Branding is for Bubblebrains

Have you heard about this new term of art in branding?
"Brandcuffs."
It sounds like some sort of adult toy. I had to look this up.
Turns out that "brandcuffs" are a restrictive style guide, so strict they don't allow any wiggle room when it comes to conveying the brand.
The point of course is to make sure that the communicators you pay to convey said brand don't f- it up.
The implication is that your communicators are stupid.
I have long been sort of annoyed-slash-frustrated at the tendency of companies to think about their most important function - communication - as a lowest-common-denominator thing.
It's almost as if they literally think that typing is the same thing as writing. That knowing how Twitter works is the same thing as knowing what to tweet. 
Or, worse, that talking to the customer - by email, on the telephone or on instant chat - is the same thing as getting them engaged. 
It's not.
(We all know this, right?)
The business genius Peter Drucker was 100% on target when he said that "a business exists to create a customer."
But as all of us already know, but maybe don't think about so much (because new ads are sexier than loyalty campaigns) - it's a hell of a lot cheaper, smarter and more efficient to invest in the customers you have than to constantly ignore them in favor of strangers.
And of course, the way you keep your customers delighted, and coming back for more, more, more - is consistent, personalized, structured (and yes, sometimes boring and irritating) customer service. Particularly for those who buy the most things for the highest price tag.
Think about it:
  • The entirety of your business is your brand. Not the widgets you think you sell.
  • The entirety of your brand is lodged, living and breathing, in the relationships you have with each and every customer. Dispersed among them. Not in your brochures, or your "brandcuff."
  • The relationships you have with each and every customer are unique, they develop over time, and they are real. Relationships cannot be programmed or scripted.
I am confident that we are looking at a robotized future, where most of the work is done by automated creatures we have dreamed up in a lab.
But the thinking work cannot be delegated.
Do you know what makes terrorist propaganda over social media channels so successful, while efforts to counter them have miserably failed?
It is that counter-terrorists refuse to un-handcuff their communicators.
For in a system run by terrorists, the only qualification is fanatical loyalty to a simple shared cause that all understand. 
There is no other litmus test for a Tweet.
New recruits buy into the messages broadcast over social media. Soon, they establish relationships with actual people. They join a shadowy world where they can shed their previous bland identities and immerse themselves in purpose.
How do you fight that? That's the ultimate one-on-one brand-building campaign, and the person standing on the other side of that wall is braying insults with both hands tied behind their back.
Facts are stubborn things and the simple fact about branding is that the relationships upon which it depends must be built by intelligent people who are just as fanatically dedicated to their cause as their competitors.
The people you hire to take your brand to the top - whether in service of national security or simply trying to elbow the corner Starbucks out of business - absolutely must be empowered to win over each customer, one at a time.
Ideally you will have some sort of database supplementing their efforts as well (I am familiar with Salesforce.com, but there are undoubtedly many other great products), so that interactions with customers begin to be tracked and over time, you have a picture of each individual that is part of your unique business orbit.
Also ideally, you want to combine the customer relationship management system with a data mining system that tells you which of your customers is spending on what and how much - so you can isolate the highest value interactions and focus most of your time on those. 
(Business isn't social work.)
When that customer comes in, any person who is part of your team can tap ito the program and then address them in the most unique, friendly and personalized terms - instead of numbly repeating the same nonsense words, over and over again, like a robot.
Which only serves to infuriate the customer, not to endear your brand to them.
Here's another example: Have you heard of the Jack Welch MBA Program?
They advertised on LinkedIn and I inquired once.
That was probably three months ago, and I have never followed up.
Do you know that the person assigned to my original inquiry is still reaching out to me?
And these aren't your standard-issue cookie-cutter emails, either.
They're actually interesting, personalized letters that seem like they are specifically tailored to me, asking when I can talk, get assessed for my career goals, and develop an action plan that will move me, in my specific, particular snowflake career, forward.
I may never get an MBA in this lifetime.
But you can bet your bottom dollar I'll always think of the Jack Welch program if and when I do decide to pursue one.
Now you may be thinking - such personal attention is unrealistic. After all, brands can get very big - massively so. How can they actually converse as human beings with each individual customer?
I am here to tell you that they absolutely can, and technology makes it more possible than ever, and that they have to.
The only thing getting in the way is attitude.
If you as a business owner have the attitude that communication is your least important function as versus "real things" like new product development and enhancement, you're screwed.
There is always room for another hamburger.
If you favor "hard skills" because they're seemingly difficult to learn and require a lifetime of commitment by so-called "smart people," you're biased.
Emotional intelligence is really, really, really hard to come by these days.
The heart and soul of your brand always comes down to the person who interacts with the customer. Even if you operate an e-commerce business, hopefully you aren't planning to replace humanity with a machine.
You say you value your customer service staff? Think about how little you are probably paying this person, how rarely or perfunctorily you are training them, how excessive the restriction you're placing on their interactions with the customer.
Do you make them say, before anything else: "I'm Jennifer, ID#5344, this conversation is recorded to ensure the highest possible level of customer service?" 
That, my friend, is a "brandcuff!"
Do you really think a person suffocating under the weight of your condescending mistrust is going to provide a return on investment?
Or maybe you think the only person who can build your brand is you - and possibly your highly paid, empowered and pampered senior management team.
Hm. I don't think that you have time to deal with every customer.
Maybe it's time to rethink.
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All opinions my own. Photo by Javcon117 via Flickr (Creative Commons). 

Notes on Today's Speech By Dr. Tal Becker

Dr. Tal Becker, a prominent thinker and adviser to Israel, gave today's speech in synagogue (B'nai Israel, Rockville, MD). 

Overall my takeaway was: good that we are talking about a positive message and identity for Israel rather than a victim-y one. Bad that there was no mention of G-d in this message.

But many good points:

1. Israel's need for a "sovereign state of mind": There is a difference between having a state, and thinking like one. Elements of a sovereign state of mind:

a. Overcoming the synagogue mentality:  When it comes to synagogue, each individual member tends to want the shul to "conform to their specific requirements." Israel needs to get away from that tribal mindset. Talked about growing up in Australia and going to the shul specifically established by the Auschwitz survivors, and then there was a breakaway shul from that.

b. Commonality: Israel often feels like "what's left over" after each "tribe" has tried to pull the country totally in its own direction. Need to create a national environment where we are all one even if I vehemently disagree with you.

c. Metric for success: Things are getting better. Not that things are perfect.

2. Getting out of crisis mode: The mood at AIPAC was one of worry. Anxiety is the Jewish mode of approaching Israel. The shtetl Jew transported to Israel. But fear is not an inspiring, engaging, productive message for the next generation. 

3. What are we striving for? Articulate it to engage: To be "safe, normal and exceptional."

a. Safe means an end to being victimized by antisemites. Not there yet, but progress. 

b. Normal means relationships and trade with other countries, which is the case with 161 out of 194 (my best recollection of what he said).

c.  Exceptional means that the Land, its inhabitants, its culture and its achievements are wondrous, amazing, something you have to see and experience for yourself.

4. The difference between messianic thinking (everything will be perfect tomorrow) and state-oriented thinking (let's roll up our sleeves and make things better now). An awesome opportunity we have as the State exists.

5. American Jews are a minority that feels and acts like a comfortable majority. Israelis are a majority that feel and act like a minority.

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All opinions my own.

Grateful To Be Alive

I was so moved by something this missionary said on TV.

CNN interviewed him about what it was like to survive the terrorist attacks that took place in Brussels this week.

I can imagine that if I were G-d-forbid wrapped in head-to-toe bandages for any reason - especially after a monstrous, horrific terrorist attack - I would be very, very angry and depressed.

Squirming with claustrophobia, too. Eating myself alive.

But all I heard from the missionary was: "I am just so grateful to G-d." 

And he meant it. I could tell.

It is amazing how some people have so much faith.

Even when logic says that they should feel hopeless.

I feel very small next to a spiritual giant like this. 

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All opinions my own. Photo by me.


How to Get Organized

Sometimes it helps to have these common-sense reminders handy:
1. Wake up an hour early. Stick to a schedule while you're at it. You'll sleep better too.
2. Get your priorities in order - one day, when you're relaxed. You should know the top 5 by heart.
3. Make a list of to-dos every morning.
4. Plan ahead - actually put things on the calendar.
5. Don't confuse busywork with important work - eliminate wasted time from your life.
6. Do one thing at a time & concentrate.
7. Make time for helpful people. Let them talk. Listen. Then help them back.
8. Avoid toxic people. This takes a different kind of resolve and a measure of self-esteem.
9. Make healthy food in bulk and carry it with you. Save time and money and think straight.
10. Exercise before you go to work. It gets you focused and makes you feel good all day.
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All opinions my own. Photo by me.

5 Telltale Signs of a Challenged Corporate Culture

Think of corporate culture as the human spine. If it's well-formed and agile, it supports the body well over time; if it's bent out of shape inside, the body winds up in enormous and constant pain.
Unfortunately, when an organization is misaligned, the pain is felt not only companywide but also by its individual employees. So no matter what your role in your own organization, here are 5 things to look for to assess its level of health. If something is out of whack, it pays to prepare yourself in advance for managing the symptoms that will inevitably come up:
  • Decision-making:  A framework of principles, informed by a constant stream of data, is a healthy way to plot a course of action. It is not healthy to delay decisions interminably or to use arbitrary, gut-based, person-based, situational "I just feel like it" reasoning.
  • Empowerment: Define the job accurately, hire people who can do the job and who play well with others, and then let them do their job. If you're second-guessing them every minute, you may as well fire them and save the money. 
  • Prioritization: Yes you have a lot of things to do and a lot of emails within which to discuss those things. No all of those things are not equally important. Dump most of it and there will be absolutely zero impact to your productivity. An organization that refuses or fails to prioritize and instead categorizes busywork as productivity is an organization that is trying to engage in empire-building rather than the delivery of value to the customer.
  • Attitude: We are excited to be here. We have a great team. We are here to improve, we can improve and we will improve without fail. This is the way work should be approached every single second of every day. A culture of negativity, gossip, complaining, and rumination about why things will never get better is a culture that drags otherwise positive people down into a pit. That pit will swallow innovation whole.
  • Meetings: They should be relatively short and oriented at engaging people in a discussion. Attendees need to know the agenda in advance and do their homework beforehand. If some people are sitting around picking their noses and playing with their iPhones under the desk while other people are droning on and on and on seemingly without end - then something is wrong.
Of course, it goes without saying that you should not try to fix any or all of these problems on your own. As a sociologist with nearly twenty years of studying organizations both formally and informally, I can tell you that this is a recipe for workplace suicide.
What you can do, though, is model a healthier way; call out the contradictions between the company's espoused ideals and the ones it is practicing. Over time, as you quietly demonstrate consistent productivity, others will follow your example.
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All opinions my own. Photo credit: U.S. Army via Flickr (Creative Commons)

RIP, Andy Grove


Best known as the CEO of Intel, Andy Grove was a Holocaust survivor who went through hell:

"By the time I was twenty, I had lived through a Hungarian Fascist dictatorship, German military occupation, the Nazis' "Final Solution," the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army, a period of chaotic democracy in the years immediately after the war, a variety of repressive Communist regimes, and a popular uprising that was put down at gunpoint. . . [where] many young people were killed; countless others were interned."

Unsurprisingly his motto was "only the paranoid survive," he wrote a book by the same name and his management style reflected this ethos. 

As a survivor of brutal anti-Semitism as well as the fiercely competitive high-tech market, Grove knew that innovation could not survive a corporate culture of playing pattycake, brownnosing, or other dysfunctional games. 

Rather, success is the result of leveraging productive conflict between people with different ideas.

Today we have lost a great leader. 

It would be a shame if the lessons he learned through such difficult trials died with him.
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All opinions my own. Photo via Wikipedia.  Links:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Grove#


It's Better Not To Think

Awhile back Allen Adamson wrote a book called Brand Simple which really lays out neatly why brands are so appealing: They prevent us from having to do the difficult work of thinking. 
In a world where our brains are constantly being pummeled with stimuli, helping us to think a little less reduces our stress level.
The job of a good brand, says Adamson, is to create a mental shortcut. We don't want to think - we reach for our "favorite," automatically. (It's the favorite they've taught you to want.)
Yesterday we went to Ikea. This store is a prime example of mental overstimulation. Every single thing in Ikea looked good. Every single thing was affordably priced. All the individual things. All the combinations. All the variations. The mirrors, the storage bins, the fake plants, the Audrey Hepburn posters, all of it, all of it, all of it, all of it.
I grabbed two of those yellow bags and followed the crowds, gulping up the excitement.
Not less than fifteen minutes later I was slumped over in a chair. One of us wanted the $7.99 folding chairs, one of us wanted the $14.99 chairs, and all of us were calling each other names in exhaustion and irritation. 
We are totally overstimulated. We need a break. (Another good book on the subject: Simple by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn.)
There is not room here to start complaining about every single example of how overcomplicating is ruining our lives. But I could throw in the tax code, children's education, the necessity to have 5,000 certifications to apply for just about any job, and more.
Suffice it to say that our brains are craving some simplicity. Remember when you were younger and you just sat there and watched TV all day on Sunday? 
What has happened to that?
 A disturbing side effect of branding, which is totally to be expected, is that we have now come to demand not only the brands we want, but also the simplicity of thinking they offer in such a seemingly easy way.
If we can't have it, grasp it, or deal with it in five seconds - we are over and out.
Unfortunately, the world we actually live in has grown so much more hyper specialized and complex that this kind of approach is maladaptive. We need to think a lot more deeply and critically, just about fewer and more relevant things.
Take for example the 2016 election in the United States. I understand that we have lots of opinions, very strong, on all sides. It is important not just to have a view of course, but to extend respect to those who wildly, wildly, wildly hate what you have to say and hope you never say it again. 
That's the very definition of free speech in a democracy, right? The ability to say your piece and be done with it.
But in this election season, we are seeing the impact of no-thinking thinking everywhere. Without making reference to one candidate or the other, I have lost count of the number of completely senseless headlines, the clickbait titles, the escalated rhetoric and obvious agenda-laden op-eds, all of it designed to market a very simple and global point of view to the average voter.
On top of this we have the normal and abnormal campaign stops and protests, designed to make a statement for YouTube.
It's all very frightening to me because marketing T-shirts is one thing. Marketing life-altering policies to hundreds of millions of people at a time is quite another.
What if we decided that for just a few months, this election deserves our full attention?
What if we actually took some time and immersed ourselves in the issues we care about, serious issues, and tracked how they've been handled over time? How we think they should be handled tomorrow?
What if all of us got off the sidelines or our simple soapboxes and really engaged with one another in pursuit of a really simple thing - that thing being The Truth. 
There is a Truth that is tangibly and scientifically valid. I don't know why they wished that away in graduate school.
All of us have to live together on this planet but some of us have more influence on the conditions of such coexistence than others. 
It's time to stop playing baby games and throwing shade and labels and start to really talk to each other as adults. 
I keep waiting for the adults in the room to jump in.
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Why I Support Trump (Response To A Leftist Friend)

Let's agree that class, sex/gender, race/culture/ethnicity make the world unfair. 

Let's also agree that the privileged classes routinely exploit the weaker ones. What is the best way to stop this from happening? 

It is tempting to follow the people who cater to victimization thinking. 

But the problem always is that they don't respect you - you're just fodder for their own ambition - because their version of a "solution" is another class system that THEY control. 

In this system, all information must be controlled and filtered to reflect their narrative. Because the truth - that people easily become oppressors and that no two snowflakes are alike - is dangerous to them.

I study dysfunctional organizations and bottom line, every organization is dysfunctional. What makes them change is expoure to the light.

I think we have arrived at a time in history when ideology is not useful anymore, if it ever was. We can only look at problems one at a time, using common sense, without any bias. That is a very hard thing to do.

The common thread in our thinking has got to be the truth. Someone said to me, "How can you criticize your own people? It feeds into stereotypes." And my answer is I don't care. I have to not care. If we lose our moorings in the truth all is lost.

We could talk about how this plays out in the Torah. The Torah tells it like it is. Our forefathers and foremothers get called out on their sins. We don't hide them. But we believe they are giants anyway.

In this election we are facing an unbelievable challenge. On the one hand you have the party that claims to be for the people. But they are spinning around in their knickers, fighting for power, and frankly unable to articulate any message on defense or management that sounds coherent to people. 

Additionally the Democrats in their rhetoric of respect have veered toward extremism. They sow hatred and division all the time. This is not the moderate party of the 1990s.

The Republicans meanwhile are stunningly ineffective at engaging their constituents due to a regressive social agenda and a framework for thinking that lacks any meaning whatsoever.

So I am a Libertarian. I believe in freedom. Reduce government waste, fraud and abuse. Stay out of people's private lives. Do only what is necessary to keep order and safety and then stop.

Don't discriminate, period.

Trump is obviously flawed. We all know that. But he gets that something is seriously wrong in terms of the WAY this country is being run. The METHODS of governing are not responsive to what the PEOPLE want. The agenda is NOT clear when it should ALWAYS be clear that we take care of our own. I agree with that wholeheartedly. 

There is a lot to do to reform this country and strip the veneer of respectability from criminal elites. But first we have to commit to: truth, impartiality, competence, and an agenda that puts our safety and wellbeing first.

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All opinions my own.

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