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the invisible thing driving your brand

If I ask you -- as brand producer or a consumer -- why you make or buy the things you do, you will not answer me well. You may try to be truthful, but the level of real insight that I get from you will likely be fairly low.
This matters for marketers a hell of a lot, since we want to make money and spend the least amount of money doing that. For a marketer to help a brand producer effectively, the producer has to know what they're doing and why - and they have to understand what motivates the customer extraordinarily well.
Your value proposition is tied partly to the functional asset you give the customer, but it's more fundamentally about your passion. This is the space where your customer connects to you, when they could simply buy the cheapest product at the cheapest price from anybody else. It's your source of equity.
Brand consultants can help you, and so can market researchers. But be careful -- bad data puts you in a worse place than having none. 
  • A survey may be cheap, quick and carefully worded to be objective. But it's also unreliable, because people filter their spontaneous answers through the self-aware and self-conscious mind.
  • Interviews and focus groups, meanwhile, while potentially interesting, are a minefield of potential bias, group dynamics and transference from interviewee to interviewer and vice versa.
  • Observation is biased by the researcher's own filters.
  • Textual analysis - such as a review of popular culture - is also subject to cultural bias and interpretation.
And we haven't even talked about the influence of the research sponsor - the things one can and cannot actually discover, given whoever is paying the bills.
Yet we have to do research, and we must arrive at answers. And we don't have all the time in the world. So what are we to do?
  • Rely on the creative genius of a brand producer - someone who knows what the customer wants without asking.
  • Triangulate the methods - use two or more, and compare the results.
  • Work sequentially - start with the most qualitative and exploratory approach, as in ethnography, and narrow it down to the survey.
  • Have multiple people review the same data - minimizing the chance of any one person distorting it with bias.
All of the above are standard answers. But there is one more I really like, and that is less often talked about: studying the nature of the interaction itself. That is to say, one studies not only the content of a subject, but also the research process.
Process data is implicit. It's frequently unexamined. But it's highly influential over one's results. Don't look at only what you learned, look at how you learned it: Seriously, how did you get the work done? What was the sequence of events, what were the methods, and what stands out as odd or strange?

For example, let's say I'm studying the fashion preferences of preteen girls. The typical way to find out what they like to wear? Poll them online; pay them to participate in a discussion; observe their outfits at a local hangout; review the stuff they write and share online.

Or maybe I just find someone who "just knows."

But that partial view would exclude so much about process.

  • How does one gain entry into their world? 
  • Who among them speaks up as a leader? 
  • What kinds of things are they comfortable talking about?
  • What types of devices do they use to communicate? 
  • To what extent do they interface with others virtually or in real life? 
  • How do they actually get to the store, or do they even go? 
  • Do they make their own clothes, or buy them? 
  • What do they seem to take for granted?
  • Who do they seek to impress?
  • What in the research process went wrong, was unexpected, or proved difficult to work through?
  • What did the brand producer or whoever sponsored the research expect to hear? What did they not want to admit into the study?
The "how" of research is incredibly important to record, even in one's mind. It is a deep and rich wellspring for creative inspiration.
All are opinions my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by Nagesh Kamath via Flickr Creative Commons.

Die, Or Community

As a child I led a very lonely life because we moved every year and best friends became increasingly hard to come by.
Plus we were a weird family, as far as families go. A little of this, a little of that, but we didn't really belong anywhere.
I found refuge in dolls and later in reading, performing and art and eventually (as you can probably tell), writing took over my life. Also, eventually, family.
"To love and to work," Freud said is the balance required for mental health.
He wasn't a great fan of community. For him in fact it was just the opposite - a contributor to mental illness, a gigantic thicket of rules that functions like a restraining order against mature thinking.
But Freud was incorrect. A person needs a community in order to function. At work, for example, innovation is increasingly driven not by the lone genius but by a creative team that plays off each others' strengths. And for the individual, community is a source of meaning, fulfillment and service regardless of the state of one's personal relationships.
Social media is actually an expression of community. People need it - it is only going to grow in importance - because it enables anyone to participate in community.
If Web 1.0 was information, Web 2.0 was interaction, and Web 3.0 is community, Web 4.0 is going to be the extension of virtual communities into the physical world. As we confront one another as people, recognizing our shared stake in a mutually safe place for humanity, social media will bring the world together, very literally.
I do believe it will bring about world peace. 
We have a choice: It is either die, or community.
All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Painting: "Color Study: Squares In Concentric Circles" by Wassily Kandinsky via

The Federal Workforce & The Federal Brand (A Comment)

Many argue that the presenting problem is a talent gap, i.e. the Boomers are going to retire, soon. There won't be Millennials waiting to replace them, because they've lost patience with the system. Presumably the civil service will fall apart absent a solid talent pipeline to back up the Gen Xers who will need to take over when the Boomers retire.

I disagree, even though parts of the problem are presented in a way that I agree with (e.g. the part about Millennials not having patience for the system.) 

--For one thing, Boomers frequently want or need to work beyond retirement age, sometimes well beyond. So I am not convinced they're leaving as quickly as people may think.

--For another, some aspects of the system work well for Millennials, who are highly team-oriented, and prefer clear-cut criteria and expectations - defining characteristics of the civil service. 

The real issue, I think, is that a variety of external forces are combining to change the nature of work rapidly and permanently. These changes cut across all generations. And the federal civil service has trouble understanding or keeping up with them.

An article in Fast Company sums them up well. Briefly:

1. Work is more remote than on-site.
2. Employees are expected to be on-call 24/7.
3. Work is expected to be "a calling" not just what you do from 9 to 5.
4. Work/life boundaries are increasingly nonexistent as friendship is being replaced by "networking."
5. Work is increasingly project-to-project (i.e. temporary) rather than long-term or even permanent.

("These Are The New Rules Of Work," URL:; May 18, 2015; Ross Perlin)

Related trends:

1. Nomadic living - you set up shop in a remote area and telecommute
2. Communal working/workspaces - you find other freelancers and co-rent space with them
3. Full-time job + side work - you have a hobby or two that you do for money, while keeping a steady income flowing (yes, this is supposed to be your passion, ideally...I suppose)

In the federal civil service, a related major issue is the relationship between contractors and federal employees - because work culture is not manual - in order for it to be productive there has to be seamless collaboration - one team, one culture, one mission.

Given all of this, in my mind, the real question is how we define civil service as distinct from non-civil service. If it is fair to say that a key distinction is the desire for an "inherently governmental cadre of dedicated employees" then a more robust model might be a federal-wide approach, where we recruit people into the civil service in an agency-agnostic way, and then deploy them across agencies in a manner that builds a core set of skills as appropriate.

Looked at in this way, you hire for dedication and you train for skills, and you start people right out of high school. Because you want a permanent workforce with institutional knowledge that is specific to government, not a disposable one that can pretty much work anywhere.

Which would make Pathways incredibly important.

As well as employee assistance program type programming.

...a lot of other implications. 

But it goes well beyond retaining Millennials.

Once you define the structural problem and then the desired solution you're ready to start defining that solution in terms of brand.

All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. 

An Unlikely Brand Maestro

Strong brands are a polarizing thing.
And so it is literally impossible for me to bring up the Kardashian Klan as a form of brand brilliance without somebody yelling "boo."
As in: "They're trash!" "I can't stand them!" "You're kidding me!"
But I have long said that the Kardashians, and in particular the "momager" Kris Jenner, are a stunning example of success in creating brand equity where there was none before.
  • Most reality show stars earn a pittance. The "Krew," in contrast, earns $10 million a season for their famed show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which is really nothing more than the cameras following them around as they do...not much of anything.
  • Kim Kardashian alone made $28 million in 2014, again for...not much of anything other than her body and her notoriety. 
  • And Kendall, aside from inking a monster deal with Estee Lauder to be the face of their makeup, reportedly earns $5,000 just for a single (140 character or less) Tweet.

But the real star of the show, one who has remained hidden in the background for a number of years, is Bruce.
Bruce represents the emotional heart of the family - what is real and honest and true. Not the image.
It is his approach that encapsulates "authenticity" and it is his style that will dominate corporate brands in the future.
I remember when Kendall and Kylie were very young. Bruce wanted to shield them from the limelight.
He didn't like Scott.
And he didn't like Kris pushing everyone around.
It turns out that Bruce had a secret all these years. But he kept it to himself until it was appropriate to share it.
And so he did, on national television. And completely stole the show from Kris and Krew in the process.
He was simply honest. He wasn't trying to get attention. But he was speaking up not just for himself, but for others who have been marginalized pretty much all their lives, for no reason other than that they represent a "threatening authentic self."
Being transgender is a very personal experience, and yet has been interpreted socially as an unjust and even shameful thing. 
What Bruce said, when I saw him on TV, was that he thought his message was much bigger than his narrow experience. And I agreed with him.
He said that the world needs a lot more tolerance. And it starts with adopting a live-and-let-live kind of attitude. You do your thing, and I will do mine.
On the same show, which was an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Kris broke down in tears at the kitchen table. We saw her thick black mascara streaking down her cheeks.
Superficially she was a woman whose marriage had fallen apart, and I felt bad for her. But as a cultural text she was a brand whose image had not just fractured, but splintered, no - actually it shattered, it shattered into a thousand pieces.
All her carefully scripted moments of "being real," the episode where she had to get Depends for urinary incontinence - they were supposed to show an authentic Kris, but they were a lie.
What we really wanted to see, what we needed to see, and what brands will now need to aspire to, is the encapsulation of the most private of human experiences, packaged in a way that others can understand, tolerate, and value.
The brands that succeed at "being Bruce Jenner" are the brands that will succeed in 2015 and beyond.
All opinions are my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo credit: "Bruce Jenner" by jla0379 - . Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Shavuot - Memorial Day 2015: Reflections of a Jewish Patriot

Today is the first day of Shavuot, the annual Jewish celebration of the giving of the Torah.
It is also Memorial Day Weekend here in the United States. (Tomorrow, May 25 is the holiday itself.) 
Shavuot and Memorial Day have something in common: nationhood. Each honors an essential fight that must be fought for shared identity to form.
  • Shavuot - the intangible fight for identity: The Torah, and specifically the Ten Commandments, is the fundamental framework from which the Jewish nation derives its identity. "I am the L-rd Your G-d," "Thou shalt not kill," "Honor the Sabbath Day to keep it holy." It is said that G-d held a mountain over the Jews' heads to make us accept it. And yet we also learn that the Jews said these words: "We will do (first) and we will understand (later)." It is hard to understand - did the Jews want it or not?  Given the durability of Torah observance over time, the intensity with which we have clung to it, and the passionate debates about Jewish morality that never seem to die, it appears the answer is yes and the rest is only commentary. Shavuot represents not the transmission of a policy, but rather the victorious effort to win allegiance in the hearts, minds and souls of a people.
  • Memorial Day - the physical fight for survival: The United States of America was blessed with the wisdom of its founding fathers and mothers, I believe inspired by G-d, to write the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They are similar to the Torah in laying the foundation for our beliefs as a nation. The intellectual part is all fine and good, but without actually killing the enemy, and sadly, risking and often losing our own lives in the process, our nation would never have stood a chance. Military service is more difficult and more fundamental in many ways than intellectual arguments about right and wrong, because it can cost our soldiers literally everything they have. Plus, it's inevitably ugly and morally gray no matter what the victory. If only we could all just get along, right? But we can't, and history is played out on the ground, not in a computer simulation. On this day, we honor the men and women who not only took the risk, but suffered the ultimate loss, one for which there is no compensation.
"Jewish patriot": We Jews are often stereotyped as bookish and nerdy, unable to defend ourselves - sometimes we even stereotype ourselves that way. But we have a long history of military activity, and bravery and heroism not only for Israel but in establishing the U.S. and defending its freedom.
We want to fight for what's right.
The truth is, Jews are a courageous people and again, contrary to the stereotype, we are not by and large greedy and scheming and selfish. Rather, we are deeply motivated by belief, though we may disagree vehemently about what "right beliefs" are.
So this weekend is a double holiday for me, specifically as a Jewish patriot. I love my faith and I love the United States, having been born here and bred here and being a deep believer in its framework for a civil and just secular society.
In addition, I am always awed at the respect shown to me by non-Jews, of diverse faiths, who unfailingly go out of their way to respect whatever version of my religion I choose to keep at any given moment in time.
It was good timing therefore that I walked into synagogue just in time for a certain special prayer - the prayer for the safety of the American military. 
Here it is, in English and Hebrew (via the Orthodox Union).
May it be G-d's will that we know and interpret and perform His desires correctly. May He grant us protection from those who wish us harm. May He protect our soldiers, of all kinds. So that they can simply love their lives in peace, never having to know war anymore. 
All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Prayer source: Orthodox Union. Photo of the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan by Sgt. Mark Fayloga, USMC. Uploaded by Palm dogg. Source: Wikipedia.