There’s always one in every group and our harmonica master class was no different. Each time the instructor would ask if there were any questions, “That Guy” would raise his hand.
“Little Walter was the best. And I read somewhere he used a 1940’s Astatic taxi dispatcher’s microphone. So I tracked one of those mics down and spent a fortune tweaking it but I still can’t get his tone.”
“Yeah,” instructor David Barrett answered. “Little Walter was famous for playing whatever mics he stumbled upon. But even if you could find one of the actual mics he played through it won’t help you sound like Walter did.”
Barrett went back to his instruction but eventually “That Guy” raised his hand again.
“I Goggled vintage tube amps and found that Junior Wells used Word War Two Czechoslovakian vacuum tubes that he plugged in out of sequence. I bought some really expensive dead stock tubes on EBay but my amp doesn’t sound any better.”
“I don’t know what specific tubes Wells used,” Barrett answered, a little more annoyed this time. “But there are online sites with schematics of all the different permutations you can try but I don’t think any of them will help you sound like Jr. Wells.”
Barrett returned to the subject at hand. Before too long, “That Guy” stuck his hand up again.
“Someone told me that the best players like Walter Horton used to soak their harmonicas in vodka and that would change their tone. Could I…”
A few years after that my friend Soren came into a little windfall. With the money burning a hole in his pocket he went to his favorite golf store. He told the old man behind the counter that he had this gift money and wanted to spend it on golf. He couldn’t decide between new drivers, a titanium putter, or a new bag and shoes. The old man eyed him suspiciously for a minute and then asked what he wanted to accomplish.
“I want to be a better golfer.” Soren said proudly.
“You want to be the best? Put the money back in your pocket, go to the golf course and take some lessons.”
Last week I went to FootWorks and treated myself to the awesome new Garmin 620 running watch I’ve been lusting over. Besides telling time, distance, caloric consumption, and pace, it will also monitor my V02 intake, running cadence, ground contact time, and even my vertical oscillation (whatever the hell that means). It’s the best running watch out there. There’s only one problem. It doesn’t make me run any faster.
Neither do the new SmartWool PhD light micro running socks I got. They’re the best — super comfortable, incredibly moisture-wicking, and have cool red and blue speed lines that make them look fast even when I’m standing still. Only trouble is that after I put them on I finished my run at the same speed as I did with my old cotton socks.
Even my brand new Adidas running shoes didn’t help. Yeah, they’ve got lightweight cushioning, firm heel cup support, and are the same shoes Meb Keflezighi wore when he won the New York Marathon. Hell, he won Boston in 2014 with a best time of 2:08:37, less than half my marathon pace. But even with Meb’s shoes on my feet I just don’t go any faster.
When I told the guy in the cycling store who was fitting my road bike that I was embarrassed it didn’t compare to the best 16 pound, $12,000 carbon fiber masterpieces he was used to working on, he looked up slowly and said, “It’s not the length of the spear, it’s the strength of the hunter.”
It’s not the rock star’s vintage Stratocaster, it’s not the ace’s tennis racket, it’s not the celebrity chef’s ceramic knife, it’s not the hotshot lawyer’s $8,000 Brioni suit, it’s not the starchitect’s CAD/Cam program, it’s not the super agent’s Jimmy Choos. It’s not the Pulitzer Prize winner’s SLR, it’s not the Emmy winner’s laptop, it’s not the successful marriage’s diamond ring, it’s not the happy child’s Christmas gift, and it sure as hell ain’t my running shoes. And it’s not yours, either.
But when you finally do figure out what it’s not you will also know exactly what it is.
Until then, click HERE.
Last week, Melissa Francis at FOX Business did a story on BuzzFeed’s review of fast food marketing. The site created a sliding scale format that compared the pictures of fast food presented in advertising with the actual items you’d be handed across the counter. Even though there’s a big disconnect between what you see and what you get, that didn’t stop advertisers from presenting idealized versions of their products.
Of course this is nothing new. For years advertising agencies have created compelling personas for their clients and their products to position them to be as compelling as possible to their customers. But even in the best of times this practice was only thought to be about 50% effective. As legendary retailer John Wanamaker said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
Despite all the advances the industry has made in the century since Wanamaker uttered those famous words, the situation has only gotten worse. Today many retailers and other marketers are finding that simply saying what their customers want to hear just doesn’t work anymore.
While the reason is uncomplicated, the causes are very complex. But simply put, we don’t decide who we are, the market does. In the old days (read pre-Internet) it was relatively easy to craft a brand personality that matched what the market wanted without having to worry that you’d be found out if your persona wasn’t consistent with your true identity. After all, consumers — even those who had been deceived and disappointed by products that didn’t deliver what they promised — had no effective way of reaching out and letting the world know how they were treated. But today the Internet and its ever-present suite of social media sites allow almost anyone to broadcast their occurrences, observations, and opinions to millions and millions of consumers regardless of geography or budgets.
In those old days, many companies used to hire advertising agencies to fashion their brand positioning simply because they didn’t have the guts to be true to their own authentic selves. But as we’ve seen, that was before consumers carried web-enabled smartphones and had the ability to instantly share their experiences with the world. Today aggressive marketing companies cannot game the system simply because ubiquitous and instantaneous online accountability won’t stand for it.
Today’s marketers must make a bold declaration consistent with what they believe and who they really are and get serious about changing their behavior, policies, procedures, and teams to reinforce this powerful declaration. Otherwise they will continue to hide behind advertising because they want to shift responsibility and not be accountable.
In simple terms, today leadership equals marketing.
All of this brings up a question that we’ve all struggled with, both personally and professionally: “Who am I?” And while the Greeks asked this question as far back as the 10th century – even inscribing it on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) – most modern companies and business people do not know their answer.
Unfortunately, not knowing what a person or company truly stands for does not stop marketers from generating an inaccurate racket. But activity does not necessarily result in productivity. Or as the warrior philosopher Sun-Tzu put it, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
Last week we talked about what happens when critics judge new ideas too quickly and often risk sentencing great ideas to obscurity; in that case, Airbnb’s new logo that was compared to “certain female anatomy.” (Branding Gone Wrong) But what happens when the creative process is killed before great solutions can even be developed?
This is what apparently happened when North Star Destination Strategies, a Nashville-based tourism branding firm, was first hired by City of Clearwater, Florida staff and subsequently fired by Vice Mayor Doreen Hock-DiPolito (Read more HERE) because they created a sexist logo.
Negotiations were almost complete and North Star was about to be retained to create a brand identity for the community, when Hock-DiPolito learned about a branding job the company had done for a Florida economic organization.
“It’s very male-oriented and does a disservice to women who own businesses,” Hock-DiPolito said of the logo On Ideas in Jacksonville designed for Enterprise Florida after North Star completed their research. Specifically, the logo presented the word “Florida” in green except for the letter “i” that was depicted as a man’s necktie. Hock-DiPolito said she was concerned about the “company’s apparent sexist attitude toward women.”
To be fair, I don’t think the logo is very good to begin with. But whether or not you agree that the mark was a sexist logo, the bigger question is whether or not one participant’s opinion — in this case Hock-DiPolito’s — is an appropriate reason for the firm to be passed over. While it’s possible that the iconography does suggest a male business slant, it could just as easily be argued that in today’s business casual environment, a necktie simply represents a traditional or serious business attitude. And further, nobody involved has any idea whether or not the decision makers at Enterprise Florida asked for a logo with a necktie in it in the first place.
Look at this logo designed by Herb Lubalin for Families magazine in 1980. At the time it was created it presented a perfect representation of a family inside the word family itself. Thanks to its elegance, simplicity, strong messaging, and impeccable graphics, this mark is one of my favorites and a piece I return to whenever I need inspiration. But by today’s standards it would be pretty easy to argue that Lubalin’s Families masthead is a sexist logo and inappropriate simply because it shows a taller person (insensitively representing a male father), a shorter person (a possibly sexist view of a shorter female mother) and a single child (don’t get me started!).
So what does this logo say about families with same-sex parents?
How about childless families?
How about blended families with many more children?
How about same-height parents? How would this logo make them feel?
Apple? Isn’t the once-bitten apple the symbol for original sin? Does that mean that religiously observant believers should buy their computers and smartphones elsewhere?
Chevy? Their bowtie logo is clearly a symbol of masculinity. Does Clearwater Vice Mayor Hock-DiPolito find Chevy’s mark unacceptable also?
Starbucks? The Lady Godiva mermaid woman is topless for Pete’s sake. Does that mean men aren’t welcome? How about mastectomy survivors?
Truly offensive logos such as The Washington Redskins’ have no place in today’s increasingly tolerant and democratic society. No matter how you try to defend it (and regardless of how long it’s been in use) the title “Redskin” is an offensive slur against Native Americans that must be changed.
But to neuter the power of symbolism, and the people who create those symbols, simply because someone doesn’t understand what the symbol represents is an egregious overreaction and sets a dangerous precedent for mediocrity.
After all, even Sigmund Freud agreed, “A cigar is sometimes just a cigar.”
Airbnb, the online vacation rental service that now controls more hotel rooms than all of the major hotel companies combined, introduced a new logo last week. The response from the blogosphere and myriad branding experts” was immediate and negative.
Apparently, the responses were so bad that Fortune magazine titled their article on the fiasco, “Branding gone wrong: When bad logos strike back.” Besides Airbnb, the article also highlighted the criticism around new branding initiatives from Tropicana, Gap, JC Penny, and Starbucks – amongst their gallery of “branding gone wrong.” Of course, the title, and specifically the reference to “bad logos” clearly established the author’s own opinion and instantly moved the story from observational reporting to editorial commentary. Because regardless of whether the logos turn out to be successful examples of branding or not, and regardless of how the companies and their publics responded, being lumped under the title “…bad logos…” pretty much stops any reasonable conversation before it even begins.
According to the article, “Vacation rental service Airbnb unveiled a new logo last week that generated a wave of criticism for its design. Some likened it to a triangular paperclip or, even more crudely, to certain female anatomy. But the company still stands by the logo… ‘It’s a symbol for people who want to welcome into their home new experiences, new cultures, and new conversations,’ Airbnb said on its blog. Well, maybe if you squint,” sniffed the author.
Unfortunately for both Airbnb and the readers of Fortune magazine, neither the reporter nor the public is actually qualified to decide whether the logo is good or not. Sure, immediate public outcry can put a lot of pressure on a company’s CEO and marketing department and can even cause its board to forgo the new branding initiatives and crawl back to the comfortable old, folding like a lawn chair under the onslaught of negativity. But just because the first responses are loud and critical doesn’t make them correct.
Steve Jobs said that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” However, even Jobs left out the critical notion that some new things simply require time before people can see and accept their true value. The practice of disparaging the new until it becomes accepted as breakthrough—and inevitably a beloved part of the status quo—is a common trope in the history of art and innovation. In 1889, the intelligentsia of France, including Guy de Maupassant, Alexander Dumas, Emile Zola, Charles Gounod, and Paul Verlaine signed a letter of protest that read in part, “We, the writers, painters, sculptors, architects and lovers of the beauty of Paris, do protest with all our vigor and all our indignation, in the name of French taste and endangered French art and history, against the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.”
A few years before that John Ruskin wrote of Beethoven’s music: “Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsettings of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.”
And even Paul Cézanne, the post-impressionist master Picasso and Matisse both said was “the father of us all,” was disparaged in his day. In 1877, the artist showcased a collection of his paintings to so much criticism that he vowed to never exhibit his work again. Many people are afraid of things they can’t yet understand but quick as a mob of angry villagers to light their torches and storm their metaphorical Frankenstein’s castle. Unfortunately, by the time cooler heads prevail it’s often too late to save the delicate and beautiful new idea trampled under the rioters’ hobnail boots.
I’m not predicting that Airbnb’s new logo, or any new branding idea that faces initial scorn, will ever prove to have the staying power of an Eiffel, a Beethoven, or a Cézanne. What I am suggesting is that if we judge too quickly we not only run the risk of killing ahead-of-their-time concepts that might otherwise prove to be masterpieces, but we also rob ourselves—and the world—of the potential power of a great new idea.
I was sitting in the audience at the The National Speakers Association annual meeting listening to Jay Baer, the author of the social media how-to guide, Youtility, talk about how to promote blogs. After hearing Jay list many of the things I’ve been doing with this blog for years, I elbowed my seat neighbor Scott Halford in the ribs and rolled my eyes.
“Now I’m really bummed about my blog,” I whispered.
“What are you bummed about?” Scott asked. “Your blog’s great.”
“That’s the problem,” I answered. “I’m not unhappy because my blog is bad. I’m unhappy because it’s good.”
Scott made a face that said I was crazy and turned back to listen to the speaker.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’”
“If you want to be a thought leader, market leader, or change the world – you have to give up the need to be liked. Telling people what they want to hear makes you popular. Telling people what they need to hear makes you relevant, empowering, and significant.”
Relevant, empowering, and significant. THAT’S what I want my blog to be. Come to think of it, that’s what I want my professional advice to be. That’s what I want my parental advice to be. Hell, that’s what I want to be. Relevant, empowering, significant.
Looking at it through that lens it should be pretty easy to figure out what to write next, what to design next, what to do next. Being relevant, empowering, and significant means that the ideas that are shooting around through my head need to be creative and focused and delivered in such a way that they matter to others simply because they matter.
Being relevant, empowering, and significant means that social expediency has to take a back seat to real-world usefulness. It means we need to speak our truth even when covering it up might be the easier thing to do. It means we have to be willing to suffer the slings and arrows – literal AND figurative – that the others who don’t want to hear our message might fling our way.
Being relevant, empowering, and significant means that we have to strangle our circumspect misgivings, the ones that ask Williamson’s question, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” and answer it with her second question, “Who (am I) NOT to be?”
Being relevant, empowering, and significant means we have to stand up and deliver what we know to be right – even when we’re not so sure that anyone wants to hear it. Because the alternative is unacceptable. Because the alternative trades momentary comfort for eternal uselessness. Because the alternative opens the door to the darkness.
Being relevant, empowering, and significant means that we have to accept the importance of what we do, think, and feel and move forward with the true conviction of belief even when we’re not entirely sure we are actually strong enough to believe in the first place.
Morita, Baer, Williamson, Gage, and so many others are trying to show us the path to being relevant, empowering, and significant. All we have to do is take it.
Eggs used to be good for you. Along with some crispy bacon and toast with butter, they were part of a healthy breakfast – or so they said. Then all of a sudden eggs were bad for you. Too much cholesterol. Then the yellows were bad for you but the whites were good. Now our perception is that eggs are good for you again.
For hundreds of thousands of years, before systemized agriculture, early humans lived on animal fats and proteins. Granted, we didn’t live much past 45 years old because the world was an inhospitable place back then. But sometime around the middle to end of the last century, meats – and specifically animal fats – were deemed bad for us. Nutritionists and physicians alike recommended a diet high in whole grains and low in fat. Unfortunately, after almost 40 years of this diet, obesity rates are higher than ever and we’re starting to hear that the culprit is carbohydrate – white sugar and white flour mostly, but also the formerly deified whole grains.
All of a sudden animal protein and fats are back. And nutritionists and food writers from Nina Teicholz to Gary Taubes are falling all over themselves to recommend a return to the high fat, low-fiber diets our grandparents ate. Marbled meats, butter and cream, offal, and even bacon, are making their dramatic return on trendy menus and people’s plates.
It’s good for you. It’s bad for you. It’s good for you. It’s bad for you. Wait, now it’s good for you again. How can anyone be expected to know what they should be eating, especially when the perception is that the experts don’t know either?
The pendulum of political viewpoints and solutions, too, swings from apex to apex – collecting acolytes and fanatics along the way. These folks build their worldview on the hearsay and unproven theories that appeal to them the most. They often spout personal opinions disguised as empirical evidence and use the unsubstantiated historical references they believe confirm their beliefs. If you’ve tried to have a conversation with someone who’s firmly set in their ways and lives in the reassuring echo chamber of media sources that support their dogmatic perceptions, you know it’s an exercise in futility. After all, you can’t logically talk someone out of something they didn’t logically talk themselves into.
As Patrick Daniel Moynihan famously said, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” But as we’ve seen, the problems start when viewpoints are presented as facts and perception becomes confused with truth.
This comingling of fact and fiction gets even worse in the arena of public opinion where perception serves as reality. The history of marketing is littered with examples of better products that didn’t succeed because of the perceived value of their competitors. Betamax lost to VHS even thought the former was technologically superior. Post (and pre) Jobs Apple almost lost to IBM even though the product was more advanced. GM’s Saturn — “A different kind of car company, a different kind of car” — went the way of the dodo bird as did Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Saab because the perception of their brand value couldn’t compete in the marketplace.
What’s both beneficial and dangerous about perception is how powerfully it drives our actions. Physicians and pharmacists have long accepted the placebo and nocebo effect, where patients respond positively to the medicines they believe will help them regardless of the content of the actual drugs they’re taking.
Consumers buy based on perception. Voters vote based on perception, too. Public opinion shifts based on numerous factors, many of which have no actual basis in function or reality but still affect business and political outcomes in very real and consequential ways.
As our worlds become more and more digital and increasingly separated from physical realities, what is evident is that perception, and the ability to harness and control perception, is becoming more important than ever. And in a world of constantly changing recommendations and advice, consumers are looking for things they can believe in and thought leaders they can trust. They’re looking for the sense of Tribal Equity™ that reassures them that their perceptions are right, the world is secure and their direction is correct.
Even if they’re not so sure about eating eggs.
We jogged past the Matheson Hammock tidal basin and reached the bay just as half of the giant sun poked above the horizon and Biscayne Bay reflected a brilliant orange carpet straight to the shore. Neither Bob, Tim nor I had our phones with us so the scene will have to live in our memories exactly the way it seared across our optic nerves.
Of course we’re all old enough to be okay with that. But if we were millennials the experience might not have had much value if we couldn’t upload it to our favorite social media sites. It’s sort of the 21st century version of the old riddle about a tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it: If something great happens to you and you can’t post it on Facebook did it really happen?
Millennials are searching for authenticity and reality and some of that need is satisfied when they share their lives online. But I think this also heralds a larger phenomenon that we are all feeling – regardless of age.
A host of realities have combined (conspired?) to change the world we live in so quickly, so profoundly, and so comprehensively that many of us are still wandering around wondering why our old habits no longer succeed. Quite simply, a lot of the old techniques that once assured personal and professional success simply don’t pay off anymore.
If you’ve experienced any of these situations, you’re probably wondering what to do to build — or rebuild — the business you want. What is becoming clearer is that today’s consumer is looking for ways to find authenticity and real passion in a world full of digitally homogenized pabulum. The answer is what we’ve discussed so many times before in this blog — that is that while a good brand makes people feel good, a great brand makes people feel good about themselves. Consumers want brands that deliver what they promise while also delivering a good dose of positive experiences. This is the concept of Tribal Equity™, the value of a person or organization’s identity to the tribe(s) that matter most to them.
In the case of brand phenom Harley-Davidson, senior vice president and chief marketing officer Mark-Hans Richer told The New York Times this about the iconic motorcycle’s fist electric vehicle: “To be a true Harley… it has to be cool. It has to make you feel something important about yourself.” When asked about the technical descriptions Richer added, “We’re not getting into spec wars at this time. The point is how you feel riding it.”
The way to create this feeling is to deliver the true essence of what it is you or your company provides. Harley’s Tribal Signature™ is not a trumped up, over-hyped, generic facsimile manufactured to be all things to all people, but their simple truth. What people want is what they get from the artisans at their farmers’ market, the engineers at Tesla, the musicians in The E-Street Band, the chefs in that exciting new food truck, the software engineers at Adobe, the athletes on the US soccer team, the pilots in the Blue Angels, and yes, the gear heads at Harley-Davidson. The truth.
If it’s just another product, consumers may or may not work harder to get it, may or may not spend more to buy it, and probably won’t pursue it if it’s not readily available online. These products or services may in fact cost more and you may have to work harder to get them (walk down the alley, wait in line, get on a waiting list…whatever). But consumers will pay more and work harder to get it because that’s what the magnet of truth does.
Lucky for you, it’s already there. Like the rising sun we enjoyed this morning, your truth already exists, hidden in plain sight. All you have to do is figure out how to identify it and develop it. The rest is easy. If you’re interested in learning how to do it, stick around. I’ll address that soon.
Did you see what China just did? Amidst cries of outrage and scads of adverse attention, they managed to shift the negative news they’ve been receiving away from their cultural and politically significant aggression and toward fuzzy pandas.
After all, everyone loves pandas.
According to a spokesperson for China Conservation and Research Center, authorities worry that the swarm of people and cameras watching the animals prognosticate could endanger them.
It was reported that the pandas were expected to call matches by “either picking food from bowls marked with the national colors of competing teams, or by scaling trees flying certain flags.” What’s more, the South China Morning Post suggested that the pandas “would take part in races wearing the vests of different nations to predict winning teams.”
Remember all the press China was receiving for completely obliterating coverage of June 4th’s 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest? The New York Times wrote that “even by the standards of the clampdowns that routinely mark politically sensitive dates in China… the anniversary of the day in 1989 when soldiers brutally ended student-led protests in Tiananmen Square has been particularly severe.”
How about China’s amusing shenanigans in the South China Sea? According to Reuters, Vietnam is protesting Chinese oilrigs and drilling in waters traditionally claimed by the smaller country. The conflict began when a Chinese rig was installed 150 miles off the coast of Vietnam. Hanoi says that the platform is within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and on its continental shelf. China has said the rig is operating completely within its waters. But then China claims dominance over the entire South China Sea, including areas that the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan all claim are within their territorial waters as well.
So which do you think creates more newsworthy photo-ops?
Taciturn Chinese soldiers or fuzzy pandas? How about energy workers in oil-stained slickers or giant puffball bears? Clearly the old magician’s sleight of hand works exceedingly well in public relations (PR).
And it’s not just China. Which do you prefer?
Brazil’s teeming favela slums and Amazon deforestation or exciting World Cup soccer action?
Cable companies push for monopolistic net neutrality or new seasons of Game of Thrones and House of Cards?
Misdirection is a classic PR strategy – used whenever seasoned practitioners need to distract their audiences’ attention away from what matters to what titillates.
Just like a catastrophic weather event can push a political scandal off the front page, manufactured events—planned or not—can do the same thing.
Remember rancher Cliven Bundy’s anti-government rebellion and racist screeds? They were mercifully supplanted by Donald Sterling’s not so sterling tongue, which was in turn pushed off of the front pages by the Washington Redskins’ baseless defense of their unfortunate name that all but disappeared in the wake the basketball championships.
Pay attention the next time the media starts foaming at the mouth over a “storm of the century” flood, earthquake or hurricane. If you carefully peruse the financial news, you’ll see announcements of reduced earnings, massive layoffs or automotive recalls. Companies actually wait for these unfortunate events to slip their bad news out to an otherwise distracted audience.
And when there’s no storm, celebrity divorce or other scandal to provide an appropriate smokescreen, the creative PR practitioner can always count on pandas.