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President Obama and Clint Eastwood, Masters of Positioning

In "What Marketers Can Learn From Obama's Campaign," "positioning" (branding) master Al Ries explained how effective marketing helped the President go from being a relative unknown to the most powerful person on the planet.

At this year's Republican convention, actor Clint Eastwood gave a speech that has provoked viral interest and much controversy in the blogosphere as to whether it worked or not, or was smart or not, or what it was. Some even called it "bizarre" while others said it was "genius."

Below are some comments Ries made about the 2008 Obama campaign's successful use of positioning, and how the Eastwood speech - of course, just one moment in time - matches up.

1. Own a simple, relevant, credible-for-the-brand idea in one word. In the Obama campaign, this was "change." No "ands," commas, subheads like his competitors. It was relevant because people thought the country was "headed in the wrong direction." It was credible because President Obama had always stood for the populist message he espoused.

In the Eastwood speech, the idea was also simple, relevant, and credible for him - "AWOL" - Because Eastwood has perfected the character in the movies who takes responsibility and takes care of business. Whether he was "right" or "wrong" is not the point. What matters is that Eastwood had the cultural capital to say what he said, and then he stepped up and "owned" it.

Also, says Ries, keep it as simple as the audience wants it. Hollywood elites, which tend to lean Democratic, joked about it; media elites called it "rambling."But he wasn't talking to them. Rather, Eastwood was targeting the average voter. As the Daily Caller points out:
"What media critics heard as unprepared, bumbling and rambling prattle, millions of Americans heard as an expression of their frustration with...lethargy and political divisiveness."
2. Claim to be different - not better. Ries points out that President Obama was not claiming to be the best at change, but only to identify himself with it. The benefit of claiming difference is that you automatically own the position you claim when someone tries to challenge it. (Everybody claims to be better so this is not memorable.) And when you are a "first-minder" (first to occupy the position in the mind), you are "almost always the winner," says Ries.

Side note: In a separate post Ries notes that when you own the point of difference you become the category leader, even as competition challenges you. (If the competition gets too hot you have to start a new brand in order to be different again.)

In the Eastwood speech, as the New York Times points out, the actor did not exactly brief out the Republican team before he pulled out the now-legendary chair. His "brand messaging" surprised everyone, including the candidate's staff - and that made him a first mover. However, it did not make him a "first minder" because the message was inherently an attack on somebody else's position rather than an assertion of a new one.

Recall that the Romney campaign slogan and GOP convention theme was "We Built It," which is a different, reactive statement - responding to a Democratic message. Similarly, the President sent a reactive Tweet in response to the Eastwood speech: "This chair is taken."

3. Stick to it and then repeat yourself. Do not deviate or change the basic idea. (Every time you do that, you fragment your message and lose uniqueness and attention.) Say that word you are faithful to, over and over again, until the idea is associated with you. The Obama campaign did that. And in his speech, Eastwood did it too, first with the visual theme of the empty chair, and then by speaking to it and for it, over and over again, as though the President were articulating statements typical of weak or absent leadership.

As one looks at these techniques from opposing sides of the aisle side-by-side, it is possible to get a glimpse from an agnostic point of view about what makes brand communication (of any kind, including political) work or not work*.

*Note: This blog is not a political endorsement of any party or candidate, but rather a commentary about communication technique. 

5 "Normal" Mistakes Leaders Make That Starve The Organization To Death

Veterans of the workplace know that there is "nothing new under the sun." Leadership and management initiatives, fads and buzzwords come and go. But the basics always hold true. Yet this does not stop leaders from regularly making the following mistakes, so often that one can think of them as "normal."

Unfortunately, the fact that dysfunctionality is normal means that brand-destructive behaviors are normal too. Breaking these rules means you can't build a good brand (image) either internally, among employees, or outside the organization. The good news is that if you're smart enough to do the right thing, you have a natural advantage compared with most of the pack.

Mistake #1: Putting PR Before Culture
Every morning leaders wake up and are confronted with a) the crisis of the day b) nagging operational problems and c) the potential or actual bad things someone is saying about them in the news - or some combination of the above. Cultural problems are below that radar, both because they're less "in your face" and because leaders tend to be surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear. A better question for leaders to ask themselves when they wake up in the morning is, "How engaged are my workers today?" Let's call that a key performance indicator (KPI). The job of the communicator is to help them boost that answer to "Very high."

Mistake #2: Equating Speaking With Communicating
This may come as a shock to leaders, but for a variety of reasons, people don't really take their speech as the truth. Rather they evaluate leaders' words against a) their actions b) other information they have through the grapevine and elsewhere c) what external sources are saying. For leaders, therefore, the job of communication is not so much to say something, but to say what needs to be said, what is true, and what will provide the audience with information or guidance that only they can offer.

Mistake #3: Disconnecting Communication and Culture
Because leaders are uncomfortable with the difficult aspects of communication - i.e. that people don't listen to them as if they're godlike; that their words might be used against them; that people want them to listen as much as to talk - they tend to focus on the "slick" aspect of communication (e.g. flashy multimedia presentations) and avoid the organizational development aspect. This manifests in job descriptions that emphasize high-tech communication skills and a preference for people who are absolutely fascinated by social media. It also manifests in a preference for "enthusiasm" over "experience," because an experienced communicator can call b.s. on the underlying premise of the communication, while an "enthusiastic" one is focused on how to make letters fly off a page.

Mistake #4: Ego, Insecurity, Getting Defensive
If any leader is thin-skinned, they have good reason. No matter what anyone says and no matter how prepared one is, being a leader is a difficult and lonely job. People criticize you no matter what. There is ultimately nobody who can tell you for sure whether your decisions are good or bad. Your staff is biased, because they have a vested interest in keeping you happy. And you have enemies who want your job, or who want you to fail. Not to mention that the measure of success is not necessarily clear. Nevertheless, if the thing that drives a leader is "wanting to be liked," or "wanting people to agree with me" - consciously or unconsciously - that leader is going to communicate poorly, because people will see that he or she has shut down. In the absence of honest conversation - not just communication but listening, and interchange - the leader misses out on the important and organization-saving feedback that employees could provide them.

Mistake #5: Avoiding The Difficult Conversations
Most internal communications columns talk about the importance of executives reaching out to frontline staff, or alternatively about the relationship between employees and their supervisors as primary carriers of information. But as important are the conversations that need to happen at the highest levels, between leaders and the executives they direct. It is incumbent on the leader to set and enforce a direction for the organization fearlessly, to recognize conflict and insist that it be resolved. This is not a duty that can be outsourced to a professional, although professionals can and should be consulted to help. When leaders are aligned throughout the organization and there is "peace in the kingdom," it is much easier to filter the message down to the troops as to which way the wind is blowing.

At the end of the day, none of these behaviors are directly destructive. They're not like guns; you don't pull the trigger on one of them and destroy the brand. They are more like denying a person food and water. The person can go on for a time, subsisting on the nutrients they have stored in their bodies. But over a longer period they just can't. The prolonged lack of strategic information, opportunities for feedback, and plain and simple understanding of what's happening choke out their engagement and finally their goodwill. Until ultimately they're left to count the days till they can leave, transfer, or retire altogether.

Meanwhile the collective weight of this disengagement drags the organization down, and cracks start to occur, that ultimately can pull the organization apart.

Poor internal communication may be normal for leaders. But normal is no guarantee the organization will thrive, or even survive.

What Do Women Want? Not To Be Told "What Women Want"

If I see one more person "standing up for women" I believe I am going to throw up.

Women's rights issues are as old as time. The struggle for them - for us, for me, for my daughters - goes back to the beginning. It is largely not men who have fought this struggle, but women. So I am very suspicious when all of a sudden the cause becomes popular.

The exploitation of women is so common and takes so many forms. It's easy to point in horror to physical abuse, like female genital mutilation, rape, and domestic violence. But it's not so easy to clarify other more subtle ways that women are used and then tossed away, along with their "rights."

For example, women (currently) have the right to choose abortion - but that right can easily be used by men who impregnate them and then don't want to deal with the responsibility.

Women have the right to dress however they want, too. But they are bombarded endlessly - endlessly - with marketing messages that tell them to be preoccupied with thinness. To wear things that are more revealing than they might be comfortable with, and at a much younger age.

Women can express themselves just like a man can. But in your average school, the girl who raises her hand and is smart, openly, gets a putdown and a glare from the other kids. Like, "Who do you think you are, better than the rest of us?" Whereas with smart boys, the reaction is, "Of course!"

Often, religious people have used G-d as a way of keeping women down. Men run the churches, the synagogues, the mosques. They are the community leaders and they have the final say. When women want to step forward they are told, "It's immodest." In some quarters their photos are even blurred out of the newspaper.

I once read that the State of Israel was founded on the idea of religious self-determination. In the Jewish State, a Jewish person is free to be as religious, or as nonreligious, as they want. Even to be an atheist is an expression of Jewish religious freedom. Instead of being defined by other people as an Other, this was an opportunity for self-definition and empowerment.

The same thing is true of feminism. There is no one right answer about what is empowering to women. What I like, you hate. What feels to me like liberation, may be oppressing to you. The key is that these decisions are ultimately MY choice. Not a decision that someone has made for me.

So the next time someone talks about feminism, I am hoping very much that they will talk only for themselves and the group that they may officially represent. And leave it to me to say what I believe.

Rebranding Cultural Conflict Through Music: "Israeli Singer Tops German Charts"

"Any time you have a problem you are in contracted awareness....As you move into a higher level of awareness, solutions will start to emerge." - Deepak Chopra
You can't solve a problem by thinking the same old way. In the end no matter how much brainpower you apply, it is a spiritual exercise. Problem-solving means you get out of yourself, go higher, cross boundaries.

Armed conflict (war) is one of those seemingly unsolvable problems that people keep trying to solve from the inside. The Middle East conflict is just one example. One can view it from the lens of defense, or diplomacy, or development, or even purely PR. 

But as most of us realize, the answer is not going to come from any one individual perspective and it won't come from a selfish striving to be "the winner." Nowadays there really is no such thing - killing only leads to more killing, hatred to more hatred, on and on ending in a vortex that eventually sucks us all down the drain.

Music may seem "trivial" but maybe it's a part of a better answer. Everybody understands it. It goes beyond the brain to the heart. It shows us how we have more in common than what separates us. And large, powerful music brands are uniquely situated to support music that appeals to the inner desire for peace. 

In 2009 Sony/Columbia Records signed Israeli singer Asaf Avidan. His "Reckoning Song," remixed by German DJ Wankelmut, is now #1 on the German charts and as of August 19, 2012 was the most downloaded song on iTunes in Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. There are 16 million views of the various uploads of the song on YouTube.

The lyrics of the song are below. I tried to find an analysis of them online, but couldn't - I guess they're self-explanatory. He is singing about growing up in the aftermath of the Holocaust, confronting the "other side" (Germany), and realizing that things could have been so much different...if only. 

No more tears, my heart is dry
I don't laugh and I don't cry
I don't think about you all the time
But when I do – I wonder why

You have to go out of my door
And leave just like you did before
I know I said that I was sure
But rich men can't imagine poor.

One day baby, we'll be old
Oh baby, we'll be old
And think of all the stories that we could have told

Little me and little you
Kept doing all the things they do
They never really think it through
Like I can never think you're true

Here I go again – the blame
The guilt, the pain, the hurt, the shame
The founding fathers of our plane
That's stuck in heavy clouds of rain.

One day baby, we'll be old
Oh baby, we'll be old
And think of all the stories that we could have told.

Source: LetsSingIt

What the success of this song shows me is that, like my grandfather used to say, "Words spoken from the heart go straight into the heart." Music brands with an international reach have a particular power to bring people together. I hope they continue to do it, as it's not only good business but good for the world.

Life Imitating "Zohan"

In a small, nondescript kosher restaurant in Rockville MD, peace.

Cafe Shawreen is certified by the local rabbinic authorities. It is owned by a Muslim woman from Iran, and two people work for her, including an Orthodox rabbi and an African-American woman.

We went in, got our Shwarma and the drank the best lemonade on planet Earth. It was calm and welcoming there. Everybody did their thing, and respected everybody else.

Like "Zohan" said, America is a country where people from every nationality, religion, race and culture can coexist.

If only the entire world could be like this place. Social marketing of retail establishments and products could make it happen.

Fundamental Social Change Can Avert The Looming Crisis

In a previous post ( I tried to provide some indication of the seriousness of the current economic crisis. When you aren't directly affected it can be hard to see, because life seems to go on "as usual."

But something is terribly wrong. And if it gets to a tipping point the economic crisis can easily turn into social breakdown - chaos.


1. Accept that the time for fundamental change has arrived. Stop trying to fit new answers into old paradigms, like political parties.

2. Accept that the well being of all people on the planet is interconnected. There is no Us and Them. Either we are all better off or we are at risk. What this means is the transition to a society where the basic needs of life are easily available at no charge.

3. Accept that there is an Omnipotent Being who gives us life, sustains it, takes it. No atheists in a foxhole as they say.


1. Shift power to the individual level. People working alone or together, in small but loosely connected groups, identify and solve problems. This could be through innovation labs, small-group homeschooling, volunteering, etc.

2. Boost the power of small groups - hyper-local government associations - county by county, get people involved in using communal space for the public good.

3. In school, institutionalize self-sufficiency courses from growing your own food to self-defense. This is not to make us paranoid or warlike, but to increase our sense of empowerment and accountability.

4. Incorporate all kinds of volunteering into community life. Find ways to encourage people to be more than just inhabitants of an area - we need neighborhoods with active neighbors who keep an eye out for each other and pitch in during tough times.


1. The federal government can use its network of communicators better. Put us into a working committee tasked with customer response and crisis notifications at the very least. When things fall apart people look to the government for information.

2. The government can encourage the kind of technology innovation that results in feeding, clothing, housing and medically caring for the entire population at no cost. Facilitate the transition to a free and prosperous society.

3. Businesses can participate in the rebranding of commerce to the extent that there is no stigma on "free," but rather the competition for elite status (branding) is between people who all have their basic needs met.

4. The importance of the family and relationships should be embraced with more than just words. Children and the elderly should not be siloed into special places but rather be incorporated into regular community activities, including the workplace, wherever possible.

5. Freedom and responsibility go together. Make laws plain and accessible to the average person, and law enforcement a part of local and community life interlinked with the national and federal levels.

In the end we are all in it together, though we may think that we can escape the hand of fate. If we embrace change bravely, decide to take care of each other and put our faith in G-d, I think we can pull through.