Thursday, May 31, 2012

When You Lack The Language To Describe What's Happening

Shadow Man
"Shadow Man" by Jaqian via Flickr

Once I had a supervisor who used to call me in and do her e-mail while I sat there.

She would check it and respond; take phone calls; talk about the weather, and her home, and her weekend; and once in a while give me a task or two.

Sometimes she would say, "I have to go to the restroom," and would say something like "let's go."

I was young and inexperienced and fearful. So I went. Fortunately all I had to do was wait outside, but it was still pretty humiliating.

She talked and talked the whole time, and I had to nod and go along with it like it was totally normal.

I share this not for gross-out value but to talk about one aspect of the experience that stands out for me.

At the time, I did not have the language to name what I was going through. So although I knew there was something wrong, I couldn't really confront the situation.

Today I have the words, of course:

* Boundary-crossing
* Exploitive
* Sadistic

...and so on.

This boss was also what we call a "micromanager." She did not "trust" other people to do things just right. So her stamp of approval, or disapproval, covered everything.

I did not have the words.

A feminist tool, and a workers'  rights tool, is "consciousness-raising." That is exactly what it sounds like: People sit around in a circle and share their experiences. 

There is solace in sharing with others, getting support, and finding that you have gone through similar things and survived. You can learn how to recognize a problem and how to cope.

But what is also empowering, yet let discussed, is the fact that sharing your experiences leads to language. Suddenly that nameless monster has a name. 

And by designating it you gain a measure of control.

Sharing, consciousness-raising, education, the Internet and social media are all linked - and that is why oppressive people always try to shut them down.

The more a person can be isolated and kept ignorant, the more they can be victimized.

Which is why it's very important to not only train yourself and share what you've seen, but also to stand up against those why try to keep information from being free. And to help those without access to education and technology - access it.

In the end cruelty persists because it lives in the shadows.

Expose it for what it is, arm people with a pen and paper (or tablet computer), and put them in a room together. It is then impossible for evil to persist.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Anything But Feelings

Strangers' Stories
Photo: "Strangers' Stories" by Alyssa L. Miller via Flickr. 
Caption: "A superimposition of two shots from a short film I made in New York City about two strangers who form a silent friendship on the streets of New York. Inspired by the real people we walk past on the streets of this big city without a second glance, without wondering why or how they got there. We’re all innately connected, even if in our intrinsic lonliness. An yet, we forgot that everyone is the protagonist in his/her own story. And everyone has something to offer. It’s wonderful. Sometimes I think, 'life would be so much simpler if we didn’t have to make everything so complex.' Then again, I’m a culprit. Too."

The Outsourced Self,” a new book by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, is about people who make money by selling friendship and love – think “Rent-A-Friend.”

The entire industry of branding today is exactly about this. Adding value to the transaction by pretending to care.

Remember that scene from “Home Alone 2,” where Macaulay Caulkin’s stage mom repeatedly insults Tim Curry, the hotel concierge?

When she abuses him he smiles. When she yells, “What kind of idiots work here?” he responds cheerily, “Idiots like us.”

Hey. It’s the Four Seasons. You have to take it with a smile.

(Her 1983 book was “The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling.”

Prostitution is the oldest profession. It has now widened in scope from the physical to the emotional.

Hochschild is not an objective social scientist. She hates how we disvalue emotional labor. The psychological effect on the individual – demoralization, exhaustion.

What is the impact on the ordinary person of turning sincere emotion into a kind of product?

·      An inability to feel authentically: Emotion is reserved for the pathetic (we feel sorry for them), the mesmerizing (celebrities), the shocking (news stories), and the potentially useful (as employers, mentors, “contacts,” etc.)

·      Lowered self-esteem: We see ourselves as products, and we hate what we see unless we measure up to some mythical ideal that was previously marketed to us on TV, in a magazine, etc. (Women and men equally by the way)

·      Craving approval “wherever”: We find community among people we don’t know (social media), people who want to dig into our wallets (marketers), people who want to exploit our skills (employers), and perhaps worst of all people whose emotional problems require other people as solace (“vampire” friends, relatives, significant others)

Everywhere in our society, relationships are glorified. Don’t clothing ads routinely show a bunch of friends together, having fun? Don’t we see endless portrayals in the movies of Hollywood romance?

But then again, those connections are sold to us as a product.

It seems to me that what we are missing now, and what we as a society need more than ever, are the kind of connections that are off the grid. That have absolutely zero chance of ever becoming commercial.

It also seems to me that we can’t admit how much we actually need those types of connections. We’ll do anything instead – go shopping, eat an ice cream sundae, take a trip to Thailand – anything except just sit down and talk and not look at the smartphone or check the time.

The world has grown so incredibly cold, and it’s not because we lack money. It’s because we have all been sucked into the world of emotional labor – either as peddlers or to consume.

The worst threat we face is not external. It’s the icicles forming on our hearts. As we’ve become steely to each other. And to ourselves.

Think about it - have a good evening everyone, and good luck!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How To Display Bananas

Not sitting down, like this (Au Bon Pain). Starbucks does that too, except worse.

Hanging (Whole Foods).

If you don't care about the item you are selling, stop selling it.

Good luk!

The Brand Strategist's Bias

People knowledgeable about branding tend to think that the case for branding is self-evident.

The best brand strategists are able to talk to non-brand people who are completely unconvinced or even hostile to the concept of branding.

(Mars and Venus if you will.)

When I was younger and more immature I resisted the concept of using "reputation" as a substitute. Now, I see the wisdom. (Hat tip: The Brand Consultancy, Mark Morris and Diane Beecher.)

In the end you can have the best ideas in the world. But those ideas are actually implemented through people.

Think objectively.

Good luck!

Monday, May 28, 2012

5 Ways to Really Honor Our Soldiers This Memorial Day

Veterans Day Ceremony
Photo by Josh LeClair via Flickr 

It's so hard to write about Memorial Day and other celebrations. Either you sound like everybody else or you seem like you're trying to exploit something for your own gain. Hopefully this blog doesn't do either.

For me this holiday brings five reflections.

1. Gratitude for the self-sacrifice involved in military service and to the full spectrum of self-sacrificing patriots - including women and homosexuals
 2. Anger that there is not justice for soldiers who are sexually assaulted - something that happens to men and women alike
 3. Appreciation for our military families, whose sacrifice is quieter but no less real. The wish that men could be given more permission to be "soft," fair and human rather than always "macho" without being stigmatized. Especially because when they come home, the post-traumatic disorder leads often to family turbulence and domestic violence.

4. Resist the temptation to stifle those who disagree with you - freedom of speech is hard-won and one of the first things to go in a dictatorship

5. Don't be all superior-like if you are anti-war. Thank the anonymous soldier who either got killed or has killed someone else so that you may live free: "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." (George Orwell)


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Scarcity Branding & Its Cousins: Cults, Tribes, Local, Luxury, Handmade

At Nike the other day I saw the lines were out the wazoo.

It made me wonder what would happen if something bad happened G-d forbid and we were lining up for medical supplies rather than 30% off sneakers.

Since I can't handle that kind of reality all that well my thoughts turned of course to marketing. Which leads to this short post clarifying and classifying the variations of scarcity branding.

Just a few thoughts:

1. Most people don't understand when to use scarcity vs. saturation. Basically, you saturate the market to gain awareness and credibility - people "know" you so they trust you as a vendor. You make a product scarce when you have the promise of developing sufficient foothold that you can simply charge more per item. Scarcity is a quality strategy, saturation goes to volume.

2. There are lots of ways to do scarcity. But don't do it unless you can reliably get to influencers who will spread the word that you are scarce. You, the vendor, are not a reliable source of that information - you will need trusted, live ambassadors. (Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon).

3. Cult brands leverage scarcity, sometimes, but they're a different breed of product. They're built around a larger philosophy that can border on the religious. They feel extreme. They attract people who choose to live on the margins in some way - either in a rebellious sense (Harley-Davidson) or in an elite sense (the Mini).

4. Tribal brands are different than cults in that they refuse a larger philosophy and perhaps even the name "tribal." They are known to those within the tribe, but not to those without. (Bobbi Brown cosmetics are used by makeup artists; certain kosher brands.)

5. Luxury brands are not tribal and they do not require scarcity, except that they must be seen as premium and therefore inaccessible to all but the extremely financially elite. If too many people can get them, they lose their luxury status. (Prada - and the issue of controlling counterfeits)

6. Local brands simply build a reputation by aligning with a hyperlocal geographic area, then their reputation fans out through tourists and their word of mouth. (Ghirardelli chocolate)

7. Rare products can be brands, but are not necessarily. Those in the know will pay for them. (E.g. the painting "The Scream" sold for almost $120 million on auction.)

8. Experts as personal brands are scarce, but they may or may not be branded, depending on their level of visibility and mainstream acceptance. (Rachel Zoe's assistant "Brad" getting his own Bravo show does not signify that he is a brand; the "Millionaire Matchmaker" Patti Sanger has become one.)

A last point is that one should be careful to distinguish between branding, marketing, advertising and public relations as methods for developing an appropriate image. Branding is a long-term strategy in which one cultivates a certain appearance. Marketing is shorter-term and flexible depending on immediate need. Public relations involves obtaining credibility through trusted third parties. And of course advertising is what we're all familiar with - the "Mad Men" - like "campaign."

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

How Facebook Can Recover Its Brand: Partner With Microsoft To Make Business Social

Image: Screenshot of blog post by Garrett Smith for (blog), August 11, 2011, "The Microsoft-Skype Deal Was About Facebook The Whole Time." Apparently other people are thinking the same thing that I am: Combine them. Except they're missing one crucial element - use the combination to turn the workplace social.
This is going to be a short blog.

Wrong approach: Figure things out about people and put customized ads in front of them.

Right approach: Partner with Microsoft and get Facebook inside every business in America and around the world, as the internal collaborative social network. (Kill off, absorb, replace Sharepoint.)

The workplace is the great unexploited center of value and profit. It can be leveraged much more fully to bring employees together to generate ideas, work more closely on projects, and align corporate culture for greater productivity, engagement, stability - RESULTS.

Organizations are more willing than you might think to open up the floodgates of open conversation internally. The obstacle right now is that they don't understand the technology and they worry about security and controls.

But if Microsoft were to get involved then businesses would be reassured that the collaboration technology would be safe, secure, and trustworthy. As the old saying goes, "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." (Except now it's Microsoft)

At the same time, Microsoft has lost its luster and is perceived as a clunky old fart of of a brand.

If Microsoft were to partner with Facebook to achieve serious business objectives, it could reinvent itself through the synergy and become cool again.

Microsoft and Facebook.

(And eventually Skype - not as a personal social accessory for cheap calls but as a way to videoconference the world.)

Together they could reinvent social, reinvent business, and take some dying, losing brands back up into the stratosphere.

Is anybody listening? Hope so.

Good luck!

Update 10:14 a.m. EST May 27: Just discovered this article on ZDnet describing the somewhat complicated relationship between Facebook, Microsoft and Skype. As well as this blog post regarding Microsoft's possible aims for Facebook and the idea that it's using Skype to get an "in" to the company. Am I the only person who sees the potential here to "invade" the workplace and make Facebook-for-work common? Perhaps the only thing missing is a brand name? Wait, here's an idea...acquire Yammer!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Principles of Branding for a Post-Branding World

Mark Zuckerberg's hoodies and sweatjackets exemplify branding in the post-branding world. Photo via Wikipedia.

The following are notes from a teleseminar I gave for the Federal Communicator's Network, May 21, 2012. (I am currently the chair of FCN.) All opinions are of course my own.

Thanks to Melanie Solomon for providing notes and to Paul McKim and others who contributed questions, comments and feedback. Also thanks to Ellen Crown for “live-tweeting” the event.

I. Notes – Melanie Solomon

1.       What is "branding in a post-branding era?"Branding world = under control, no hair out of place. Post-branding world = inauthenticity challenged by social media. How to achieve balance between coordinating what you say while seeming authentic and accessible.

2.       Culture first. Put internal communication first and let that be the driver. Get your people on board—not just with a training manual, but rather the whole gamut of your “corporate” culture.

3.       Start at the top. In post-branded, the leader is the brand, not just endorsing the brand.

4.       Everyone builds it. The frontline employees who deal with the public every day own the brand—not just Public Affairs. Post-branding employee treats you like a human being; no “canned” statements such as “have we me all your needs today?” Live the brand as if it was your neighbor.

5.       "Say it plain." KISS! Avoid bad branded writing! Un-writing the over-communicated message. Keep it in everyday, normal English. It’s fine to say what you want to say, but say it plainly. Strip away the phony baloney, but you still have a sense of coordination and shared view of the world.

6.       Nobody likes a robot. Nothing more annoying than reading robot language. The skill is to say it in a way that people respect you, even if you have to say that you don’t know all the answers. It is not easy to do. And not everyone can do it well. Don’t publish BS!

7.       A time for outreach, a time for content. NEVER do propaganda. But there is a place for marketing campaigns where you need to do more than just give people a phone number. Play with the brand; you don’t have to just mirror it for a campaign. When are we doing outreach; when are we doing content?

8.       About those logos. It’s very hard to do well. A bad logo is distracting to the public. Pay a professional to do this! Needs to be coordinated: monolithic, endorsed, or standalone (DB). Brand architecture: think about on a business level what your objective is, and how your logo reflects that. Need a strategy. Trademark the brand if you need to to prevent fraud.

9.       Dealing with dissension. Key in a branding effort, there will normally be a lot of fighting and dissension. People feel like they’re being forced into a mold and dehumanized. So...don’t call it “branding.” Call it “renewal” or something else (“reputation” – DB). In post-branded world, let people express their dissent in an adult way, to vent. Builds buy-in. Doesn’t always work in a closed culture because of reprisals. Get the decision-makers on board and in touch.

10.    Social media and the web. Become fluent with social media. You have to recognize that the younger generation especially lives in the social media world. The way they interact with the government is the way they deal with each other. Let them be ambassadors without so much mediation, while holding them to a reasonable standard. Support the conversation. Begin by using internal communications tools. Start people talking in groups—a positive step.

II. Tweets (Short Takes) – Ellen Crown, FCN Board of Directors:

1.       Training and employee buy-in are critical to creating authentic voices within an organization.
2.       How do you keep your brand from burning out? You need to look at your organization from the outside and constantly evolve.
3.       There is nothing that will destroy your communication faster than a crappy logo strategy.
4.       Nobody likes a robot.
5.       In a post-branded organization, the leader is the brand. They don't just endorse it.
6.       Focus on internal communication. "Culture is the neglected step-child of communication." (via a colleague – DB)
7.       The key distinction between the branding world and the post-branding world is that people are looking for authenticity.
8.       History lesson: for government, this (branding) started because we wanted to keep the messages and language consistent. (Also – there was a perceived need for greater familiarity between the public and the agency in the aftermath of organizational change - DB.)

III. Additional Notes and Comments – Dannielle Blumenthal

1.       Initially branding was restricted to products, then it was expanded to services, companies, and people.
2.       A serious initial problem of branding for agencies was that people were saying different things in different places and not coordinating – leading to confusion among the public about how to perceive the agency. However, now things have swung the other way and the discourse seems overly controlled with “messaging.”
3.       Branding and propaganda are not the same thing, but they can be.
4.       Everybody talks the language of branding now, but due to the explosion of social media it seems phony and forced. The trick is to sound natural while still coordinating and thinking through in advance the things you say.
5.       Mark Zuckerberg’s “hoodie everywhere” strategy is the epitome of post-branding.
6.       In a post-branded world, culture and internal communication are more important than external communication because there is the assumption that employees will speak spontaneously about the organization and that it will not be possible to control that.
7.       When the culture is strong employees automatically know what to do.
8.       What happens inside the organization, will ultimately be seen on the outside.
9.       Most branding is done by employees, not public affairs specialists.
10.    You have to be passionate about good writing – it is a cause.
11.    “Have I provided good service today?” is the kind of annoying brand talk that turns people off.
12.    Outreach is necessary sometimes to explain new rules, laws, etc. to the public. Branding can be useful to make it clear which agency communications are authentic.
13.    Must divide between branding, marketing, and information strategy. These are not one and the same.
14.    Public affairs and IT should work together – not just as partners but in a fused office.
15.    Use fewer logos, more strategically. There is a tendency to generate new brands and new logos like trophies.
16.    Reduce acronyms as much as possible.
17.    Don’t pick a fight with people who are wedded to a logo or what they think of as “brand.” To influence leaders, form an alternative group with a common vision, then work to engage the dominant group with the alternative group – create a new conversation that incorporates both. Read Art Kleiner’s book, Who Really Matters.
18.    The longer the timeframe, the more collaborative you can be – but when time is short sometimes you have to go in and be a dictator about content.
19.    Keep social media as loose as possible, but enforce existing policy stringently. Treat people like adults, and that includes making them accountable for using good judgment.

IV. Responses To Questions From The Audience – Thanks to Paul Kim and All Those Who Contributed To This Section

1.       If there is one aspect of the agency that differs strongly from the rest in terms of stakeholder relationships and services offered, this should be reflected in the brand strategy (logo, colors, etc.)
2.       Finding and engaging your audience is a marketing issue – do the research to find out where they are (often it’s offline), and get to the influencers because they will reach out to the others you need.
3.       Take the time to engage with the people who represent your brand. It’s a matter of training but also buy-in. Buy-in is achieved through conversation, and through providing a context around what you want them to say. The longer the time horizon, the more collaborating you can do – but if time is short sometimes you have to jump in and dictate.
4.       Subject matter experts should not be treated as writers. People cannot necessarily write from templates – these are only guides to set expectations as to what will happen to an end product
5.       You achieve branded communication without formulas by emphasizing the culture. Think about Google, Apple, Facebook, Starbucks, Microsoft – you can recognize what kind of communication would come from each of these companies without thinking too much about it.
6.       When developing a brand strategy think about your business objective and work backward to communication.
7.       To engage the public, find out what they want and give it to them – don’t start with your predetermined message.
8.       Brands burn out when they don’t evolve. It is important to have at least one person on the team who refuses to “drink the Kool-Aid” and is allowed to tell it like it is.
9.       Branding is not a tool to create publicity – marketing and PR do that. Rather, branding is a long-term communication strategy that sets the foundation for marketing and PR to work, by establishing a desirable image. Read Positioningby Al Ries.
10.    Can you destroy a brand by putting it on everything? No. You have to put the brand on everything if you want people to remember and trust it. You can tell you’re doing a good job when you get absolutely sick of looking at the logo.
11.    Use “line extensions” sparingly. You have to know your stakeholders well and be sure you’re not diluting the original message. Every time you split the brand into different directions, you’re splitting your energy. Only do this when the stakeholder groups are so different that they can’t be included in the same conversation.
12.    Avoid the B-word if possible. People innately dislike being branded.
13.    Focus on success in terms of what executive want. Listen carefully to what they say, how they define the problem, the communication style they prefer.
14.    In defining brand objectives, talk to employees informally about what the pain points are. Strategies that incorporate pain points stand a much greater likelihood of success than “nice-to-haves.”
15.    Often communication experts focus on pie-in-the-sky ideals when basic factors are a problem (like people don’t know where to find the information they need)
16.    Fix problems one at a time; start with low-hanging fruit. Don’t wait for the big plan to hatch – there is none.
17.    Don’t be excessive about asking for permission. Find out what leadership wants to approve and focus on that; for the rest you will have to do the best you can, exercise good judgment, etc. If you are constantly asking for permission you are asking to be told “no.”
18.    It is not self-promotional to highlight success. That is what executives want.
19.    Don’t be the lone ranger. Form a network of people internally who are engaged in helping you to fix the problems that have been identified.
20.    Everybody thinks they’re a writer and that technical skills are the only “real” ones. You can’t fix that. All you can do is gain people’s trust by showing your expertise.

Friday, May 25, 2012

10 Reasons Why Good People Stay Silent

Suicide Monkey
Photo by Jason Rogers via Flickr

Recently somebody asked me why I spend so much time publicizing issues like workplace bullying,  abuse, human trafficking, feminism, abuses in organized religion, and the importance of outing and prosecuting child molesters.

I understood the subtext of the question: "You must have been a victim, right?" As if nobody in their right mind would care about this type of thing unless they had been personally tortured.

The truth is not that dramatic, and yet it is. I simply realized one day that G-d gave me a voice and I am supposed to use it to try and speak for those who can't. I love this video of Daughtry's song "What About Now" - it captures the idea completely:

It is true that people who take a stand can become victims themselves. Remember Judy Blume's classic young adult book, Blubber?
"Though the entire class ostracizes Linda ("Blubber"), Wendy and her best friend and sidekick Caroline are Linda's chief tormentors and bully her both physically...and psychologically.....

"(Until) Jill (another student in the class), frustrated with herself for so readily following Wendy's lead, finally stands up to Wendy....Wendy, furious that Jill has dared to question her authority, threatens to make Jill "sorry [she was] ever born".

"Jill comes to school the next morning to find that Wendy has made good on her threat and turned the entire class against her....Jill's tormentors include Linda, who is more than willing to bully one of her former harassers."
The older I get the more I see that there are two kinds of people in the world. Some are willing to take a stand - even if quietly and behind the scenes. Others are not.

Generally the reasons for silence fall into one of 10 categories:

1. "I don't want them coming after me." (Refer to above.)

2. "Not my problem."

3. "People will think that I was a victim."

4. "What can I possibly do to help?"

5. "Look around you - that stuff seems a little exaggerated."

6. "Can't you see those people are crazy?"

7. "It's sad, but I have bigger things to worry about."

8. "That's what therapists are for - it's not really something you demonstrate about."

9. "If it didn't happen to me, why should I care?"

10. "Honestly, it's just depressing."

If you are on the fence, think about it from the perspective of your death. How do you want to remember your life?

I think about it this way: How many years, months or days do I have left before G-d forbid something happens, and I have to spend so much time at the doctor's office that I can't do anything for anyone anymore?

I'm inspired by the folks who stood up for the victims at last week's Jewish protest (in New York) to protect children from child abuse.

If you have time, I highly recommend reading what they had to put up with, because it really stirred me up to stand up for the victims even more:
Overheard at the Asifa Protest: Quotes, Moments, & Vignettes - By Shulem Deen |

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Rule #1: Stop Fooling Yourself

[Portrait of Cab Calloway, Columbia studio, New York, N.Y., ca. Mar. 1947] (LOC)
Photo of Cab Calloway by Library of Congress via Flickr

A college friend was a film student at Tisch School for the Arts at NYU.

I vividly remember her practicing her shots, spending hours positioning a rose on a stool with a white sheet draped behind it. Then taking picture after picture.

Went to Pennsylvania once, and spent the weekend with her family.

They had a beautiful, small wooden house.  I remember walking up the steps from the main floor to put my things down upstairs, looking up at the ceiling, and thinking that it was beautiful. (I grew up with popcorn ceilings.)

They had some kites, or flags, or something like that affixed to the ceilings as well. I stood there in joy and wonder, thinking of the heavy books and heavy framed pictures in my house in New Jersey.

Airy in her house, heavy in my own.

I never wanted to be religious like my parents were. But I couldn’t admit it then.

I returned to New York and confessed to my mother. Normally open-minded, she gasped. Driving…on Shabbos…and you are happy?

She hung up the phone and I decided that I hated myself for being such a bad person. Till decades later when I realized, I’m not bad – just not the same as her.

The point of all this is that work is much the same. We have a flash of realization, and quickly bury it in aisles of denial.

How often do we admit and take responsibility for the fact that—

--a project is failing

--a team member – frontline, manager or even a leader - just isn’t cutting it

--a process is broken

--a division is becoming unnecessary

--ongoing conflicts are getting out of hand?

Last night I was watching Piers Morgan interview Jack Welch on CNN. If I could vote for Welch to take over (at least the economy), I would. There was an honesty to his talk. He simply told it like he saw it. 

This is not necessarily the same thing as being right – but Welch struck me as the kind of person who has made a deliberate choice not to fool himself.

Clicking away from Jack Welch there was the Kardashian reality show.

Now before you all throw rotten tomatoes at me because of their trashy ways, and Kim’s immoral, ludicrous reality-show marriage – don’t.  I’m just trying to make a point here.

The mother, Kris Jenner, cheated on her first husband and the tabloids have made much of this. They say that daughter Khloe’s paternity is probably one of her cheat-ees.

Instead of hiding, Kris got a DNA test done on the kids.

In the end most things are not that bad. Cancer is bad. But not most things.

Denial is worse than most problems. Someone started “F*** Cancer” to promote preventive education and examination for cancer, because people get so freaked out about it they just ignore the simple steps that could save their lives.

Everyone has trouble confronting themselves. But sooner or later, you’ve just got to do it. Maybe not in a harsh way, but in a way that helps you take care of what needs to get done.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Do Your Employees Know Who You're Competing With? (Au Bon Pain vs. Chop't)

The other day I decided it was time to ingest something green again.

I have been eating largely white and brown foods for the past week and am starting to feel pale.

Normally I would love to go to Chop't and get a salad but there are two problems with that plan.

First, at lunchtime the line is out the door and second, the salads are usually too big and I wind up feeling sick afterward. (Holocaust families don't leave food over.)

So I went to Au Bon Pain and glanced over the soup. I don't know, that stuff they call "12-vegetable soup" - is it really as healthy as it sounds? Tastes good, but I was after fresh. And I don't count starchy vegetables as healthy.

The new salad bar at Au Bon Pain is not as appealing as Chop'ts is but it was empty.

I walk up to the counter and look at what's behind the glass.

Same kind of food as Chop't, I guess. Not as good.

Spinach is safe. So I say to the person who serves the food, "I'd like a salad please."

We go through what I want and the vegetables go in the bowl.

That's funny, it looks similar to Chopt's. Except they put the salad stuff there AFTER the chopping is finished.

The salad maker starts chopping the vegetables in front of me.

That's funny, the knife looks similar to Chop'ts. It's a mezzaluna I think. But it's smaller.

The leaves are still huge when he is finished.

"Can you chop it more?" I ask, puzzled. It's a salad; I am not a goat.


He looks equally puzzled.

Finally I say, "You know, chop it."

Still nothing.

Then I say, "You're competing with Chop't. That's why."

Suddenly the server starts laughing. He is chopping those spinach leaves like crazy.

I walked out with a damn good salad, I must say.

The moral of the story, for me, is that leaders do not usually communicate all that well with their employees. (Surprise, surprise.)

They are traveling in circles different from their staff.

They are having conversations with people at a more executive level.

And their spirit of competition is fierce, but it's not a conversation they are normally having in the break room.

Just like people like to watch sports together and root for the winning team, so too they want to compete against other groups and emerge victorious.

If you are a leader and you've got a competitor in mind, for G-d's sake tell your people about it.

Because otherwise you're competing with a ghost.

And it's up to the customer and your staff to try and figure out your business strategy.

Good luck!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"The Dictator" & Comedy As A Political Tool

Video: Trailer for the new political comedy "Veep" on HBO, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Seinfeld fame

You know how men tend to clap their hands over their ears when women start lecturing them about feminism?

It turns out that humor works a lot better, without the nasty side effects:
"The popular dismantling of entrenched feminist stereotypes began, perhaps, not with the feminist movement itself, but in comedy....on “The Daily Show”: 'What’s the difference between a fertilized egg, a corporation and a woman? One of them isn’t considered a person in Oklahoma.'"

- Rebecca Traister, "How the 'War On Women' Quashed Feminist Stereotypes," The Washington Post, May 11, 2012
A similar principle is at work in Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie The Dictator. It is not Borat - but you would be forgiven for confusing the two. Both are shocking, sometimes unwatchable, offensive and endlessly funny. (Warning: It's very graphic, NSFW or for the young or easily offended.)

The first one, artistically, was a better movie. But the new one is equally compelling. And considering that it's really a political argument in the guise of a comedy, on the whole it is probably better.
 In the space of 83 hilarious minutes, Cohen gets you thinking:
  • Is a democratic society dominated by a wealthy few, very different from a dictatorship?
  • Are dictators more effective at getting results? If they are, is democracy worth it?
  • Can a dictatorial person ever really be "reformed?"
  • How do you get people to pull their weight without torturing or forcing them?
  • Are talented underlings inherently undermining of leadership?
  • Is our obsession with social media taking away our capacity for real relationships?
As a side dish the viewer also gets a healthy dose of Cohen poking fun at racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, anti-Arab stereotypes, homophobia, the homeless, the anybody left out? (It's a very inclusive movie, in that way.)
 Once you get the joke you see...the movie is really about a vision of social justice. But it's conveyed nearly completely in the language of those who would totally resist change.

Some people think that making fun of serious social problems actually reduces their seriousness.

Maybe. To me it's a case of whatever works:
  • For example, Frum Satire makes fun of the distance between Jewish ideals, and what is sometimes reality. Failed Messiah hits out at those things, with extreme seriousness.
  • Jezebel often pokes fun at the anti-feminist. The National Organization for Women's website goes after the "bad guys" no-holds-barred.
  • The Soup makes fun of reality TV shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Others go the serious route, as did one individual who started an online petition in November 2011 to get the show off the air.
One thing that I like about social-commentary movies - whether fiction, mockumentary, documentary or what have you - is how capably they can blend humor with a serious social message. Morgan Spurlock's film The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (about the pervasiveness and ethics of product placement) is a great example as is Fahrenheit 911 by Michael Moore.

More than that, what's fascinating to me - if you think about people who immerse themselves in upsetting subject - is the human capacity to laugh despite all the troubles that exist out there.

Which is why my favorite filmmaker of all remains the neurotic, pessimistic, Jewish agnostic Woody Allen, who famously said:
Have a great weekend everyone - keep smiling - and good luck!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

3 Signs of Brand Malaise: Facebook's Arrogance, Starbucks' Complacency, and Google's Mania

Photo of semi-empty Starbucks display case by me. Their food display is so unappealing.

So I stopped to get gas and as usual could not maneuver the car properly to the pump.

After a tortuous 15-minute thing where I turned the wheel this way and that and reversed about twenty thousand times, finally we landed.

As I looked up to find the proper pump from among regular, unleaded and diesel (why is ordinary life so confusing?) I see that a bunch of high school kids are running a car wash at the station.

There was one car getting a wash.

Eight kids surrounded it, wiping and wiping without much sign of success.

Another two stood out on the street, waving "Get A Carwash" signs sort of aimlessly.

Everybody laughing all round.

What were they doing out there? I guess just having fun, and the car wash was an excuse.

A few miles later we passed another place that really did car washes. Like, for a living.

I was stopped at a red light and watched. Three or four people furiously scrubbed a car inside and out. They made that gray Kia look gorgeous.

Looking down at the unfortunate seaweed scraps on the floor of my car, that I know I cannot get rid of without a proper car wash, I made a mental note to go back there.

You have to want it. Not every brand seems to - despite the outward appearance of being perfect. Some examples:

1. Facebook

This week, Facebook went IPO. The results were disappointing. It wasn't a surprise. Practically the whole world screamed "overvalued."

But as usual Zuckerberg seemed to shrug his shoulders, as if to say, "I don't care."

No PR campaign that I could see, no energy. The whole thing just took its course.

And the bubble of excitement around the brand popped like a flimsy soap bubble.

2. Starbucks

Starbucks is suffering brand malaise, too. Not arrogance, but complacency.

They have beautiful signage in the stores promoting low-fat berry cake, "Mocha Cookie Crumble" Frappuccino, the works, and other treats that should be tempting.

But when you look at the display, you sort of want to run. Because all of it looks stale.

Even at my worst (daily, the 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. sugar cravings) I have never once felt tempted by this stuff.

3. Google

Finally there is Google. I do like some of their products, but definitely not all. They seem to introduce new things all the time - Google+, Google shopping, on and on and on.

And yet most people don't understand the basic, brilliant functionality that they offer at all - for example Google Docs.

I wonder, why can't Google sit still long enough to actually focus on what they do well, and help the average person understand it? And build a base of loyalty right there?

At the end of the day the big brands are like a car wash. They can either act like they are hungry for the customer's business - they can hustle - or they can play around and refuse to see reality.

You might think that because big brands are big, they necessarily know what to do. But it's not true.

They are plagued by the same dysfunctionality as any group.

That's why sometimes it's a good thing to look around you, and learn from the difference between a bunch of high school kids goofing around in the sunshine, and some serious professionals who want to earn their daily bread.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Can't help but Megabrand Malaise: Facebook's Arrogance, Starbucks' Complacency, and Google's Mania

Friday, May 18, 2012

Someone Needs You To Give A Damn

This seems to be the week for stories. So be it.

A long time ago there was a teacher who creeped me out. No abuse, fortunately. But still, something wasn't right.

I told my parents and my dad had a secret conversation with the school board. He had done a little digging and sources told him that the rabbi was in fact a predator.

My dad is Eastern European in manner and dress and they laughed him off.

Then my mother went into action.

You have to understand that my mother is quiet, short, and normally extremely shy.

But on that quiet sunny Friday she drive her little old car at top speed to my school.

I watched in awe and fear.

She harrumphed up to the curb. She had on old jeans and a T-shirt like always. She is the polar opposite of my dad, 100 percent Middle America.

My mother stomped up the broken brick walkway. She flung open the heavy metal door. She raced through the hallway and up the rickety stairs.

I couldn't keep up with her. I felt like I was going to fall.

My mother grabbed the door handle to the principal's office and went in.

As she did I took a long look down the hallway. I thought about how that tyrant seemed to be starting with me. And how I felt scared and powerless to name it.

But my mother did know.

She leaned in and loomed in front of the secretary. Loud and strong she said, "Get me Rabbi --. Now."

I thought that secretary was going to have a heart attack.

When my mother emerged from the principal's office she had a look on her face that can only be described as cat eating mouse for lunch.

They did find a solution that day. The principal skipped me up a grade. He was still scared to fire the teacher.

Another student stood up to the teacher later on. He set up a bucket of water above the door. The teacher opened it and got flooded.

Rabbi Awful turned around and smacked (or punched) the student right in the face. In front if all of us. Now they had a "real" reason to fire him.

At the end of the day, there are two kinds of attitudes one can take to the world.

You can sit back in fear or apathy or ignorance and hope to quietly get along and survive.

Or you can make whatever you are doing into a cause. You can make it your passion.

My parents both stood up for me. But I witnessed the righteous wrath of my mom. And I physically saw the integrity and self-sacrifice of another student.

Because of all of them - the quiet and not-so-quiet passionate people alike - I escaped what could have been a traumatic fate.

Wherever you are, you can make a difference. And know that there are others counting on you to do just that.

Good luck!