, "Contact the insurance company. Contact the AMA. Complain!"

I thought about it for a little while. Then I didn't do anything. Because I just had too many other errands to do.

This experience, in a microcosm, is the experience of the average person in today's world. 

  • They watch the news, but don't know what's really going on.
  • They go to school, but we don't know how to get from there to a job.
  • They buy a computer, but as soon as something goes wrong, they are helpless.

It is completely overwhelming.

Now I'm going to talk about how we can fix this. By learning from Zach Galifianakis.

I first saw Galifianakis in the movie Due Date with Robert Downey. They didn't market it well. It's beyond hilarious. Then I saw It's Kind of a Funny Story with no big-name stars. A completely brilliant movie. (Not going to see Hangover 2 - stupid.)

And just the other day there was coverage in Salon.com of the online show Between Two Ferns (warning: offensive; not suitable for children.)

At first I thought Galifianakis was just acting out scripts that others wrote. But then I realized that it was his own personality that was coming through.

His basic strategy, as an entertainer, is to carefully own his weaknesses - particularly his weight - and use them to make elites let down their guard. With raw emotion, pathos, and biting humor based on honesty, he brings down the elite and puts them back on Planet Earth.

This is hinted at in Due Date, not really addressed in It's Kind of a Funny Story, but completely blatant in Between Two Ferns.

If you're not familiar with the online program, the format is approximately a 4-minute "webisode" funded by product placement, in the vein of a talk show.

Celebrities like Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Sean Penn, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell and others show up, sit on a chair next to Galifianakis - surrounded by two ferns and with a black curtain as a backdrop - and proceed to get nailed to the wall. He asks completely obnoxious questions; they squirm. Sometimes they punch him.

It's like The Tonight Show in the Twilight Zone. 

I watched and couldn't believe the popularity of this show. It is so hard to get a video to "go viral" or to get someone to your website. And here is this plain person, getting about a million viewers for a couple-of-minute web episode that looks homemade (see especially the Ben Stiller or Bradley Cooper episodes) has got something.

So, to wrap it up with something practical, here is how I would use the Galifianakis approach if you happen to be a communicator who needs to reach people with information or to sell your brand:

1. Video rules. Avoid words.

2. Content is 90%, production value 10%.

3. Use real people to represent your product, not celebrities.

4. Throw the script out the window. Feature real talk.

5. You can brand yourself with simple, consistent visuals and color (like the green plant and black curtain).

The bottom line: There is too much information out there. But people still need it. I would have liked to know how to complain about that doctor. But I didn't, and I didn't have time, and so an important opportunity to provide feedback was missed. 

You have to recognize the circumstances in which your audience is functioning. Recognize that to them, you are an information elite. Speak to them in a non-elite way, from the place at which you are sitting. Make a genuine human connection, and they will come to you.

Have a good weekend everyone, and good luck!


Photo source here

Friday, May 27, 2011

When Fixing Goes Too Far


I come from a family of fixers of impossible situations.


My grandparents had six kids and no money.


As my aunt S. later put it, “We were so poor we couldn’t afford the ‘o’ and the ‘r.’”


My grandmother (of blessed memory - may she rest in peace), Muriel Garfinkel, made entire meals out of the “can-can” sale at Shop-Rite. Peas and mushrooms with black pepper and brown sugar, in a cast-iron skillet, on an old stove. (Best. Peas and mushrooms. Ever.) From the way she fed the kids and the grandkids, you would never know they were living on any kind of budget.


Grandma and Grandpa were realtors. They started that business after a fire burnt their store to the ground. They picked themselves up and started over.


Fast forward…one of my aunts got married, had a kid, then found out she was pregnant with quadruplets. Doctor said, don’t get up – don’t move – or you’ll jeopardize the pregnancy. She could have stayed in bed the whole time. But the three-year-old needed her. So she emptied the living room and put a big bed there. And didn’t move


We used to visit her on Sundays. I vividly remember the three-year-old crawling onto the bed, scrambling all around her, just to get close.  


Normal went out the window, but my aunt was going to fix it.


Fast way forward many years later. My grandparents on my father’s side got too frail to care for themselves anymore. Yet they refused to go to any kind of nursing home or assisted living.


My dad tried to fix it. Every weekend, he set off - as in drove 11 hours - from New Jersey to Canada to oversee what was going on. The caregiver. The money. The maintenance on the house. Then back to work during the week.


I know a lot of fixers like this. I count myself as one of them. We try to do superhuman things even as the walls are crumbling down all around us.


At a certain point, one has to look around and ask the question: When does fixing go too far? Turning you into a shlepper (someone who works with no thanks). Or worse.


My grandmother raised a family of fixers. And she saw that they tended to get taken advantage of. So she cautioned me frequently:  “Don’t be a shmuck.”


I must admit, I fall into this trap all the time. I see a problem and try to fix it. But it’s the intensity. Sometimes I feel like a warrior with a battering ram, charging at a stone wall, trying to make it crumble. The stone is all the problems and how they’ve gotten knit together.


Sometimes I succeed, but more often it’s an impossible task. And I get frustrated.


I asked my Dad what he does at work lately. His job description: “One-man SWAT team.”


So it’s bred into my blood.


But I am starting to think it’s not healthy to be a fixer all the time.


Watched the Joel Osteen clip yesterday, “You are a child of the most high G-d.” You can find it on YouTube. In the clip he talks about letting go and having faith. He says:


“G-d is not moved by our tears. He is moved by our faith.”


He continues,


“G-d can do what man cannot do.”


I realized again what I have realized before. I need to have more faith. I need to recognize that I am only supposed to try. But that there is a higher power that steps in and actually makes things happen.


This is important advice for functioning well at work and at home.


You’ve got to know when to push and when to fix and when to shlep. That’s all part of the job description.


But you’ve also got to know when to let it go. Be a Buddhist about it. Detach and trust the universe. If things are meant to fall apart, they will fall no matter what you do.


Osteen says, “Look through the eyes of faith.”


I believe in my heart that G-d, a higher power, the universe, or whatever you want to call it, is aware, watching and guiding.


It’s true, we are here for tikkun olam – to correct and perfect the world (and ourselves).


But part of that process is to “let go and let G-d.”


If something is meant to fall apart, it will. Nothing you can do will save it. But that doesn’t mean that all is lost.


Know when to stop – don’t let others take advantage of you – listen to my grandmother and “Don’t be a shmuck.” Smile, take care of yourself, go to the gym.


Have a great day everyone - and enjoy the holiday weekend.



Note: This post is dedicated with prayer to all the people whose lives have been shattered by the recent disastrous weather. 

Photo source here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Manager's Role: From "Forcer" to Facilitator

It seems to me that most people have an old-fashioned view of what a manager does: Force lazy people to do their work.

Maybe we needed managers to do that in the past, when the Industrial Revolution left people stuck in factories where the work was miserable. In cubes in large bureaucracies where you largely did what you were told and didn't ask questions.

That doesn't work at all in the modern office.

Now, people are actually self-motivated.

They don't need a manager to tell them what to do.

They need a manager to open the doors that are otherwise closed to them.

Doors of irrationality, of incomprehensible process, of politics, of turf battles, of culture wars, of unreasonable demands made by people at all levels of the organization.

Doors that, left the way they are, make it impossible to do your job.

The role of the manager is light years away from the leader, in this formulation.

The leader says, "I want this to happen. Make it so!" (A la Patrick Stewart in Star Trek)

The manager says, "Yes ma'am (or sir)" - then figures out how the people involved will be enabled to carry out orders in a world of closed and closing doors.

To do this the manager has to leave their office door wide open and let people in and out all day long. There and in the hallway - shmooze, shmooze, shmooze. Insight into problems comes from the people confronted with them. Answers, too.

Managers don't need to have the answers. We live in a world where there are none. No clear paths ahead.

So we need good managers more than ever. But as listeners, as facilitators. Not control freaks.

But we shouldn't be asking how managers will "control their people" and "make them get the work done."

We should ask how managers will empower the worker and set the people free. So that they can be most productive for the employer.

Just a thought.

Have a great day everyone!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Digital ignorance and the society of abundance

"The fit disciple is not led by desire, anger, ignorance, and fear." 

In 2003 I joined the federal government as an internal communications specialist. 

While I was there, the agency was going through a period of transition. (That's always happening, but this was a heightened change phase - a reorg.)

During that time, I had occasion to hear the chief of staff at that agency speak about how to effectively manage human capital during a transition or any time. He said, roughly paraphrasing:

"Most people think that sharing information is like giving away slices of their apple pie. But that's not true. The more you share, the more the pie simply expands."

Truer words were never spoken. Most people are afraid of letting go of "their" information. The logic runs roughly like this:

1. If I share information, I lose information.

2. If I lose information, I lose power, because now nobody needs me.

3. If nobody needs me, I will get fired and somebody else will take my job - my money, my status, and my office.

In the "olden days," maybe this was true. Just like if you had an enormous machine gun and you had to keep your enemies away. You would never share that technology. 

Or if you had a fertile piece of land. You would hold onto it with an iron grasp and guard it with the machine gun. (Wait...we're mixing centuries now. It's whatever weapon you have.)

However, we are entering a completely new phase of history now. The age of abundance. 

That's right. Despite all our worries over the depletion of natural resources. Despite fear of economic ruin. Despite arguments over land. Despite everything. 

Scarcity is not our problem. Rather, we are hampered by the four things mentioned by Buddha:

1. Fear: We aren't used to abundant thinking. We still don't understand: It's the very fight for turf that puts us in jeopardy - not the lack of turf itself. 

2. Anger: Our fear of being left behind leads us to get angry at, hate, and envy those who seem privileged or successful.

3. Greed: Whatever we have, we want more.

4. Ignorance: We don't know how to harness the technology that could set us all free to live the lives we want.

The first three are what I would think of as evolutionary psychology. We have a misguided survival instinct and it's telling us to act badly.

The fourth has to do with a simple lack of knowledge: We are surrounded by rope but we can't seem to pull ourselves to the surface.

A story:

I was in the Apple store the other day, making a purchase. 

An elderly lady interrupted the purchase, saying to the salesman: "I have a question. Can you help me when you're free?"

She seemed really nervous to get the question answered. I was impatient but I also felt the urgency wafting all around her. She was a short lady, but her intensity lit up the room.

The salesman keyed my credit card information into the handheld computer. It was so cool. I signed on the smartphone. Apple is awesome.

Meanwhile the lady was virtually tapping her feet with impatience.

I said to her, "What's your question? Maybe I can help."

She said, "I'm a teacher and they sent me some files. But I can't send them back."

I said, "You mean you need to send an attachment?"

She said, "Yeah, the computer can't read the DPF."

I said, "The PDF?"

She said, "Yeah. I don't understand how to use Gmail."

She had come to the Apple store not to buy anything, but for email assistance.

I offered to help her, but the Apple salesperson stepped in. Which is why Apple is awesome (yet again) and I have converted to their brand.

I looked around and the entire store was filled with elderly people. Learning to use the computer. 

Thinking about this, I realized that these people were incredibly smart. They understood that ignorance was the real threat to their survival. Believe it or not - it's not about age, or infirmity, or economic limitations. 

It's about knowledge versus ignorance. These people wanted to be on equal footing. And they were taking a lot of time to get up to speed.

As a company, Apple wasn't going to make any money off that interaction with the customer. But they understand the principle of sharing information.

When you share information, you create abundance. You get something, the other person gets something, and other people besides the two of you benefit.

When you hoard information, you create snarls of confusion. Slowdowns of process. Projects don't move. Nothing gets done. You perpetuate ignorance. And bad things happen:

* You wonder: "Why are we so inefficient around here?"

* You fear: "Everybody's out to get me." - Just like you hoard information, you think others are hiding it from you. The fear gets all mixed up with anger and hatred of others who seem to be competitors, getting in your way. 

* You rationalize: "I'm not going to look for problems by bringing up problems. I'm here to earn a living...let me just get through the day."

Lots of problems are at the root of these issues. But today, one of the most prominent is digital ignorance.

Just like you have to know how to drive, you have to know how to use a computer.

If you can't learn technology and use it effectively - you are in effect illiterate today. 

We can't afford to be a society of digital illiterates. 

We must train ourselves to use computers and help other people who don't know how to use them. 

Ignorance benefits nobody.

Knowledge benefits everybody.

We hold the keys to a limousine holding endless abundance in our hands right now. We just have to start the engine.

Let's do this together and not fight turf battles that only create more problems in the end.

Let's have faith that there is a higher power whose will overrides all our efforts. Very simply - as Joel Osteen puts it - "G-d can do what man (woman) can't do....G-d doesn't want your tears, He (She) wants your faith."  

Have a great day everyone, and good luck!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Brand Worship as Idol Worship

"We refuse to be bystanders, even if we do not know exactly where our actions will lead." 
- Howard Schultz, CEO, Starbucks, in his book "Onward"

I was not the most studious kid in yeshiva. But I remember the Biblical story of Abraham and the idols well.

If you're not familiar with it, here's a summary of the story, which comes from the Jewish text Midrash Bereishit 38:13:

In Abraham's day, people worshipped idols - physical representations of G-dly power. His father was in the idol business (let's put aside for now the contradiction of manufacturing the things you worship.)

One day Abraham's father went away and left Abraham in charge of the idol store. Big mistake as Abraham thought the whole idea of idolatry was ridiculous.

A woman comes in one day and asks him to offer a basket of bread "to the gods." Then he really gets fed up.

Abraham handed the bread to the idols all right. But not before he broke them all to pieces, except one, then gave it the hammer. 

When his father came back and asked the equivalent of "What the hell happened here," Abraham calmly replied that the largest idol had smashed all the other idols up in a fight over the bread. 

Father said, basically, "What are you, a wiseguy? Idols don't have minds." 

At which Abraham retorted, "Listen to yourself - they have no power at all! So why should we worship them?"

I always thought the smashing-of-the-idols story was kind of funny. In a ha-ha-look-how-backward-they-were-back-then-kind of way.

But then I read an article by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach about the royal wedding as a form of idol-worship. His thesis is that celebrities have replaced the idols of old, and that we put them on a pedestal for absolutely no reason - elevating them to a status they don't deserve.

I read the article and thought yeah, yeah, I know that already, what's new.

Yet it stuck in my head. Boteach had something there, beyond the obvious, I just wasn't sure what it was.

Then it hit me: Brands are the modern equivalent of idolatry. We are as stupid as the people in Abraham's day. And it is just as heretical to attack brands as it was back then to question the power of idols.

Brand-worship is more dangerous than celebrity-worship. Because most people know that reading the gossip papers is just a pastime. But they are far more sucked in by the allure of the marketing industry.

How can I write this, as a marketer? It's almost shocking to me that I would be this honest.

Let me be clear - I'm not against brands per se. What I am against is tricking people into buying them.

At their very best, brands offer us a real promise that makes our lives simpler. They offer better quality than their competitors. They offer a certain style that we feel comfortable with. They offer a fantasy that helps us get through the day. As long as we're aware of what we're doing and buying, all is good.

But the dark side of branding is to make the kind of promise that can never be kept. A promise that by buying or using a particular product or service, you will somehow be complete, connected, more of a person than you were before.

Have you ever noticed that you feel "naked" without your favorite brands on? Almost like you're wearing a shield that protects you against the bumps and bruises of life? That's what I'm talking about.

It wasn't always this way. I'm pretty sure I know when the trouble started.

No, it's not about the birth of the modern advertising industry. Mass media. Etc.

What it has to do with - don't shoot me - is the exodus of mothers from the home.

Fathers we need, of course, but they have always had to go away to earn the daily bread.

But when mothers left home en masse - and yes we had to do this, and yes it was healthy for us and the children in many ways (I'm not advocating a return to Revolutionary Road) - the children paid the price.

Very specifically, I believe that the Freudians are correct: The presence of the mother (or another extraordinarily close and giving caregiver) in the child's earliest years is critical to its healthy mental development.

The child requires the caregiver to be there, to attend to its needs, every single second. This is how the child knows that it is alive and secure. Attachment theory explains this very well: When the child's needs are responded to, it has existential peace. When the child is ignored or abused, it cannot form that all-important primary attachment. It is floating in space, so to speak. It has no anchor.

I believe that the entire generation known as Generation X, of which I am a part, suffered from a lack of proper attachment to a primary caregiver - due to the fact that both parents began to work full-time during this period. It became the norm. 

Without parents at home, we had substitute caregivers. But it was not the same thing. 

I'm not blaming anyone here, please know that - and I have worked myself, continuously, my whole life, even as I chose to be physically home before my kids went to school. I wouldn't change anything. 

But I feel compelled to talk about what I see as the truth here. In the absence of the kind of "home and hearth" attachments that people seemed to have in earlier generations, I did become very attached to brands. I looked to them to define me. And as I look around at others, and at the proliferation of brands, and the obsession with product brands and personal ones, I see the effects of this early wound.

Close attachments, early and later on as well, prevent us from being sucked in by brands. And they help us to distinguish between real connectedness and the fake kind. 

Brands can be awesomely helpful and powerful. But getting too enmeshed with them is idol worship. 

Which was silly thousands of years ago. And remains silly today.

Think for yourself - you can handle the truth!

Have a great day everyone.


Photo source here.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

To find a solution, correctly identify the problem

Yesterday's speech by President Obama about peace in the Middle East generated a lot of commentary. A lot of thinking.

(See video of "The Sticker Song" by Hadag Nahash- a popular song from Israel poking fun at the prevalence of "bumper sticker" simplistic ideology.)

Anyway, after yesterday, I was definitely thinking, a lot. Actually my brain hurts from trying to "solve" this problem in my mind. It's like the Rubik's Cube of dilemmas...get one part of the puzzle right and the rest looks like a big mess.

There are notes all over the table here. Let me tackle one of them in this post: on the importance of understanding the problem.

If you correctly understand what is wrong, you can fix it.

If you don't understand, or if you lie to yourself or to others, you obviously can't.

I am a Jewish-American, and a U.S. government employee, but despite the inevitable biases that come from these perspectives I do think I understand the problem of the Middle East conflict clearly: The extremists are holding the moderates hostage. Preventing them from taking the necessary steps to achieve a win-win solution. (Note: Of course - as always - all opinions expressed here are my own.)

In simple terms: The Palestinians literally have guns to their heads. The terrorists, which include Hamas, are forcing them into a hateful way of life because they have an agenda of obliterating Israel and all the Jews within it.

Radical Islamic terrorists hate America too, because it represents a threat to their desire for dominance - which is why they'd like to blow us off the face of the earth as well.

This is not a unique view. The Administration shares it. Israel shares it. The problem is one of an ideology of hatred passing itself off as a religion. In a masquerade.

The problem, in the context of Israel, is that the terrorists are trying to partner with the moderates to attack Israel together. Which would obviously prevent peace from happening, no matter how much land Israel would give up. As Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren put it on CNN's "In The Arena":

"The ball is very much in the Palestinian's court. They have to make a decision. Whether they stick with this pact with the terrorist organization (Hamas) that just - only a few weeks ago fired a missile at a - school bus along the Israeli border, killed 16-year-old child, an organization that condemned America's action against Bin Laden and - hailed him as an Islamic holy warrior....The Palestinian Authority has to make a choice between a pact with that terrorist organization or negotiating peace with us."

Why can't everyone see the presence of radical terrorist ideology as the problem - and nothing else?

I was surprised and heartened to read this remarkable article by Muslim-American Harris Zafar, "A Muslim's Take On Obama's Middle East Speech" - a response to the President's May 20 remarks. See excerpt:

"This is not a war that can be won with guns. This is a war of ideas, which requires tactfully addressing religious factors....Corrupt religious leaders in the Middle East have brainwashed susceptible individuals through a perversion of Islam to further their political agenda. To reverse this trend, America must support voices within the Muslim community who are willing to fight this political ideology with the true teachings of Islam.

"We, as Muslims, must step-up to win this war of ideology, or our nation will continue to face a serious threat of extremists....We must not only vigorously condemn terrorism in all forms but also advocate for universal human rights, separation of mosque and state, protection for religious and other minorities, and the empowerment and education of women."

Zafar is right.

We must correctly identify the problem in order to reach a solution.

The problem is hatred. Is extremism. Is the worship of death and the aspiration to dominance.

Another problem is the competition for power that prevents us from supporting people who are searching for a real solution.

I don't have the solution to Middle East peace, but I do understand the problem.

It's time to start communicating about the real issues, and confront as idiotic propaganda everything else.


Photo source here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Communication metrics and the fallacy of instant gratification

Example #1: From the intro to a discussion I "lurked" online (paraphrasing):

"I can't believe it. Been exercising 2 days now, and actually GAINED weight. Has this happened to anyone else?"

#2: Roughly re-enacted question about communication campaign:

"Where are the metrics on that message from this week? Has anybody pulled the WebTrends?"

#3: Last but not least that old standby of any conversation about whether an issue is a big deal or not:

"How many hits on that are there in the news results?"

All of the above questions rest on a single assumption that is completely false:

Every action provokes a reaction that you can measure instantaneously.

Of course all of this is Hollywood's fault. And the fault of us marketers.

Movies forward through the action, making it seem faster than it is in real-time. It is especially interesting to see how law enforcement and medical care are portrayed as swift processes when in real life they're actually usually agonizingly slow.

Marketers, of course, push people to buy, buy, buy, on the premise that a leaking wallet leads to immediately visible results. Green tea = 10 pounds in the first week, right? And of course the opposite – fast food, fast satisfaction. Wrinkle cream. Smartphones. Clothing. Vacations. Just press the Staples "Easy" button and it's done.


The problem with all this instant gratification, of course, is that it's a false promise.

In real life, things take time to happen. Change is slow. Relationships build over time. Good and bad. Trust is built as a process. A brand evolves and takes shape the same way you smelt iron into a final form. (OK, I have no idea what I'm talking about with the smelting…hopefully you get the idea.)

It is so very tempting to communicate superficially and look for instant results. Print those glossy posters and brochures, launch that flashy website, sit back and uncork the champagne. You did it!

But the real work is far, far slower. In fact it's almost invisible. Certainly it's difficult to measure.

So the real way ahead has nothing to do with flash and metrics.

What it does have to do with is process.

Just like in weight loss – you change your lifestyle and don't look at the scale.

Just like in gardening – you plant the seeds, water them, ensure the right environment, and they grow.

Just like with children – you love them continuously from infancy.

It's the same with communication.

Build a solid process, reinforce it every day, revisit it when needed. Care for it with love.

That, in the end, is the real formula for success.

Good luck!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

10-Tip Grab Bag: Save Time, Save $, Have Fun, Boost Your Reputation

1. Make an Altoids mini-garden: Sounds stupid. Is not. Nobody has cube space. Everybody likes greenery. This is easy, cheap and fun. First seen on Lifehacker.

2. Avoid the ATM: Using new service from Paypal (Droid is new, iPhone has it already), snap photo of check, deposit to PayPal, then transfer to bank - all for free. Here's how.

3. Avoid distraction: Write in a quiet online environment; I like this one (I type, then cut/paste elsewhere); other choices here if you don't mind writing on reverse screen

4. Make a favorites list on YouTube: Keeps your music in one place and leads you to new songs like this one...you sort of have to give it a chance, and then it's great. I can't figure out most of the lyrics but what I can understand, I like.

5. Bring a bag of almonds to work: Munch them instead of regular food. Watch your bad cholesterol drop like mine did. Save money on overpriced, greasy fast food.

Oh I forgot...this is a blog about branding, reputation, communication, stuff like that. OK - quick tips on this:

6. The meeting is over before it starts. Connect with the most influential people before you walk in the door.

7. Put your resume on LinkedIn. It's free, simple, and looks nice. Plus this helps you focus on the highlights of how you can do the job you want. Which is what resumes are all about. See advice from Penelope Trunk.

8. Your reputation precedes your activities. These in particular will determine how you are treated right out of the gate:

* How you dress (put-together shows self-respect)

* Who you associate with (shows your values)

* How much money you seem to have (money is a metric of success - I know, it sucks)

* Whether you seem arrogant or humble

* Whether you seem happy.

You don't just walk in the door as a blank slate. Remember that, respond to the way you are perceived (whether it reflects your actions or not), and don't take it personally.

9. Learn when to talk and when to shut up. Sometimes, you should be proactive; other times, it's better to just be prepared.

10. Give yourself a pep talk every single day. I defy anyone, of any faith background, to watch this video clip from Joel Osteen and not be inspired and uplifted. When you are uplifted, you will smile, and when you smile, your reputation is boosted exponentially.

Have a great day everyone.

(Photo source here)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Worker Abuse Destroys Your People, and Your Brand

"Do I have to be raped before someone does something?" 
- Housekeeper at University of Maryland-sponsored forum on worker mistreatment, May 10, 2011

People go through a lot of stuff at work. Unfortunately that list includes rampant intimidation and sexual abuse. No matter where you look, high or low, near or far, great brand or no-name, there it is. Just recently:

* International Monetary Fund: IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn arrested and charged with "sexual assault and attempted rape" 

* State of California: Former Calif. Governor Schwarzenegger fathered a child with his housekeeper.

* University of Maryland: Independent student newspaper covers town hall on sexual harassment and bullying of Spanish-speaking housekeepers.

Obviously abuse at work is not restricted to powerful males taking advantage of very un-powerful women.

A new study released in April 2011 showed that about 1 in 4 people, or 27 percent, report being bullied at work.

Not to mention the rampant bullying that takes place at school.

With all of this harassment going on, how are people supposed to do their jobs at all?

When you look around the office at your employees, wondering why they're not doing a better job of building the brand, take a step back.

Maybe the first question to ask is whether they are operating in a "culture of intimidation and fear" (as was stated at U. of Maryland) that prevents them from doing their jobs in the first place. 

To all the employees struggling to survive in the cruel world that is sometimes the workplace, stay strong and keep speaking out until justice is served.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Some people only have one idea.

Briefly: Market to the Elderly Like They're Young

I spend a lot of time with older people. And in every way except physically, they're young. I agree with the psychic Sylvia Browne: "Everyone is 30 years old in their own mind."

So not marketing to them, or not marketing well, is ageism. Shortsighted too. Marketers, normally with a healthy appetite for profit, are irrationally lacking in initiative here.

Think of how much money there is to be made on products for people who think like 30-year olds, but just can't do things physically like they used to.

I think it's our collective fear of growing old ourselves.

It's sad, because by marketing to older people as if they were young, we would actually be helping them. As well as ourselves.

There is a lot of money to be made here...if only we would open our minds.


Photo by Liu Joey

Monday, May 16, 2011

How to Really Sell Technology (Hint: It's Not About Being Technical)

I decided I wanted a Kindle when I saw people using it on the train. They weren't using the Nook or the iPad. It was definitely a Kindle, with the Amazon logo. As you may know my idea of reading a book is flipping through the pages to get the "main idea." I think most books are a total waste of time. (Which should be an interesting revelation coming from someone in the process of writing one.) But the sight of that Kindle, over and over again, being used avidly by people of every age and demographic on the train - that made me want to buy it.

They could have saved themselves money on the TV commercials. I didn't really get why someone would read a Kindle on a hike. And if I were sitting by the pool, the last thing I would be thinking about is fighting the glare on the screen to read a novel. That all made absolutely no sense to me. Except for the part about the battery lasting one month - I did remember that and it is pretty cool. Is that true?

Sociological theory tells us how to sell technologies like the Kindle, a new device with no precedent to speak on its behalf: We believe we are entitled to the same thing as the people around us. It's not peer pressure, but the theory of relative deprivation. If we don't have that Kindle, we're left out.

Same thing with the iPad. I know it's a cool device. I'm not arguing with you. But it doesn't really do anything for me. I don't see the business use. Maybe it's nice for movies? But then again you have to prop up the screen. And why would I take photos with a screen that large.

I need a keyboard. Not the plug-in kind. And I didn't get a good answer from the Apple rep on the word processing capabilities that come with the iPad. No, I like the MacBook Air (which I wanted when I saw an extremely influential person using it, and she had it covered with bumper stickers - I was in awe). Nevertheless, every executive in DC seems to have an iPad - with a little leather cover. When there was a fire in our office building and we had to wait in a hotel nearby, I saw gazillions of little iPads laying around on tables, along with fancy pens and the other accoutrements of success. If I were an executive, I would consider it a business necessity to shlep one around. If for no other reason than to be cool.

Amazon and Apple should spend all their money giving away their little devices to opinion-leaders. None of it on advertising. It's about socializing the consumer to want one.

Microsoft is consistently terrible at putting on a liberal arts hat to sell anything. No, for them it is all about geekdom and the wonderful wizardry of tech. Which is why I can't, for the freaking life of me, figure out anything that is explained in a Microsoft user manual online.

The only reason I use Microsoft is that everybody else does and I need to communicate with them. Otherwise, forget it. (There are tons of smart things you can do with Microsoft Outlook that they never bothered to sell...I will never understand why, except maybe shortsightedness and the laziness of knowing they've won anyway.)

A simple example. I spent half the weekend trying to convert my XML export of my blog posts back into Word. Yes, yes, yes I am writing a book, for the millionth time. And no, I don't have all of the original posts saved. I feel like an idiot. But I really thought it would be simple just to keep a backup of the XML and then convert it back when I wanted to.

So I kept on Googling, "Convert XML to Word" with no success other than to come up with this Microsoft add-in for Office. I click on the supposedly free add-in and download it no less than 3 times. Damn, it doesn't seem to work. I get no answers. I look on eHow. I look on user forums. I look everywhere. Damn, damn, damn it completely wastes hours.

When I go to the Microsoft page explaining the add-in I have no idea what it means. It is lengthy though.

I try to just open Microsoft Word and then open the XML file. No dice.

I try to cut and paste the XML into Word and then remove the code. From 1200 pages. The program crashes.

I try to use a PDF-to-Word service online to convert the file. Fail.

Finally I ask for help. Products are recommended.

Steadfastly I refuse. The Internet must be free! Or as free as possible.

I use BlogBooker to convert the XML to a PDF. Open the PDF in Mac's Preview. Select all. Copy and paste into the text editor. Then copy and paste it all into Word.


Microsoft could take a peanut butter sandwich and make it impossible to put together without a 72-page user manual.

Don't get me wrong, I respect people who can figure technology out. I believe high-tech companies like Microsoft are doing the world a big favor. I just wonder why they can't get their heads out of the geek bubble long enough to hire marketers who have studied psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, economics, history, and other subjects that would help them to think out of the box about appealing to the actual consumer - who isn't normally a techie.

I have an old friend who studied English literature. She is a VP at a social media company now. My mom sent me a video clip of her being interviewed about why some brands have better buzz than others. She talked about psychology, not Facebook techniques. It was a fascinating lesson in marketing for me. An excellent interview.

There is a lady who sits in a Starbucks I go to. She is hard to miss. She has a little Dell netbook equipped with strange-looking antennas. She is testing the netbook. I got into a conversation with her about it. I don't even care what the daggone thing does. I liked that it was red, and that she was using it, and it looked better than what I had at home. Evolutionary psychology. Darwinism. Sell me on technology as a means of survival.

Often technology companies use the principles of economics to sell their stuff. I can sort of see that. But they don't usually do a good job of it. Because it's hard to mentally make the leap from not understanding how to use it, to knowing.

Last example. I had to take an online class to learn how to teach online. I felt like a fool for much of it. I couldn't find where anything was. I was forever behind the curve on the assignments. Discussions took place and I didn't even know what electronic "room" they were in. If not for the fact that I had to take the class in order to be an adjunct, I would have given up for sure. And I really like learning new technology.

Change makes people feel stupid. It is hard to do things a new way. Once our brains are wired to a process, they're wired. That's what most tech companies don't understand. The devotion to "old-fashioned" records and record players is the best example I can think of. The music all sounds the same. It's just what we come to take for granted that's the issue.

If you want to sell technology, the best thing you can do is socialize it and make it real. Saturate the target audience with live examples of people using the things. I would be transparent about it and announce that a giveaway or product placement of some kind is taking place. But that is the real way to get the money rolling in. Abstract proclamations about being the best, weird conceptual campaigns, fast-talking spokespeople, and all the glitz and glamour is just a waste of money.

It's the people factor that wins, every time.

Good luck!


Photo by Gubatron