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iPhone, Therefore I Am

Photo by Rebecca Blumenthal

Have you bought your identity or do you walk around comfortable in your natural skin?

Mostly it's the first case. Judging from money spent on brands over equivalent no-names, branding matters because people define themselves by what they buy.

They do that because they either don't like who they are inside, don't know organically, are denying something or are reinventing themselves. Any way you slice it the purchase becomes a symbol of the sought-after self.

Voting is a kind of purchase. You can think of elections as referenda not on the candidates but on what we imagine them to be. We pick one based on the self we want to align with - the one that boosts our self-esteem.

The theory that voting is an expression of brand preference, mostly, means that elections are marketing contests. Elation or depression at the outcome is the result of your substitute self either rising or falling.

Do most people pore over policy documents and news before they vote? Or do they watch TV commercials, scan the headlines and commiserate with friends - whose opinion and approval matters because they are part of the constructed self?

Are people upset or joyful at the result of a vote, or its symbolism?

I had an epiphany today - I am persistently culturally "chasidish" (Hasidic) despite never having lived in Brooklyn nor being even remotely as observant as them. All my life I wanted to be a regular American, and yet in my heart I am somehow like the Fiddler On The Roof.

Interestingly, after this epiphany we went shopping and I still cared about buying Brand X vs. Y.

How might our psychology and our society be different if we could just live without the contortions branding feeds into?

Just a thought, a little frightening.

5 Ways To Correct Your Own Misperceptions

Photo by Mayan Brenn via Flickr

Buddhists believe we create our own problems through ignorance. (Also hatred, fear, attachment but that is another blog.)

One thing I see more and more as I get older is that Buddhists are right about a lot if things. Because ignorance takes a lot of forms and it's not just as simple as "not knowing."

Here are 5 things I do to try and help myself be more objective and better informed.

1) Trust my gut, which is quiet (believe it or not) but persistent. Interestingly the more I try to ignore "inconvenient truth" the louder it gets.

2) Force myself to question groupthink. Oh, this is so hard. Nobody wants to be rejected or unpopular.

3) Force my brain open. I am a "J" in Myers-Briggs meaning I like closure. But your brain can close wrong and often does.

4) See people with the "third eye." People, like events and facts, are not always what they seem. A lot depends on your perspective. Your ego can tell you one thing while the truth is another.

5) Be willing to entertain the ugly truth but also willing to be bored with reality. We all can tell stories "nobody would believe" but most of us also know that day-to-day reality can be pretty mundane. You have to fight the impulse to deny a serious problem where one exists, but also the drive to create drama out of simple misunderstanding or even boredom.

I like the Buddhist idea of detaching from the world an detaching from ourselves in order to gain greater objectivity. To do that through meditation, exercise, hobbies etc. makes you more effective at work even if it feels like you are "goofing off."

Thanks to the smart people who have encouraged me to think freely and critically and to seek that state of balance.

Happy Friday!

CFC Volunteers: The Quiet Heroes

The next time someone insults a Fed please direct them to any CFC volunteer.
Last week someone at my agency put the doubters to shame.
In the space of 1 weekend day she whipped together a feast of baked goods and brought it in.
The next day she sold it without asking for a dime - it was pay what you want.
Generous customers bought mini-cupcakes, brownies and cookies for a total of more than $500.
This person will never take credit and actually feels guilty for not doing more!
I am awed by her generosity and humility and for the first time in nearly a decade of Federal service, truly grasp the meaning of CFC.
It's about giving back to the community, first and foremost.
Culturally though - inside the agency - it's about showing who we are and what we can do when unleashed from the usual bureaucracy.
(Of course you have to get Counsel approval of events before holding them.)
That's a snippet from our poster for the event up there. Please give this quiet but incredibly productive volunteer a round of applause.

The 5 Nuts & Bolts of Operational Communication

Photo by Mark Evans via Flickr

A long time ago I had a boss who compared branding to the game of dominos. Also to a light switch. At the same time.
If you are into branding you know that it soaks into your mind. It's like trying to wash red Kool-Aid out of a white ceramic mug. Impossible.
So the boss was talking, and of course you are not going to disagree with your boss, unless they say something totally nuts or offensive. He said:
"Branding is like a light switch that goes off in your head. Until you get it, you don't get it."

Yep, yep, yep. Dilbert me. Absolutely.
"And then once that light switch goes off, it's like the dominos keep falling. You want everything to be branded, and everything to fall into place."

I did not really see my own rose-tinted glasses until a few months ago, when I changed positions to lead communications for a large, complex, technical and operationally focused division of a government agency. 

Here are 5 things I've learned:

1) Communication is a support function (!), not the center of the universe. You forget this when you work in public affairs, or in a branding consultancy, because you and your peers are constantly arguing over "what is a brand" or "will social media eclipse print?" First of all this means - learn the business because you probably already know enough technique. Second of all it means - do.not.bother.busy.people.

2) Writing still matters. Grammar counts. Consistency is valued. Templates are beloved. Clean, clear, crisp text is adored. It's nice that not every corner of the Earth has been replaced by texts, tweets and status updates. Concise is good but specificity is just as important.

3) Talking is not considered "communicating." (Yes I know it actually IS communicating, but this is about perception.) Do you want to improve the quality of face-to-face communication, group interaction, culture and meetings? Get a degree in organizational development. Become a consultant so that you can lead retreats.

4) Social media is largely beside the point.  If you are dazzled by all the gizmos and gadgetry associated with digital design you will be bored because operational people need practical skills. Project management. Process reengineering. Knowledge management. Collaboration sites. Portals. How to sort the wheat of information from the chaff that is most data. The production, organization, and retrieval of quality information. Believe it or not, it is an art form and it is hugely in demand.

5) Branding is only a byproduct. This last part is what really astonished me. Much of the conversation in the communication world has to do with persuasion. What's the right tool to create awareness, engagement, loyalty, conversion to purchase (or membership or voting), etc. Often the "what" (the substance) is buried beneath messaging to the point where the original meaning almost gets lost. This kind of talk, which most of us would recognize as brand communication, is 70-80% useless in an operational environment. There, the desire is for factual information conveyed just-in-time.

In an operational world, it's not that there is no connection between words and brand. However, the typical equation that we see nowadays is reversed: it's substance first, decoration later.

Sometimes the creative part can take precedence. On "Inside the Actors Studio," Johnny Depp said that when he used to write songs, he wrote the music first and the words later. On the same show Robert Downey, Jr. said that the '80s director John Hughes used to write the movie according to the soundtrack. (Look how well they've done.)

But in an operational environment, the soundtrack comes last. And that's the way it should be. 

10 Things "The Walking Dead" Reveals About Gen Xers

Image via Netflix

As usual it took me a few episodes to figure out why this show is so popular (I rarely understand the first time) but now I think I get it.

The basic premise of "The Walking Dead" (TWD) is that regular humans are trying to survive against the zombies, who are all infected with a mysterious illness. If they bite you, you become one of them. You don't think, you don't talk, you don't care anymore, all you want to do is bite other people to stay alive.

Having grown up on Gen X popular culture (John Hughes movies, the Brat Pack, Darren Star's "90210" and "Melrose Place," "Friends") there are 10 typical threads that runs through all the storylines.

  1. They've been burned, so now they don't trust anyone except a tested circle of peers.
  2. They are not aggressive, but will defend themselves and their families in the blink of an eye.
  3. They trust directness over diplomacy, which they see as phony, and they don't trust authority.
  4. They inhabit a world that is falling apart - unlike the safe, happy, protected world of their dreams.
  5. They have to carry what seem like enormous burdens, all the time.
  6. They feel like nobody could possibly understand what they are going through.
  7. They work independently to do heroic things.
  8. They are inventive and resourceful, making unlivable situations livable.
  9. They are nonjudgmental, tolerant, and diverse in thinking and friendships.
  10. They put all their energy and effort into the children, the future.
These threads are visible in TWD and tell us a lot about how Generation Xers think. Interesting how a zombie show can tell you so much about ordinary life.