Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Value in Mistakes, Part III

This may not be the last dispatch on the matter of mistakes. The issue seems to be everywhere, confirming a point we made at Fallon’s Trendpoint blog back on Valentine’s Day in 2007 (be cautious what one seeks for one may find it everywhere.

Arden’s book is not new (2006) but we venture to say is a timely read, whatever people are dealing with. The perspectives it offers up are short and pithy, so much so that their wisdoms can be missed, over-looked in the brevity of expression. It’s worth lingering on them.

We all need a dose of inspiration from time to time and this slim book is just the thing. It provides a healthy shot of provocation, and challenges the reader not to follow the conventional path, however reassuring and familiar is might feel.

A worthy addition to anyone’s modest library. It’s not a book you read from cover to cover. It’s value comes from dipping – and being pleasantly surprised at how germane the lessons fit the times.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Candy as Customizable Communications Medium

OFD reported a missed opportunity at Red Envelope recently. While its printed collar stays won a prestigious award for marketing audacity, buyers are unable to personalize the message upon this otherwise ingenious communications medium.

m&ms have seized the opportunity and are executing it flawlessly, as a trip to their website reveals. They see candy as communications medium, with a wide variety of occasions suggested to commemorate with the brand. Furthermore, they enable the visitor to add up to two lines of text to each of two m&ms as well as pick two colors.

The digital rendering on the m&m's is superb, particularly the application of a chosen color which drips down the face of each candy shell as if it were liquid paint. The three dimensional perspective along with the terrific sheen makes for an incredibly motivating presentation.

Of course, there are limits on what is fit to print, especially on candy. Any words that are deemed inappropriate do not appear on the candy canvas and the visitor is advised why the request has not been met. Our intrepid researcher found two words which had slipped through the editorial net - shag and wank - though it's hard to imagine how either would be welcomed sentiments for expressing a valentine's message.

People want to be more involved in their purchases today, they want to create and collaborate in what they buy and what they give. Red Envelope could take heed of this timely advice.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Science that could be mistaken for an Onion headline

Looks like the folks at Live Science beat the Onion to it.

Well known for faux headlines that state the obvious, the way Live Science's summarize the findings from a recent study comes very close:

Emotional wiring Different in Women and Men.

We at OFD agree that there is something of the absurdly obvious to this statement. Well, when science can't tell us what we know already, at least it can tell us why. Clusters of neurons processing experiences hook up to contrasting brain functions in men and women.

With men the cluster "talks with" brain regions that help them respond to sensors for what's going on outside the body, such as the visual cortex and an area that coordinates motor actions. This skill comes in handy, especially in many of today's dense urban settlements, where parking in a tight spot can be a challenge.

With women the cluster communicates with brain regions that help them respond to sensors inside the body, such as the insular cortex and hypothalamus. These areas tune in to and regulate women's hormones, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion and respiration. Their connection to these vital bodily functions over the course of a lifetime might have a hand in why they live longer than men.

"Throughout evolution, women have had to deal with a number of internal stressors, such as childbirth, that men haven't had to experience," said study co-author Larry Cahill of the University of California Irvine. "What is fascinating about this is the brain seems to have evolved to be in tune with those different stressors."

Next time we're inclined to be frustrated by an emotional display of a spouse, partner of friend, it would be good to consider that perhaps it really might be something out of their control, shaped not only by biology but millennia of evolutionary adaptation and interaction with our environment, more cultural and social than perhaps physical in this instance.

Monday, January 28, 2008

150 years apart, Goldrushes exhibit startling similarities

There was plenty of gold in 1849, it just wasn’t to be found where most people were looking for it. It was the outfitters that amassed huge wealth, equipping those heading out west to try to make their fortune, fueling their hopes and dreams in the process.

And so it was with the heady dot-com days of the late 90s. It too was a goldrush, a wild frontier in which clients had a dizzying almost panicky appetite for building websites to ensure the presence of their companies and their brands on the web. Of course, few made fortunes as a consequence of their money changing hands. Like their counterparts the century before them it was the interactive shops - outfitters in a technological realm – who lined their pockets.

Things don’t last though. One hundred and 50 years apart, most of enterprises that fed the ambitions of the hungry and made money when the going was good, themselves went out of business, like MarchFIRST.

Check out the ghost sites of interactive companies who have expired. They could fill a grave yard.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Mistake Culture - confirmation without even looking

It was not more than two days ago that OFD shared its perspective on the value and place that mistakes can have in learning and creativity. We lamented how closed our society is to making mistakes, how ingrained it is in our cultural mindset that making mistakes is singular a 'bad' thing.

The folks at OFD could not prevent ourselves smiling at the irony of having this confirmed the next day in two separate parts of the same paper, the print version of the LA Times on Thursday January 24th, 2008.

The first is courtesy of the Cal State System's Chancellor. His belief reinforces the popularly held misconception that mistakes should ideally occur infrequently, underscoring the idea that they are something to be avoided.

"I make a few mistakes once in a while. But I try to fix them and not make them again." Charles Reed

The second one comes from an interview with the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic who also speaks to the idea of mistakes as something to be avoided.

"The carnage brought about by conflict resulting in war is too horrendous to consider, and yet human beings are almost incapable of learning from their mistakes we made in the past, and go on repeating them." Lorin Maazel

As the context of Maazel's commentary attests, there are situations in which making mistakes are unequivocally a bad thing. There is clearly a place for a desire to avoid repetition to be attached to the concept of mistake. The issue we at OFD have however is that this currently too firmly and exclusively anchors the popularly held conception of what a 'mistake' is.

Here's how OFD envisions the dimensions of mistake. It's not meant to be definitive, just a starting point for discussion, development and, we hope, change in the perceived value of mistakes.

Lamenting the Loss of the Heath Ledger Brand

The news and discussion of Heath Leger’s untimely death have been spreading across the internet like wildfire. Developments of the story in media properties and social networking sites have been literally unavoidable in the past 24 hours.

As has now become customary, a makeshift memorial tribute of flowers and messages has been accumulating outside his NYC apartment, left by people struggling to cope with this lost and needing an understandable outlet to express their grief.

For those not able to make the pilgrimage in person, a digital forum fulfills the same purpose. The LA Times printed a collection of tributes that Ledger fans left on-line with the newspaper.

One would expect to find expressions of regret, gratitude and sympathy in the excerpts selected for publication. In addition there were four key themes which threaded throughout the sentiments:

The allusion to celebrity as role model: “You taught us so much”

The importance of immortality: “You will live in your films for ever”

Religious conversion: “At times like this I hope heaven really does exist”

Literally saying goodbye: “I loved watching your films”….”You will never be forgotten”

Even as a microcosm, this collection of comments represents a fascinating glimpse at one aspect of the human condition. Struggling with loss is one of the most challenging of all human experiences. It tends to push us to abandon the normal deportment we typically have and adopt different measures and positions that otherwise do not fit either fundamental knowledge we have or the holistic values we hold.

People know Heath is dead and that he cannot hear them. Yet they continue to address him directly and personally, as if in conversation (as the above quotes illustrate). The anthropologist in our midst understands this behavior as the triumph of hope and spirit over unassailable fact. We are prepared to suspend what we know to be true for the desire to connect with someone we cherish. It is also in its own way a refusal to accept death as a consuming dominion, as the Welsh writer and poet Dylan Thomas laments in Under Milk Wood.

It is facing fear and uncertainty that also evokes statements of hope that are expressed as absolute statements of fact. It makes us feel better to make confident pronouncements at this time, even though we may not normally do this is our daily lives.

It is easy to see how much the Heath Ledger brand was admired, valued and will be missed. How many real world product and service brands would have such fond attachments and be so sorely missed if they were expire and depart this world? It’s not a ridiculous thought: brands well crafted are multi-dimensional constructs with distinctly human properties and qualities (which makes the more successful ones inspire human attachment).

Getting consumer workshop and focus group participants to write a Brand Epitaph can be a revealing exercise. Often, the ambivalence can be quite shocking for Brand Managers to hear, but remains a timely wake-up call nonetheless.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Do you have the courage to make mistakes?

It goes beyond the realm of the merely unfortunate or ironic. A significant enduring impediment to progress is the reluctance to makes mistakes. The stigma exists as much in commerce as well as popular culture at large.

The explanation for this sorry state of affairs is simple. Mistakes are wrongly viewed by society as failures. Failures make people feel bad. In the 'feel-good' obsessed culture of a fragile-ego era, people want to be associated with successes.
Two important misunderstandings are being perpetuated here.

First, that failure is itself a bad thing. There is value in trying a course of action that does not yield a positive outcome. Appreciation of it however has been lost. How few of us really embrace Edison's edict that it took him 999 failed attempts to make a light-bulb before getting it right? The value of 'failure' goes beyond its device of eliminating possibility therefore narrowing the field for ultimate success; it is that often it is only through not succeeding that a true lesson is understood and a deeper appreciation of fundamental concepts is gained.

The second misconception is that mistakes are bad. Creative potential exists outside of intentions. Many discoveries have been made from the unexpected or unanticipated combination of elements or conditions. In short, they provide a tantalizing glimpse at previously undiscovered bodies of knowledge that have found by stumbling upon them. There is collective amnesia is work here and it is odd: many major accomplishments and creative break-throughs have come from mistakes yet they go unrecognized or unremembered.

In the right hands, or minds, mistakes can be a source of valuable creative possibility. Scott Adams sums the idea succinctly:

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

Challenge for the day: take a mistake as an opportunity to look at a situation from a fresh perspective, one that could not have been planned. Interrogate what factors are operating or climate influences are in play that are condemning an idea or act as a 'mistake'. Perhaps it brings into question the validity of the operating principles themselves and unlocks new opportunities that previously would not have been seen?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Duel insights fuel smoking cessation campaign

A current effort by Nicoderm CN uses two different but complementary ways to get its message to resonate with smokers.

The first is the addressing the sense of guilt that many smokers who want to quit feel simply because they can't. Endured several failed attempts only deepens the shame. People are frequently harsh and disproportionately blame themselves for situations that are not all their own doing. As the compelling on-line banners point out, the brain has a mind of it's own. Realizing this and accepting it invites would-be quitters that it isn't all their doing, and that there's a formidable force to overcome with the right help. It's encouraging and one imagines a welcome perspective.

The second approach recognizes that we are all to some degree vain and care about our looks. By linking smoking to the effects it has on the beauty overall and the face in a variety of specific ways, it seeks to connect with the audience on an issue that they have strong interest and motivation for, rather than trying to persuade people to stop smoking using the rational appeal to health.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Using sex appeal to promote charitable giving

There's an effort underway by sfconnect to encourage people to volunteer their time for a variety of different charitable ends. While the initiative is a worthwhile one, the overt use of - and appeal to - sexiness is a mistake.

One version of the bus shelter posters features a young woman with ample bosom wearing a t-shirt which reads "Volunteering is sexy". It's supported by her coy expression and suggestive stance.

Using sexuality to promote products and services can certainly be effective in some categories: cars, perfume, jewelery and liquor to name a few. The question is whether in this kind of situation, and for this purpose, it is the right thing to do.

Encouraging people to volunteer because it might make them appear sexy sends a poor message about the values of sfconnect. It draws upon a societal convention and in doing so reinforces a bias. Our basis for peer respect and likeability should be based on something more tangible and substantial than 'how we look'. Even if 'sexy' is being used in a less literal and more euphemistic way, it is still suggesting that motivation for donating time and effort be undertaken not for one's own reason, but for how it will look to others.

Charity organizations really should aspire to a higher standard in their efforts to grow its volunteer franchise.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Winner of the John Fenton Award for Audacious Marketing

OFD is proud to announce a new annual award that recognizes audacity in marketing practice.

Named after John Fenton, the legendary English salesman who is able to craft the most compelling pitch in the sale of the almost unthinkable (sand to Arabs, ice to Eskimos) the 2008 award goes to Red Envelope.

What garnered the 2008 accolade is its promotion of love notes embossed on collar stays, those thin rectangular, removable strips that fit in the underside of shirt collars in order to keep them straight and firm.

It is a stroke of inspiration to identify this unused piece of real estate. It is a stroke of genius to create utility and value for space that overcomes the medium’s biggest challenge – it remains permanently out of sight.

Red Envelope does it by using the affection-expressive ritual of Valentines Day. This is a context in which the value in sharing personal sentiments is only heightened by being hidden from others. It succeeds in transforming what was a purely functional accessory into a medium of communication that carries meaning.

The spin that the salesmanship takes is an interesting one:

“Why settle for tucking love notes in his briefcase when you can deliver a message of love from much closer range?”

If it’s proximity one is going for, one wonders why Red Envelope does not also promote love notes on underwear. This would seem an ideal opportunity to create a line of merchandising targeting women: “I wish I was here” for example on a thong would give a girl a lift to wear all day. Women do after all intimately understand the psychology of wearing something no one else knows about: the entire lingerie category is grounded in this principle.

Our advice for Red Envelope: make the love notes customizable. This is the age of consumer sovereignty and personalization. The raciest of the pre-defined messages – ‘That tie will be useful’ - is really too tame in today’s age.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Advertising taglines - a taxonomy

Taglines are one of the simpler brand positioning tools available. While a tagline can be used for a variety of purposes, its foremost value is to encapsulate a brand position into concise and compelling consumer terms. Incidentally, the reversal of this process is a short-hand way to construct a competitive brand landscape: the strategic territory a brand occupies or its core focus can be derived from its consumer oriented tagline expression (though a more rigorous approach is to deconstruct advertising in the category).

OFD conducted some tagline research recently to see what would be gleaned from the way marketers are using this positioning tool. The day was December 27th, 2007. The stimulus was British daily newspaper The Independent. A comprehensive assortment of taglines from the paper were collected for analysis.


1. There was a heavy preponderance of company-oriented statements which surprised our panel. Sentiments focused on the consumer are much more likely to resonate with their needs and desired. This is the basic premise of authentic marketing after all: the focus is on the consumer, not the company in a self-serving, self-absorbed way.

2. There was a distinct lack of sparkle, creativity or imagination. This is a wasted opportunity to make a memorable impression, however small and fleeting.

3. Most of the taglines were generic and vague. The fact that most were not unique suggests by extension that these brands' positions are also not unique, which raises an even bigger strategic concern. Sustainable differentiation is critical across all points of contact for a brand, in every category.

Our favorite: Holiday Inn. Behind every great discovery is a Holiday Inn. This does it all: It's consumer oriented, suggests a compelling, credible benefit in an imaginative way. Furthermore, it's ownable and consonant with the brand at large. Great Job! To the other brands, you have work to do to improve your positioning clarity, either in tagline expression or fundamental strategic design.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Why the 'wink' in advertising is so important

Achieving advertising effectiveness has never been harder.

It starts with advertising being an interruption, since most of it is experienced unsolicited. That's not too hard to overcome. After all, we engage with advertising as an implicit contract: it's an agreement to give our time and attention to an advertiser's pitch - and subject ourselves to its manipulative intent for which it has been designed - in return for a reward. That reward must have utility such as information value, or entertain us.

The biggest challenge facing advertisers stems from how literate and skeptical audiences today are about marketing practices. Communications that contain 'marketing speak' and which sound and feel like advertising are viewed as deliberate ploy, and people engage with them differently. Any openness to believe the honesty of the message diminishes quickly. People's defenses are raised and rational scrutiny is deployed, the twin fears of the folks in ad land.

This is why the wink is so important in today's marketing climate.

The wink is a tacit way the advertiser can remain connected and in allegiance with an otherwise jaded audience. It serves to affirm (through an act or gesture not a direct appeal) that "Hey, we're not taking ourselves too seriously...we're just having some fun" and so seeks to lessen the defenses and objections that lay in the way of a person's openness to believe the message.

Case in point, the current Verizon commercial in which alongside business people, the network size is personified as a huge throng of verizon employees all sitting on chairs, completely filling up a large room. At the end the commercial, as the 'network' people are shuffling out of the room, one of them turns to the Verizon "Can you hear me know?" spokesperson and says "Next time, we need more chairs". Speaking to the artifice, the suspended disbelief of the creative construct, it does much to convey an honesty and transparency on behalf of the advertiser. It makes us feel there's a good human quality to these folks, which helps to positively dispose us to the message, whatever it is.

Another example is a Dove Shampoo commercial from 2005 below. The wink at the end (which we won't spoil) does a superb job of showing the audience that the brand is not taking itself too seriously, softens us up and helps make us more amenable to the idea it is promoting. By being playful, we are more prepared to over-look the fact that the event is very evidently staged and interpret it for what it is - beautiful storytelling through an engaging metaphor.

So, consider using a little wink in the right context to raise the cut-through effectiveness of your communications.

A practitioner's perspectives on branding Universities for success

A response to Brandchannels January 14th piece Two schools of thought in branding education.

OFD led the 1999 re-positioning and re-branding of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago, one of the foremost business schools in the world, and currently ranked #1 for an MBA by Business Week. . Our views are based on this experience and the extensive study of branding engagements for higher education.

1. The traditional vs. conservative dichotomy is helpful to a degree but in practice it’s an overly simplistic construct. In reality, strategists would not have to choose between an outer-facing, outer-oriented brand strategy or an approach that’s inner oriented and culture-based: the ideal route would combine elements of the two. David A Aaker’s Building strong brands provides a comprehensive single conceptual framework that does exactly this.

2. I agree with Schmidt that focusing on the trappings of taglines and promotional campaigns is “superficial tinkering”. I do not however concur that an entire organization should be incorporated into a holistic brand building process. This is where marketing (and brand) practitioners often misstep. Great ideas and strategy are not the result for canvassing a wide group of stakeholders. In many cases, people can only tell you what they know and the varied priorities across stakeholder groups are not naturally unified behind the motivation for solidifying something like a brand identity to benefit a school.

3. I disagree with Lux’s emphasis: It is not extremely demanding to create brands for institutions like universities rather it the management of the brand, particularly of brand actions (that speak volumes across multiple audiences) that is so demanding, precisely because of multiple stakeholders that comprise the typical university community that area difficult to orchestrate.

4. I would also caution against his rallying cry to “get as many people within the organization as possible involved in creating experiences that provide meaning and benefit.” What is needed rather is a clean brand vision, and a strategy that identifies which areas of influence shape perceptions most significantly, rolling out action plans which prioritize resources accordingly to this end. Involvement should not be denied to interest groups within the university that seek it, but it should be guided in such a way to ensure it works in harmony with the leaders that are initiating the identity, so as not to become agents of fragmentation.

5. As to Lux’s contention that it is the non-identical nature of a service organization with complex characteristics that make a traditional approach unsuccessful, ideologically I would suggest it is the shortcoming in the orientation of the traditional approach not characteristics of the context that are of issue. The value of a good strategist is in identifying an enduring and authentic basis that unifies multiple stakeholder groups with different interest.

To offer one perspective from the field, in developing a clearer, more compelling identity for the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business, the answer began with a search for authenticity: identifying what in the enduring cultural fabric of the institution the university should be talking about, which had the potential for contemporary relevance (as yet under-recognized) which would reframe the value of the school in key target groups’ eyes.

It did not come from canvassing and seeking to include multiple stakeholder groups. It did not come from changing the institution. Quite simply, the institution did not want to change and with good reason: it is an environment that has produced more Nobel Laureates than anywhere else in the world. Brand identity and strategic development is not a momentum generating course for widespread collaboration. It’s a nice notion, but ignores the realities of this kind of context and worse risks weakening connections with enduring equities that have made the institution as great as it is today.