Search This Blog

Jennifer Lawrence, Repair Feminism's Brand. Please. (Hilary Rosen)

"His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing."

- Democratic political strategist Hilary Rosen, referring to Ann Romney, wife of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, via Fox News

By now everybody has seen Ms. Rosen say this on the news. Undoubtedly they've thrown shoes, when they heard this obnoxious statement. 

It brought me back to the anger I felt as a young mother, entrepreneur, and doctoral student as people observed me with the kids and asked, finally, "Do you work?" 

Yes, actually, I used to think, enraged at the kind of mindset that produced such condescension. Do you?

I was able to let it go pretty quickly though because the point she was trying to make was clear to me. It was her communication strategy that failed, though the essence of her statement may have some merit: The Romneys may not be able to understand what it's like to be poor.  What it's like to hold down two or even three jobs, and still not be able to eat.

Basically, Rosen was trying to play feminist to score points for the Democrats. But what she failed to understand was that the conventional brand of feminism, which she represents, is off-putting to the average person. In sociology we call it "othering," setting up YOUR side as virtuous (good, virtuous, poor and oppressed) while THEIR side (you invent the sides) is evil, scheming, rich and oppressing. Gender, class, race all intersect into a mishmash theory of the few against the many - "us."

I don't get the feeling that Rosen hangs out with impoverished women of color holding down two or three jobs who still can't feed their kids. I don't get that feeling about the president of the National Organization for Women, Terry O'Neill, who offered an academic defense of Rosen that was just as off-putting as the original statement. In her words:
"Do Mr. and Mrs. Romney have the kind of life experience and if not, the imagination, to really understand what most American families are going through right now?"
Gee, Ms. O'Neill, I don't know; do you have the life experience to judge them and look behind their closed doors?

Which is why even though feminism may be theoretically right, the people who formally represent the "brand" sometimes do it more harm than good. ("Those angry, man-hating feminists...")

The Republicans don't have it right either. Frankly the "gun-toting right-wing bear mom" approach, or whatever it's called today, is off-putting too. Just like the Democratic strategy, ironically, it fails as a brand because it relies on hatred and othering at a time when people want unity and peace.

To me, "Republican feminism" feels like a a bad mix of fantasy thinking that includes "Mad Men"-like nostalgia (except it's not ironic), uber-religion, hyper-high-heels-femininity, stodgy traditional religious adherence.

That doesn't mean feminism is dead though. Only that it needs other spokespeople.

If you ask me I would vote for Jennifer Lawrence. This young woman is the star not only of "The Hunger Games" (2012) but also of "Winter's Bone" (2010), where she played a very similar character. (Not coincidentally, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," featuring a similarly strong type of female lead (Rooney Mara), came out in 2011.)

What do the Jennifer Lawrence (and Rooney Mara) characters have in common? What makes them so appealing?
  • They are oppressed as women, but refuse to see themselves as victims.
  • When they are attacked, they fight back with everything they have.
  • They not only have, but excel at skills associated with femaleness (caring) and maleness (fighting).
  • They celebrate family and love (even if they're "damaged,") and refuse to shut off the "feminine" side of themselves.
  • Ultimately they see themselves as individuals, without being stereotyped into or rebelling against prescribed gender roles.
I'm a lifelong proponent of equality and it's a subject I studied in graduate school. Obviously there's lots of ways to think about it, and no single formula is going to work for all. But the spirit of 2012 is not about hating and anger and "othering" anymore, if it ever was; we as a nation are tired of war.

This blog post represents my personal opinion about feminism, a cause that matters a lot to me, not a polemic for or against a political party. In fact I find parties to be relatively meaningless.

What I want to see happen, what I wish for is a deeply rooted insistence on unity against divisiveness. I want truth-telling. I want to see people stand together against injustice and be compassionate for the foibles and mistakes that come out of being human.

I disagree with the president of NOW; anyone can imagine that they walk in someone else's shoes, if only they have the courage to stop hating. Hate is just the illusion of strength against the certain knowledge of one's weakness, and it is always a waste of time.

(Well it was worth a momentary dream, wasn't it?)

Have a good evening and good weekend everyone, and good luck!

50% Of Your Salary To Write Emails: Are You Worth It?

Matt Hayden / Peachy Keen Color
Photo by Ally Aubry via Flickr

Private-sector survey research published in 2011 by Inc. Magazine found that employees of small to medium-size businesses spend about 50% of their time on email. (Here's the press release.)

(It's not actually fully 50% if you read the survey results carefully - because there is an element of phone messaging involved - but let's just take that as a ballpark figure for discussion.)

I would also take as a ballpark figure the findings of the research sponsor, which (unsurprisingly) has a "unified communications" product to sell that supposedly eliminates the inefficiency caused by relying so much on email. So they make big claims like:
"Efficiencies created by Unified Communications on a typical firm with 50 Knowledge Workers (sic) with salaries ranging from $40,000 to $110,000....(are) valued at approximately $950,000 annually."
Yet despite the inevitable bias and hype, their findings resonate with my own experience. Email is a costly waste of time when you have the option of working in a collaboration environment.

In particular I find this to be true of Google's collaboration tools - Docs and Sites. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but compared with the frustration of trying to do things in an Outlook environment the learning curve is well worth it.

(As always, this is personal opinion - not endorsed or sponsored.)

What the heck are people doing on email (and phone) all day? According to Fonality's survey:
  • 36% - trying to contact people, find information, or schedule a meeting.
  • 14% - "duplicating information" - forwarding emails, etc. - or managing unwanted communication (spam e-mails and phone calls)
Think about it:
Are you worth half your salary in email?

What will you do when your boss catches on that all the email is largely a waste of time?

Although it is a difficult thing to do when seemingly "everybody" uses email, my suggestion would be to get ahead of the curve and transition to collaboration-based work now. The result:
  • In the short-term, you will hate it because you have to evangelize a lot.
  • In the medium-term you will find yourself happier because you save yourself time and aggravation associated with mindlessly forwarding, detaching, and reattaching email - not to mention the inaccuracies associated with "who had the latest version of that?" 
  • In the longer-term, spending a larger proportion of your time on actual knowledge work is a much better way to demonstrate value to your organization than email-pushing.
Good luck!

Marketing To Your Toughest Customer: Yourself

(78/365) Looking for myself
Photo by Sarah G. via Flickr

How is it that even ideas we know to be true, we cannot somehow accept?

For example:

- We know that working efficiently for one hour is more valuable than working inefficiently for eight. Yet we resist change.

- We know that all people are created equal in the eyes of G-d. Yet we discriminate based on class, gender, religion, race, age.

- We know that relationships matter more than money and career but flip our priorities regularly.

There is one key reason why some people can adopt a new and better idea while others can't.

It's called social influence.

If you want to change your habits, beliefs, life - you have got to change the people you hang out with. Or at least expand the circle to include folks you admire.

Good luck!

Narrative Choices, Ethics and the Marketer

A good marketer never limits herself or himself to "marketing communication" or any of its corollary disciplines.

The reason is simple: marketing messages are more influential when they come from a variety of sources.

What influences you more - an ad for lipstick in a magazine, or seeing that lipstick chosen as an "Editor's Pick"?

Ads are astronomically more powerful when publicity sources are unpaid (the movie fans who sell other movie fans to buy a ticket via social media for example).

Marketers can go further - we ought to be creating customers in other ways. All of these have ethical dimensions, and not all of the possibilities are OK.

Here are some options worth exploring:

- Personal narrative - paying people to talk about your brand, wear it, photograph it. Ethical dimension: They should disclose the fact of compensation. And they should be paid fairly.

- Religious narrative - showing how services and products align with spiritual values, especially focusing on distinct religions and sects. Ethical dimension: Don't imply endorsement where none exists. Also, donating a percentage of the proceeds from a campaign like this would be decent.

- Literary narrative - paying authors to place product in stories and weave brand into plot (especially with branded authors) where mutual synergy exists. Everything from fiction, like "The Hunger Games," to inspiration/self-help is potentially a marketing vehicle, as long as the product placement is true to the characters. Ethical dimension: disclose this in the book.

There is of course a limit.

- Academic narrative: Marketing does not belong in school. Children should not be exposed to advertising specifically.

- Media narrative: Journalism should be objective. Too much of it is biased. Letting the marketers invade content completely destroys the purpose of media in the first place.

- Government narrative (including public buildings, land, nature, etc.): Marketing money just doesn't belong here. If ever there was a a place for ad-free public discourse, this is it.

It may seem crass to promote more marketing in a society already deluged. But maybe if we were more clear about where sponsorship begins and ends, it would seem a little less overwhelming.

More importantly, if we were more upfront about marketing sponsorship, the uneasiness people feel about who's paying whom to say what could go away - maybe just a bit.

Good luck!
Photos by me.

Rebuilding The GSA Brand: Lessons for the Rest of Us

Take Shelter
Photo by Neal Jennings via Flickr
The GSA scandal is an example of what happens to a brand when there is an extreme disjuncture between customer expectations and actual behavior delivered. Now it's time to fix it. Regardless of the specific actions they choose to take, there are valuable lessons here for every organization and individual.

Reflecting on the organization, it seems "everybody" thought they were well-run - innovative, cost-conscious, communication-savvy. Personally, having seen the agency's work in action and having actually used the communication tools they've offered ( comes to mind) - I believe they are generally an agency to be admired. I marveled at how they took a seemingly boring mission and made it exciting.

But the Las Vegas conference and what it represents destroyed that image. We can't go back to the way things were without seeing major changes.
Unfortunately, lapses in judgment destroy brands. Call it the 80/20 rule of branding - you and your organization alike are judged by the infrequent screw-up rather than the majority alignment to the promise. If I were working there I would be worried that people would see "GSA" on my resume and think "overspending bureaucrat." It wouldn't be anyone's "fault" per se; it's just the way people think.

So lesson #1 for other organizations is to think carefully about the employer brand they have - whether "deserved" or not - and fix what's broken quickly. Otherwise people won't want to work for you.

Everyone knows that there are "good" and "bad" places to work, and a lot of that has to do with teaming. Without exception every organization promotes working together for the good of the mission. And without exception there are people who just will not play along.

No matter how well most people work together, if you don't handle exceptions to the rule quickly, then the brand is destroyed. Just one person who throws people under the bus, and who is continually promoted anyway, kills it. And a brand with lost trust is very difficult to revive.

Meaning: If you employ people who detract from teamwork, remove them from positions where they lead or manage teams.

Lesson #2 has to do with the individual personally. You must take action to keep your career brand strong and vital, despite the brand of your organization, despite your own screwups, and despite being misjudged badly due to your success in an environment where people have unrealistic expectations of you.

You do this in three ways:

1) When you interact with people, say to yourself: "What do I want them to think of me during and afterward?" Everything you say and do has to build that desired perception. You do control that - dress, demeanor, language. (Not as easy as it sounds, and even if you're being authentic, you have to work at this.)

2) Assess whether your personal brand strategy is working. Look at how people treat you. Behavior is an outcome of thinking.
  • If their feedback matches the message you are trying to convey, then you're fine.
  • If they treat you differently than you think you ought to be treated, then it's time for you to 1) establish expectations and 2) set boundaries.

3) Course correct:

  • Negotiate livable expectations: Do this by listening, negotiating, and providing feedback to your audience. (This can be done directly or indirectly, to one party or multiple, formally or not.) The point is that you have to find out what is wanted of you, determine the extent to which you can deliver, talk about it, and then communicate what you can do. If you avoid this, inevitably your customer/audience will expect too much or something different than is realistic, setting you up to fail even if you feel you have delivered.
  • Set boundaries through immediate reinforcement. Don't sit on this. When somebody treats you in the way that aligns with your brand, convey appreciation, offer praise. When they talk to you or treat you in a way that doesn't match your role (e.g., either disrespect or excessively elevated beyond your scope), correct them, very literally. (Use an "I" statement: "I'm a little surprised at your tone...) You can also go to intermediaries to do this rather than confronting someone directly.

Some things to keep in mind when you think of branding as an interaction exercise:
  • Branding is never a matter of "right" or "wrong" but of alignment or misalignment. Forgive the analogy but it's sort of like orthodontia. Nobody's teeth are ever perfectly straight or perfectly white, but you can get closer to a better smile with braces, applied by an orthodontist who knows what they're doing (that would be the brand consultant or the communications advisor).
  • Branding is never a finished exercise, but always a work in progress. Expect to course-correct, and for the definition of your brand to evolve over time. The role of a leader in your organization yesterday may have been X, but tomorrow it will inevitably be Y - will you be ready?
  • Brands are not built in ivory towers, but rather in the real world. You must focus on developing a valuable real-world promise that you CAN support consistently in action.

In the case of the GSA, I think there is potential to save the brand, but it's going to involve a lot of soul-searching, taking responsibility, open communication with the public, and setting new expectations and boundaries about the way forward.

You can't go back in time, but by working through the issues, accountability, proactivity, and coming out the other side with a renewed promise that can be delivered consistently, one can fix a broken brand or course-correct a misaligned one.

Good luck!

*As always, all opinions are my own.