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Meditation on a Liver Knish

Up in the Jewish shopping mini-mall on Bathurst Street in Toronto there was my Zayde's (may he rest in peace) store, Stroli's Strictly Kosher Food Products. Canada's Jewish Tribune memorialized him pretty much exactly as he was:

"Remember Rabbi Stroli who, when you reached the back counter at his butcher shop, stood ready to thrust a hot liver knish into your hand so you shouldn’t starve on your way home and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer?....Toronto’s kosher butchers have always had character."

Over his lifetime my Zayde was an officer in the Romanian army, he was imprisoned in a labor camp, he was a Rabbi, and only later on in his life did he become a kosher butcher. He was also a son, husband, father and a grandfather. But history books being selective like they are, he will always be remembered for the butcher part. People who know "old Toronto" remember his liver and potato knishes, TV dinners, and cooked chickens. (And yes, they debate over whether the rest of the food was as good as his specialties.)

The butcher store gave our family a living and the community a badly needed resource for living an observant Jewish life. And that made it functionally important. But Zayde took a special joy in those liver knishes. It made him happy to feed people, and more than that, to give them joy in the food that they ate. Food that satisfied religious requirements, but that also took the eating experience from the necessary to the sublime.

I went to the kosher butcher yesterday and got some chopped liver. It was good; they had sauteed onions into it and mixed the two together. But there was no joy in the liver, you know? It was just...what it was. Packed in a little plastic container, with a label.

I find myself missing my Zayde, and the generosity he infused in those knishes.

When you sell somebody something, infuse it with spirit, love and joy. That's what it means to deliver real value. It's more than just the thing-in-itself. It's the gift of yourself that you are giving along with it.

Have a good weekend everyone, and good luck!

My 3-Step Strategy for Communication Projects: Think Brand First

Good economy or bad economy, somehow I always find a way to work on my day off and today was no different. It felt weird not to be writing a blog in the morning as I am accustomed to do, but I had to start getting my teaching materials together for January (I’m returning to University of Maryland University College to teach Marketing Management and Innovation), plus I had to update a few social profile type things online.

 

It’s a lot of work, and it’s not done, but it led me to reflect on my general philosophy of and strategy for communication, beyond simply saying that I am “brand-centric.” When you’re a sociologist-turned-brand blogger and social commentator, plus an adjunct professor, freelance writer and civil servant, it’s helpful to take some time out to do this, if only to help others understand that your professional life actually does have an underlying consistency.

 

Anyway, here it is. I feel the need to get to it in a bit of a roundabout way. (You can skip this part if you want and go to Step #1 if you’re in a hurry.)

 

Background: Growing Up With Vinyl & A Manual Typewriter

 

I learned to type on a manual typewriter – the kind that didn’t even have auto-correct. I listened to vinyl records as a child too. Looking back it was all so primitive. My first computer was a Tandy that had a one-line screen.

 

Very rapidly over my lifetime, the old technologies kept morphing until we have the state-of-the-art today: like a Technicolor whirlwind of communication possibilities. I still can’t believe that in the palm of my hand I can hold a machine that lets me broadcast a video, audio, photo, blog or Facebook post or tweet to the entire world.

 

Anyone can do that. It takes absolutely no money to reach an audience here or on the other side of the globe. And I can understand how you can easily get carried away with that power. Lost in the possibilities of the technology. And forget the art of communicating well, artfully and strategically and authentically.

 

Step #1: Develop a Unique, Consistent and Credible Brand Voice

So I try to keep a consistent framework to what I’m doing, when I go out there and say stuff. For me it always goes back to brand. What is the long-term, consistent theme or idea you want people to take away?

 

In the things that I write, for myself and for others, I will always bring it back to a voice that has the ring of truth. Almost like a person talking - I can actually hear it. It has to sound like a credible, believable voice with a narrative that flows and makes sense, or I refuse to be a part of it. And I will write it based on a combination of research, observation, knowledge, imagination and instinct.

 

Step #2: Choose Your Communication Tools

 

After you have the brand voice down, there is the issue of medium. And this will take different forms depending on what environment the audience is in. Sometimes the product will be a thought leadership publication. Other times, a brochure outlining best practices. Still other times, a simple word mark is enough to make even an ordinary fact sheet stand out in the customer's mind.

Step #3: Assemble a Team That Complements Your Skills

 

Finally, there is the matter of facing your limitations. (Let’s put it a more positive way, “focusing on the core skills you bring to the table.”) Didn’t Jack Welch say to be number one, number two or get out? Well that applies to communicating too. Bring what you know, then find talented peers who can do the rest.

 

For example, at the end of the day I am basically a writer, and I am better with the big-picture concept than the detail. Sure there are subjects that I understand – branding, marketing, social media, etc. – but at the end of the day I live and breathe words. So I benefit from help, especially on the design, web and multimedia fronts. In a visual society you absolutely have to integrate words, content and electronic presentation skills in order to be effective.  

 

(Even if your project only involves writing, it is hugely helpful to show it to other people for feedback. Is it clear? Are you overusing a certain technique? Does it seem imbalanced? It can be hard to step away and look at your work objectively.)

 

With these three steps accomplished – the brand voice, a strategy for communication media, and the project team – it becomes possible to do work that I can be proud of.

 

Of course there are many other considerations, and it would be impossible to touch on all of them here. But having and articulating a simple framework that I can repeat from project to project, together with understanding my unique personality and work style (more on that, maybe, in another post) helps me to turn out work that I can feel good about.

 

Hope this is helpful, and if anyone has feedback or a different approach, please share.

 

Have a good weekend everyone, and good luck!

 

Herman Cain: Good Brand, Wrong Business

If Newt Gingrich is going to win the nomination, and possibly the election, it is because he is the right brand in the right place at the right time. He is experienced, knowledgeable, politically savvy, positive, business-oriented, and most of all he really seems to want the job. Plus he's already gotten us used to his skeletons.

The country is looking for answers. And they see in him a confident old hand with substantive new ideas that can actually work.

Herman Cain on the other hand is very uncomfortable in his current chosen field, politics. He likes people, clearly (perhaps a bit too much!) but he doesn't know the subject matter. And he isn't skilled at working the issues, the Washington scene, the media. I find myself wondering why Cain hasn't dropped out yet. It's not just the allegations from the (lost count) women who have emerged. It's the fact that he just seems so uncomfortable with any serious question whatsoever.

Cain has said that he's studied leadership, and that a president should be a "Communicator In Chief." (If he is lying about the women he is the best liar I have ever seen.) He likes solving problems with simple, straightforward formulas that appeal to the average person. He relates well generally to Jane and Joe Public - and seems uncomfortable with elites of any kind.

In many ways Cain resembles Sarah Palin, and he could lift a lyric from her song sheet. Sarah is beloved by her fans (I am one), dismissed as a lightweight by her foes (because of the occasional flub), has gone through family scandal and ultimately bypassed official channels to relate directly to the people. She still uses her voice, but in a way that people will better accept - and she doesn't shy away from the truth.

Cain should follow in Palin's footsteps. Womanizing politicians are old news by now - and he has nothing to lose by admitting this proclivity, if it exists. America is a forgiving nation because we embrace the Judaeo-Christian ethic of sin and forgiveness. It is impossible to live and not screw up; what we hate are the people who try and lie about it.

If I were Herman Cain I would do 5 things right now:

1. Fire the lawyer and the communications adviser, who make him look bad again and again

2. Get on TV with his wife to admit that the allegations are dragging their family and the party down, that he is sorry for all this (whether he did anything or not), and that he is seeking therapy to better understand his issues

3. Keep a detailed journal of this time in his life, so that someone can help him write a recovery book later

4. Publish book, which should include a chapter on his issues with women, and on the book tour include a component where he makes peace with those he has harmed and joins an organization promoting more positive values in any area that would be appropriate 5. Join the media in some capacity as a "rehabilitated" public figure with many important things to say - maintaining a strong presence on the lecture circuit, etc.

In the world of branding there is only one moral law: Keep your promises. And if you have broken them, make them right, right quick.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

(Note: This blog is a communications commentary, not a political endorsement.)


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Gender-Based Branding: 5 Hypotheses

The other day it occurred to me that while marketers routinely differentiate between men and women as target audiences, brand strategies don't often make this distinction.

In this context "marketing" = meeting customer needs in the broadest sense, while "branding" = creating the impression of superior value.

Here are some loose hypotheses I'm tossing around:

1. Visual vs. imagination - men need to see what they are buying (inspect dimensions, etc.) women prefer to embellish it in their heads
(Related hypothesis could be called "explicit vs. storytelling": men prefer to be told directly and concisely what the product is and does vs. women like to learn about it in the context of a story, by inference, etc. - like product placement or infomercial)

2. Specialized vs. lifestyle - men prefer a brand that claims to do one thing well; women like an umbrella brand that brightens everything it touches (Dr. Oz vs. Oprah)

3. Functional vs. emotional - men are more likely to care about objectively provable quality whereas women care more about brands that evoke a specific feeling

4. Ownership vs. experience - men prefer brands that offer the experience of control vs. women gravitate to brands that control the experience for them

5. Admirer vs. object of admiration - men gravitate to brands they can polish, clean, and admire vs. women gravitate to brands that put them at the center of attention

I'm wondering if anyone agrees, disagrees, or has other dimensions of brand-based value creation that may differ along gender lines. (For example, are certain colors, or color families, more effective by gender? Do customers respond to corporate social responsibility promises based on gender?)

Note that I'm not trying to be prescriptive or sexist here, but rather to offer some concepts based loosely on my own observations. Welcoming everyone's thoughts and comments.

Thanks everyone, have a good day and good luck!

Occupy Wall Street, Branding Battleground

Tug-of-war

 

Originally OWS was an anti-consumerist movement (see "The Branding of the Occupy Movement" in today's New York Times, 11/28/11; hat tip to whoever posted it on LinkedIn.) It was "launched" on July 13, 2011 when the staff at Adbuster magazine, headed by editor Kalle Lasn, launched a dual branding and social media "attack" as represented by:


* Twitter hashtag: #OCCUPYWALLSTREET


* Icon: Ballerina dancing on a bull

 

Unions and liberal groups have been visible promoters of the movement; a recent headline in The Hill (11/12/11), "Labor unions, Occupy Wall Street plan ‘day of action’" exemplifies its initial ideological tilt.

 

The New York Times exemplified the “capitalists are evil” spirit yesterday (11/27/11), with a cover story casting billionaire Ronald S. Lauder as someone who can’t actually succeed at working for a living, so he is content to be a semi-productive philanthropist, art lover and sometime ambassador who is an expert in milking legitimate tax shelters for all they're worth (insert anti-Semitic stereotype here of the unproductive, secretive sponger-off-society).

 

The great and the terrible thing about marketers is that we don’t care if you hate us or not – we just want to sell to you. So it was bound to be a very short time before pro-consumerists (capitalists) tried to co-opt the very movement launched against them (us).

 

Thus an article, "Who's Behind '99 percenters'?" (WorldNetDaily 11/22/11), arguing that we brand people have indeed infiltrated the ranks. It asserts that "a company hired to lead marketing campaigns for such corporate giants as Pepsi, Starbucks, IBM and Toyota now is promoting Occupy Wall Street while [paradoxically] complaining about the top "1 percent" ultra-wealthy allegedly hoarding the country's wealth."

 

And an op-ed in today's USA Today (11/28/11), "How Businesses Can Pacify 'Occupiers," purports to explain how companies can use the power of their brands precisely to keep the figurative mob on their side. From the article:

 

"Businesses can be beloved, even when they generate huge profits and create great wealth for their executives. Just look at Apple, Google, Disney, or Johnson & Johnson. Nobody is occupying these companies' headquarters, even though these firms make a lot of money.

 

“What's different about these companies is that they create value for consumers that resonates with both the head and the heart. They infuse their business with purpose and meaning that transcends profit. They focus on feelings, not just fees."

 

OWS is a social movement; social movements redefine norms; normal is what we make it.

 

We are only seeing the beginning of its impact, but in the end it will be the 99% who decide what it means.

 

In the end, will OWS become just another moneymaking enterprise, or will it be a vehicle through which we fundamentally simplify our lives, and stop letting consumerism define us?

 

Given all the writing being done about holiday sales, in a time when many can't afford to buy much at all, I hope it is the latter.

 

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!


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Image source here

Personal Demon --> Personal Brand

I did not understand Lady Gaga at all until I saw her HBO concert special. Onstage she talked – a lot. And I could see that growing up, she felt like a freak. That gender and sexuality were big issues for her. And that she lived, dreamed, ate and breathed the wish for stardom.

Now she is a star – we pay her to be a freak for money – because she encourages the rest of us to let our own “freak flag fly.”

Watching her onstage I thought the following: Lady Gaga is “freaking” brilliant. She can sing. Dance. Play piano. Change costumes in five seconds. Has no shame or inhibitions. Remembers her entire stage show. Can run through the whole routine breathlessly.

Plus Lady Gaga knows how to capture the audience, engage them, bring them in. The concert was in New York and I think she yelled “New York” just about every five seconds. She gave a shout-out to Liza Minnelli and Marisa Tomei in the audience, and to the Tisch School at NYU (the performing arts school). This was not an anonymous endeavor – Lady Gaga completely bonded with her “little monsters” at her very own “monster ball.”

Another example: Look at Woody Allen. You either love his films or you hate them. But they have a definite style – a signature brand. All of it comes from his personal demons. The storylines, the themes, repeat again and again. And he has managed to reinvent that wheel for decades.

Or how about Kim Kardashian? What is it that makes her reveal so very much to the world? Why does she not only show her physical self but also the very inside of her emotions, to the point where she goes through courtship, marriage and divorce on TV? Whether you like her or believe in her or not, or whether her brand will work in the end, she is clearly driven by a personal demon. And it will not let her go.

Take Charlie Sheen. His personal demon propelled his career and the incredible success of the sitcom Two and a Half Men. Nobody could make up a character like that, because the character of Charlie is Charlie. And as self-destructive as he is – as much as the personal demon has won, at times – the brand remains an objective contribution to the world of Hollywood entertainment.

When you seek to build a personal brand there is no reason to look outside yourself. Whatever it is that drives you now, that is what you need to use. Because nobody has lived through your life and experiences.

Think of it this way: Considering all the uniqueness that you've gained from your personal pain, why work so hard to think of a good personal brand? Use it instead to propel yourself forward. Do something constructive with everything you've lived through. It's something nobody else can match.

Just don’t go too far – keep a bit of distance – control the demons and don’t let them eat you alive.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!