Monday, March 30, 2015

10 Leadership Lessons From "The Walking Dead" Season 5 Finale

TWD offers a harsh view of the world. It is not, as most people think, about preparing to survive an imagined future apocalypse. It is a morality tale about navigating life as it is RIGHT NOW.

It is a show that knows its own significance. 

* Takes itself as an object to be discussed -- "The Talking Dead" aftershow.

* Offers platforms for strangers to experience the show together, on Twitter and through the show's "two-screen experience" on

* Sells "the experience" to consumers  through a wide variety of commercial products.

People talk about TWD anyway. On social media and off. It is widely parodied and copied.

It has become an important social text.


Among many other things it offers us a way to talk about leadership. 

There is a clear model here of right and wrong, epitomized by the main character Rick, a sheriff by training and he plays this type of character in the show. 

The top 10 aspects of Rick's leadership style:

1. He leads with the consent of the group. When he is wrong they talk to him frankly. When he is out of control they remove him from play, physically, and he accepts that.

2. He tells the truth. When he lies he admits it. When he makes a mistake he says so. 

3. He will kill if necessary. He will bite the neck off a man if it means saving his son from getting raped.  He will kill a husband if it means saving his wife from getting her head bashed in. 

4. He is motivated by the welfare of the group. Initially he thinks of the group as his family, then expands this circle to include fellow travelers who have fought alongside him. Eventually he grows to take responsibility for a community.

5. His decisions are based on practical need. He does not live by any ideology.

6. He knows how to prioritize. First comes taking care of his family, then survival, and then helping others learn how to survive. 

7. He has limits. He will not hurt others any more than he has to. 

8. The only people he hates are those who take advantage of the weak. 

9. He doesn't discriminate against anyone.

10. He is ultimately human, flawed, tempted, tormented, and he does snap at times. 

Interestingly there are more extreme characters in the group - most notably Carol, who survived brutal domestic abuse by her husband. She has become very tough, very crafty and very strategic but her wounds have pushed her into a kind of coldness that can be chilling.

There are milder characters who can handle themselves in a fight, like Glenn. But when another character tries to kill him, Glenn backs away from finishing him off. 

The other leaders we've encountered on the road include an evil character, The Governor, who rules by fiat and deception. He and Rick become moral enemies.

In contrast, Rick finds kinship with a Senator type who embodies what she calls "transparency," diplomacy and communal ideals. 

This last season has been a searching discussion between the two characters. 

They question: Is community possible? 

And they answer, each in different ways, "Yes but you have to know when, where and how to draw the line."

By the end of this season, they found a shared meaning of that line, and a shared framework for the answer.

# # #

Screenshot source: Season 5 TWD finale, via All opinions expressed are Dr. Blumenthal's alone, and do not reflect the views of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology or the U.S. government.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why We Love To Hate "Public Affairs"

Over the past eleven years, I've worked in a communications capacity for five federal agencies. Chaired a best practice group for federal communicators across the government. And interacted with colleagues on task forces, working groups and listservs.

They're just as smart and capable as their private-sector counterparts.

I've talked with many of them personally, too. And I'm here to tell you, with rare exception, they all want to tell the whole story to the public. Unvarnished, unfettered, straightforward. Using the newest technologies and at the lowest cost.

So why does "Public Affairs" have such a bad reputation?

For one thing, the role of this office is poorly understood, even among many within the federal government. Public Affairs is not supposed to "make the government look good" - that is propaganda, and propaganda is not a legitimate use of appropriated funds.

Most people understand that the office is charged with the transmission of information about the agency's activities. Where the problem comes in is the broader mission of helping the public understand the mission of the agency. This broad and admittedly fuzzy scope of responsibility can easily morph into the credo that "we must make the agency look good."

That's propaganda.

Another problem occurs when political and civil frameworks of behavior are confused with one another. For example, in 2011 the Columbia Journalism Review blamed the Environmental Protection Agency for having press officers present during interviews. The EPA Administrator's staff defended the practice by invoking the previous administration. And the article concluded with blaming the present one.

Yet political and civil servants operate within two completely different frameworks. Because the two work so closely together, the day-to-day practice of public affairs can lead to blurred lines.

The reality is, civil servants are explicitly prohibited from using federal service to lobby for or against a political party or candidate. That is a direct violation of the Hatch Act.

Rather, their job is to ensure that agency operations are accurately and transparently portrayed to the maximum extent possible. Helping agency subject matters with interviews, including sitting in on them (not a universal policy or practice) is a way of making sure that experts understand how best to communicate with the media. It's also a way of making sure that the experts' words are not distorted for the purpose of creating "clickbait," meaning articles slanted in such a way as to generate more traffic. 

Another reason public affairs gets a bad rap? They aren't considered "technical" or "operational" subject matter experts. And so internally, their assistance is often considered a form of "interference" rather than a help. This is a shame, because poor communication with the public is very likely the direct cause of public mistrust of federal government activities. Common sense tell us this, or you can scan the daily news headlines. 

To take just one example, we have actually reached the point where people think "Jade Helm," a standard military exercise, is preparation for the imposition of martial law.

To sum up: The Office of Public Affairs is not the problem when it comes to transparency. A poor understanding of the role of communication in the federal government is.


Photo by Ervins Strauhmanis via Flickr. All opinions expressed are Dr. Blumenthal's alone, and do not reflect the views of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology or the U.S. government.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What It's Like To Live With A Writer

When I was in college I wrote a short essay about a painful experience at our Sabbath table at home.

My father reacted with such grief. I remember him picking me up one day in the city. His right hand gripped the steering wheel tightly, almost involuntarily. 

My mother sat next to him, explaining softly in soft tones: I had betrayed the family and our religion. I had shamed us.

I don't remember very many things from my life, unfortunately. But I do remember my reaction: angry, stony, ice-cold.

Maybe you think it was an odd reaction, but the truth is I did not care about my father's feelings. Nor my mother's attempt to explain. Frankly I had absolutely zero worry that others might look down on my for sharing such a personal thing.

Even then, I trusted the world to be a fair and objective audience. All I needed to do was put the words in front of them

I have been married for nearly 25 years now. We've raised two kids. 

It has been hard on my family to live with a writer.

My husband looks at the old pictures and says, "you were so much nicer back then." 

(When he feels like making a joke he'll add, "and better-looking, too.")

To live with a writer means that you are not, fundamentally, a passive wife and mommy, the kind that exists in fantasy and which we were supposed to have obliterated in fact.

It is to live with a three-dimensional person, who is also a shadow of one. Because in addition to critically thinking, inside they are always processing, processing, processing. And what they want to do, most of the time, is share their version of what they've seen.

It is the difference between shopping for furniture together, and watching yourself do the shopping so that you can document it for later.

It is a good thing to have a writer working for you. They're creative and productive. Plus they know they're different, and so they try harder to fit in and do well.

But it is difficult to have a writer working for you, too. That's true. Because the writer is loyal to The Truth, or maybe I should say the Quest For The Truth.

Even if they know what can and can't be said, and they stick to it, you may feel a bit uneasy about what lies behind that wide grin.

What saves your relationship -- that is, you and the writer -- is that you know in your heart what their intentions are. What they bring to your life. 

And that they are invested in the table at which you mutually eat.

A lot of people are writers nowadays. They work offsite and charge by the word.

But the kind of writer you want?

The  one who sits there giving you that funny stare, taking mental notes.

The kind who would actually work for free.

Disclaimer: All opinion are the author's own, and do not represent those of the National Institute of Standards & Technology or the Federal government.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"Race Together": Flawed, But Brilliant

Brand mastery, like leadership, means taking a stand and sticking with it. 

Howard Schultz, the founder and CEO of Starbucks, has taken such a stand with his new "Race Together" campaign. 

Even though it has generated much controversy.

Even though experts in the branding community have slammed it.

With his insistence on following a singular vision that is true to the brand -- not politics, not popularity contests and not opinion polls -- Schultz shows once again that he is the definition of a brand master. 

What people don't understand, but should, is that Starbucks is a vision of community.

It is Schultz's world to build. A world of conscious capitalism. 

In this world, as in every well-organized system of production, profits come first - they have to. 

But the relationships among people dominate the conversation always.

From Schultz's point of view, when the gulf in our community is so great that people can no longer talk with one another, the brand is in danger.

If he made a mistake, and I think he did stumble a little bit here, it was to have the baristas be the brand ambassadors for race relations.

Instead he should have confined himself to affixing "Race Together" to the coffee cups; selling a book on the subject; or perhaps donating profits to a worthy related cause.

The mistake was, really, to go against the brand by dehumanizing the baristas. It's counterproductive to try to turn people into mouthpieces for your personal agenda -- even if it is a good one -- unless they sign up for that.

Overall though, Schultz is on the right track by once again reinventing the brand to stay relevant, and taking it to a higher ideal. 

Howard Schultz is a man on a mission. If it's a major, divisive social issue, he will not stop till we talk about it.

Preferably over coffee.
All opinions my own. No federal agency or any other official commercial endorsement expressed or implied. Photo by K. Johansson via Wikipedia.

Monday, March 23, 2015

"Why Do You Care?" The Walking Dead S6 E5

TWD characters Rick and Jessie (screenshot here from an earlier episode) have electric chemistry. He is the sheriff of Alexandria. Her husband is beating the crap out of her. And the whole town knows it.

Yet when he asked her to let him help, she responded: "Why do you care?"

This question, to me, is more than just an exchange. It is the entire premise of the show.

Why do you care?

Rick asked this of Carol previously.

She said, my husband beat me, too. So you know why.

She said, I know why you care. I see the way you talk to her.

Why do you care?

In the world of TWD, you actually have to ask that question.

Because it's not possible that you would care organically.

It is a generational comment, the question Xers ask.

Why do you care? 

The assumption being: Caring is normally not possible, absent self-interest. 

And even if you have a reason to care - I am still suspicious.

A powerful question. A loaded question. One that tells us a lot about the person (and the reference group/generation) asking it.

All opinions my own. Screen capture from "The Walking Dead" dated 3/9/2015.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

What The Public Wants From A Government Twitter Account

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the average citizen feels like they don't know what the hell is going on in Washington.

I feel fairly confident in drawing this conclusion because every time, or nearly every time I talk to someone outside the Beltway they say something like this to me:

"Well I don't know what the hell is going on over there in Washington, maybe you can explain it to me."

And most of the time when I talk to people inside the Beltway, who don't work in my agency, my office, or my division I hear the same thing, well sorta:

"What exactly do you guys do over there?"

And then we start talking and...MEGO (my eyes glazeth over).

It's not like we government people don't try to explain. We do. But it's hard to do, and when we try to say it simply while also balancing the things we can and can't say, the result is usually less than compelling.

But the truth is that government work is fascinating, as we employees find ourselves: 
  • Navigating myriad layers of oversight - laws, regulations, guidelines, policies and rules to follow, plus organizational politics and culture. 
  • Struggling to simplify and clarify one's purpose - while answering to multiple audiences with varying kinds of interest in the mission and different levels of sophistication. 
  • Retaining stability in a chaotic environment - what was high-priority one day may disappear off the radar the next.  
So why can't we tell that story? Why can't the public simply ask their questions and get the information they want?

Here's a "top 10" list of reasons that come to mind.

1. We can't tell them, and we don't explain why.

2. We can tell them, but we think we can't, because we're ignorant.

3. We promote "chain of command" thinking, in which mindset the customer has no choice but to take what we give them.

4. We prioritize operations over customer service.

5. We feel queasy about the kind of free social media tools that can help, because they raise uncomfortable questions.

6. We lack an accurate radar for the kinds of communication that are more versus less important.

7. We underfund the communication function.

8. We don't sufficiently empower and encourage subject matter experts to speak directly.

9. We are fearful of making an error in judgment or issuing inaccurate data.

10. We take so long to decide what to say, or how to say it, that people stop caring. (There is inevitably a vast gap between "what we meant to say" and "what actually gets said" --> once the Committee of All Relevant Parties is done with it.)

It is in this context that a government Twitter account becomes a valuable source of timely, relevant, understandable and accessible information for the public.

There are five kinds of Tweets that seem to generate the most impact:

1. Genuinely meaningful real-time status update

2. Direct quote that sheds light on what an influencer is thinking or planning.

3. Inspiring quote that sheds light on an influencer's vision

4. Statistic relevant to public policy 

5. A visual that makes plain why an effort, initiative, or idea is important

A Twitter account can and should be used to tell the public what's going on, in real time. We have found that when we post cute pictures we get some retweets, but the number of follows and retweets explodes when we satisfy the public's true thirst. 

The people want information that helps them to be informed citizens.

It is true that people get angry at government even in the best of scenarios. They're angry at corruption, they're angry at lack of accountability, they're angry at fraud, waste and abuse.

They are angry at lying.

But there is so much information that the public has a right to know, that can be shared, that would convey the sensitivity and the complexity of government work and actually promote engagement with government.

When we don't even bother to tell that story, in a way that people want to hear it, we are virtually guaranteed that citizens will, in thinking of the government, favor their worst fears.

Twitter is a revolutionary tool. We ought to take advantage of it, and of other free and low-cost technology platforms. 

We should share as much information as we can.

Make sure it's marked clearly as originating from the government.

Invite others to share on our platforms.

Make clear the limits of our communication.

We should overall prioritize transparency and accountability to the fullest. Even when it makes us look bad.

The public may never love the government. But at the very least they should trust that government is working on its behalf.

Social media can help.

All opinions my own. Photo of spectator by Stefano Corso via Flickr. Photo of televisions by Adriel Hampton via Flickr. Photo of graffiti by PhilosophyGeek via Flickr.

Friday, March 20, 2015

A personal comment on - content and process

It is an amazing achievement that we have this now. We can see which websites are popular - needed and useful - and which aren't. 

Unfortunately the headline on Drudge was: "Obama Admin Tracking Visitors To Government Websites." It links to NextGov, headline: "New Dashboard Tracks Which Federal Sites You're On, And How You Got There."

I think the problem here is twofold:

* Government was lost in congratulating itself rather than thinking about/being sensitive to how the public perceives (mistrusts) government

* The visual that went with the NextGov article (which was based on the 3/19 White House blog post) didn't convey the intended message. The intention was to show a data-driven improvement in customer service. But the unintended consequence, given the context, was to make it look like the government is invading people's privacy with Orwellian-style monitoring.

This comment is NOT to rain on the parade at all. It is to suggest a way to improve government communication. Most obviously, before releasing news, it helps to think about two things:

* The CONTENT - what they're trying to achieve in terms of a technical, explanatory or process advance

* The CONTEXT - how people perceive government + communications and the two of those concepts together

After releasing news, if it's taken badly, it never hurts to do a "Myths vs. Facts" type post where you clear up the distortions and inaccuracies.

With that in mind - here is a SAMPLE (not official, not real, purely conceptual) straightforward-type blog post government communicators ought to write more of, and quickly, as needed. When people are suspicious, they have a right to be; when they are concerned, they need answers. 

Often I get the impression that professionals think it's somehow "beneath" them to respond to the "trash" that people say. That responding will actually validate false accusations. 

But the opposite is true. For the sake of public trust, it is the job of the federal communicator to respond to negative public perceptions of positive things. Quickly.

So here is a sample post. Please don't go out and reprint it as though it were a real government blog.

# # # BEGIN SAMPLE # # #  

"What We Do & Don't Track About Your Visits To Government Websites, And Why"

Some people think the government has nothing better to do than track public visits to websites, just so that we can spy on people. While we do want to know if you're visiting us so that we can improve customer service, we are totally NOT interested in finding out who you are. Not only would it be a total waste of our time, but it wouldn't even be legal.

Here are a couple of myths vs. facts about how and why we track visits to our websites:

Myth: The government is using website visitor tracking to spy on people.
Fact: We are trying to improve our customer service, which you've repeatedly told us is not great. (INSERT STAT). We're doing it by using a commercial, off-the-shelf, free product to improve our customer service - which benefits taxpayers by telling the government which websites to focus on and which may not be as useful as they seem. If you have a blog and you use Google Analytics or any basic analytics, you have the same tools we do.

Myth: This kind of tracking is invasive of citizens' privacy.
Fact: Google Analytics doesn't track individuals; individual IP addresses are anonymized. We get three kinds of information: The popularity of a given page (number of visits), the device being used to access the pages (which tells us the optimal way to design our sites), and what operating system is being used (same usefulness as knowing the device).

Myth: The government is spending more and more time and money spying on its own citizens.
Fact: We look for national security threats. When we need to go after someone we suspect, here are the rules we follow (VERY GENERAL SUMMARY). Obviously we're not going to tell you how we do everything we do, but it has to be legal.

Myth: The government disregards the law. It does whatever it wants.
Fact: We've got some pretty strict attorneys.Yes, bad things happen - mistakes, poor judgment, and sometimes, but not usually, corruption.

Myth: The government is the opposite of transparent.
Fact: The government has taken a number of steps toward greater transparency just over the past (X NUMBER) of years. That doesn't mean we're perfect; issues remain around human error, the high number of requests vs. the technology and human resources available to process them, and (ADD ANY OTHERS).

# # #  END SAMPLE POST # # #

Links referenced in this post:


All opinions my own. Not representative of any government agency or entity. Rohrschach test image via Wikipedia.

What Is So Shocking...

Have you ever noticed that some people tend to find things "shocking?"

* That outfit - "shocking."

* That opinion - "shocking."

* The way things went at that (insert occasion) - "shocking, shocking, indeed!"

And yet there are others who never seem shocked at all. No matter what happens, no matter what you throw at them. Always calm, cool and collected.

What is the difference between the two?

In my experience, the "shockable" types tend to fall into one or more of these categories:

- Easily angered
- Insecure 
- Dramatic
- Passionate about their "cause"
- Power-oriented
- Highly engaged
- Intuitive, sensitive
- Traditional values
- Literal, black-and-white thinking style 
- Change-averse

Super-calm types, on the other hand, tend toward any or all of the following characteristics:

- Tolerant
- Diplomatic
- Disengaged
- Laid-back
- Politically savvy
- Emotionally intelligent
- Astute observer
- Analytical, rational
- Highly educated
- Experienced, mature

Ultimately, neither is better or worse than the other. But they are each distinct, and sometimes the misunderstandings on both sides can cause conflict.

Often it's not possible to resolve personality differences. But if you stand back and look at things objectively, you can see that most traits simply are what they are. 

We're much better off accepting people, and if we can, celebrating their uniqueness.

Of course the ideal is to figure out what people do best, and then give them a way to do it.

All opinions my own. Image via Wikipedia.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On The Use of Memes In Government Communication

We begin with the assumption that government communication should be as good or better than private-sector communication, for three reasons:

     - The public relies on the government as a trustworthy source of information

     - Many are misinformed or under-informed about what the government does and the services it offers

     - Trust in the government by the public is extraordinarily low

This is not only a bad situation, it is a dangerous one. 

From that perspective, using the communication tools that are popular among ordinary citizens has the capacity to build trust. Whereas using highfalutin language - the equivalent of standing on a soapbox and preaching -builds mistrust.

Memes are a popular way to communicate in the age of social media. However, there are a couple of concerns that government rightfully has about them. This article aims to address them.

Issue #1: Copyright 

A meme is a derivative work based on an original piece of art. At issue is whether the meme is a form of free speech, or an illegitimate commercialization of someone else's work.

To make a determination about whether the use is OK, the courts apply the doctrine of "fair use." They consider: "the purpose and character of the use (e.g., was it for profit?); the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion of the work used in relationship to the whole work; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work." This is sometimes known as the "four-factor test."

The U.S. Copyright Office offers some examples of fair use, and an entry in Wikipedia sums them up: "Commentary, search engines, criticism, parody, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship." Let's look at how government memes stack up:

     1 - They are clearly for education, not profit

   2 - They are derivative works for the purpose of parody, to engage and educate the public. As the Copyright Office notes - "Copyright protects the particular way authors have expressed themselves. It does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in a work."

     3 - Normally they represent a minimal use of the material, because they are single images.

     4 - Memes tend to boost the market for copyrighted work because they get traffic.

Issue #2: Good Taste

If copyright law is murky, the issue of taste is even murkier. Cutting-edge communication normally pushes the boundaries in order to get attention. Whether this boundary-pushing is desirable depends on at least the following three factors:

     1 - The urgency of the need to communicate - if there is a crisis of some kind

     2 - The feedback from the public - whether it's well-received

     3 - The cultural environment of the agency itself

What is OK in one agency or at one time may not be OK in another. The answer is always "it depends."

What Can You Do With Memes As A Government Communicator?

New things present new challenges and memes are definitely new. They are in many ways the essence of social media, subverting the "official voice" with one's reaction to it. They are a game-changer.

Here are some strategies for using memes. They're based on a review of the literature as well as informal discussion and collaboration. They are intended as a starting point for your own work, not as official advice or legal counsel:

     1 - Don't rely on "cat pictures" - develop an approach in which the visuals are substantively educational

     2 - Use memes sparingly - balance them with words that inform

     3 - Humor is tricky, and can offend - use with caution

     4 - Make images that are very clear in their meaning - different people can have wildly different interpretations 

     5 - Develop your own innocuous meme - a great case study is Home Depot's "Richard the Cat"


All opinions are my own. Image by Denise Krebs. For further reference:

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Steal This Idea - "The Closet"

So I have this idea but am not gonna do it. Steal it and make some dough.

Basically - it's a brand franchise that lets people rent fashionable clothes on a membership basis. 

You pay your monthly fee, go to "The Closet," pick out your clothes, dry clean and return them.

A way to look good without investing in designer price tags.

Possibly part of a larger franchise - fitness club, quick healthy food, yoga and meditation, plus the clothes.

All opinions my own. Photo of me by Rebecca Blumenthal.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Things We Don't Blog About

There is an old saying: “Those who know don’t tell, and those who tell, don’t know.”

We don’t hear honest stories enough but if we did I think that could be a catalyst for real change.

These are the things we should blog about more, not only because we need to vent and get support but also it’s the personal stories that reflect social reality.

  • The personal is political.
  • The personal is economic.
  • The personal is cultural.

The personal can change society for the better.

What happens when we proliferate the opposite? All the supposedly "authentic" and "unbiased" interviews, case studies, market research, Facebook posts, Tweets and blogs that are only there to sell.

Typically they have no disclaimer at all, because you're just supposed to know that they're promotional.

Truth be told, I have come to expect it but also feel a little angry trying to figure out the credentials of every piece of information out there. I fully understand that "product placement" is a value creator in the New Economy. But the longer-term consequence of undermining true social media is a culture of inherent distrust.

A couple of issues here:

  • How do we make it safe for people to share their personal experiences in a constructive way?
  • How can we establish rules of the road, so that business blogs and posts are clearly “marked” to the reader so that they know where your interests lie and so they can judge for themselves how big a grain of salt they should take it with?

We are seeing the rise of a transparency ethic that insists on peeling away the layers of the onion ruthlessly, even if it seems like no matter how much you do so there is always more underneath.

It’s one of those social experiments where we don’t have all the answers now, and so we will inevitably make many mistakes until we find some kind of balance.

The most important civil right we have is free speech. We shouldn't ruin it with phony sales talk.

All opinions my own. Photo by Philippe Teuwen via Flickr.

Friday, March 13, 2015

"The Pie Gets Bigger When You Share"

I always think we are better off when we share. I have never thought it possible to do otherwise and survive.

What should we share? Our feelings, especially. Our truthful beliefs. Our authentic presence in the moment.

What should we share? Our information, if we can. What is useful to others. The tide that lifts all ships.

What should we share? Our creativity. Wthe best of ourselves, our gifts.

Why don't we share more? Because we have learned not to trust one another. Because we think there is only one pie. And that the pie gets smaller the more guests you have at the table.

The opposite is true. The more you share, the more the pie expands.

A very wise Chief of Staff told me this once, before I truly understood the importance of the statement. Like with all true statements, it remains a principle for life.

We aren't happy unless we share.

All opinions my own. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Language Of The People

According to a new Gallup poll, Americans believe that government is the #1 problem in America today.

Not jobs.

Not wars.

Think about this staggering accusation.

Now think about all the things we depend on the government for. Jobs that get done, reliably, by people who actually do care.

Is it possible that people hate on government because we don't communicate well?

I think so. I think it's very likely.

We may blame screwups but even screwups can be explained in honest simple terms. And they should have reasonable consequences.

Government should speak in the language of the people. 

Not at them, not around them.

Say it plain and clear and in terms that average people understand and appreciate. 

It is such a basic principle. It is not rocket science.

We ought to keep it in mind.

All opinions my own. Photo by me.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"The Walking Dead" As A Commentary On Community

You misunderstand "The Walking Dead" if you think it's about zombies. It's about the question of whether community is possible.

You won't even think the premise of the question is valid unless you are of the mindset to ask it. I personally believe the show is aimed at Gen Xers, who do ask.

We are not like Boomers, or Millennials at all. I once read that they are closer to one another than to us. That is true.

To oversimplify, Boomers and Millennials have this idea that "we all should get along." We should try to change the world, no doubt -- but at the end of the day, diplomacy and group belonging come first.

Gen Xers are different. We don't believe people naturally get along -- not at all. We are very tribal; we have a select, small group of family and friends that we carry through your our lives, and that's it. 

"The Walking Dead" speaks to the deepest fear of the Xer. That their most beloved ones will be taken away. Leaving them (us) utterly alone and rudderless.

The perfect brands for Gen Y epitomize the idea that "we are all one." A fluid, interconnected mass of basically good people. When one leaves, another joins the social network. All is good because all are good.

Xers don't buy it. We are not one, we are many ones, trying to work it out and survive. 

And we're not sure which we're more afraid of, either: living through or dying from the Apocalypse.

All opinions my own. Poster via Wikipedia.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Epiphany - Brand Exists ONLY In Interaction

I get it. I finally, finally get it.
Brand does not live in the artifacts of the brand. The symbols.
Brand does not live in the brain of the consumer. Nor in his or her heart.
The brand does live in the human interactions that surround it.
We have been thinking the wrong way for so many years. We've been thinking that the brand was somehow magically built by television commercials, by "Mad Men."
But this is not true. It was the relationships around the commercials that built brands.
It was not desire that created consumerism. Rather, it was the inculcation of desire as a social activity.
We've been thrown by the glamour of the billboards. We've been taken by the mirage of the brand-makers themselves. That is to say, they wanted us to believe that they had some magical power to bestow great brands upon us, and to pay them accordingly. 
But this is not the case. The greatest brand-makers in the world don't live on Madison Avneue at all.
They live somewhere else. They are the ones who generate a positive network of interaction among like-minded souls.
It is the memory of that interaction that creates the brand in the mind, the brand which the customer is willing to pay a premium for. 
Memories come from talking to other people. Which in the past was very small-scale: parent and child, shopkeeper and customer, doctor and patient.
Today, the brand is built through not one or two interactions but millions and billions of them. Perhaps even trillions.
The definition of a brand, therefore, is "A social unit that exists independently of the individuals which comprise it."
Following on this, you can have a positive brand or a negative one. A positive brand is a social unit that adds value. A negative brand detracts. You want to associate with a positive brand because it adds equity to you, individually.
To do the work of building a brand, then, one must actually build a social network. You build the social network around shared symbols, which serve as a linguistic and visual code that tell existing and prospective members of that network what it means.
Kanye West is a brand not because he is Kanye West. He is a brand because he crashed Taylor Swift at the Video Music Awards win, and grinned for the cameras with her in 2015, when he repeated the stunt with Grammy winner Beck.
He interacted with her, his fellow celebrities and the media interacted with him, and we interact with the spectacle. The genius of the brand maker is to know how to create a unique, relevant, compelling and consistent social commons, that others join with urgency.
Photo by Susanne Nilsson via Flickr. All opinions are my own.