Opinions about branding by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

A colleague of mine once said that Internal Communications is the "neglected stepchild" of the communications profession and over the years it is easy to figure out why.

There is absolutely no glory in it.

Internal Communications isn't glitzy. It's not about press, or social media, or trade shows. You don't get interviewed on TV. It's not multimedia.

It's about talking to your people. Sort of like - here we go - keeping the family together!

And we know how much fun Thanksgiving Dinner is when you've got all those old dynamics swirling around.

I did not even know there was such a thing as Internal Communications until I came to work for The Brand Consultancy, where they did something called "Internal Branding."

Basically, this was training the employees to operate in accordance with the mission/vision/values espoused by the brand.

Early on I realized that training did not work. Because people are not morons (largely), they are thinking adults and they will resist being robotized at all costs.

It is absolutely amazing that one even has to articulate this but if you think about the bubble in which most executives operate you can start to see what the issue is.

Most executives operate too far from the frontline to see their employees as people. Rather they see themselves, in an exaggerated form, and then their external audiences.

The staff matters, but in sort of a distant way. Like marble chess pieces. You care about them and don't want them to crack, but you don't really see a beating heart inside.

In any case. Not every executive is like that of course. I have been privileged to meet and work for several who have an unbelievable level of sympathy and empathy for their employees.

One of these served at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, where I worked when I first joined the Federal Government.

This individual spent all his time - and I mean all his time - concerned with the welfare of the employees. Teaching people to treat each other better. Proving to them that "the pie gets bigger." I do not know what his motivation was, only that it was during this time that I had permission to do a whole lot of things. For example:

* We audio-casted an internal meeting about an upcoming reorganization to the field - this was a big deal around 2003

* We transformed the employee publication into a photo-centric glossy in which the employees were the focus - it was People Magazine just for them

* In the publication we "advertised" internal services that were already available for free

One thing I did not get to implement was a prototype publication online where we had an Amazon-style rating system for the articles, so people could give an article four stars for "great" or one star for "horrible." I guess they thought it would hurt people's feelings, that they were not ready. They were probably right.

When I think about the projects I've done that went very far, versus the ones that did not, each and every time there was an executive sponsor who either believed in the work or trusted me to run with it.

That is the thing with Internal Communications. You have to trust the person in charge. They are, in a sense, the professional parent to the workforce, the person they go to cry to when they're getting beaten up at school.

I have seen this function work and not work. I've seen people get their heads handed to them because they made a mistake and it embarrassed someone.

Internal Communications is not child's play. It is very serious and very important work and it will only get more so.

You've got to trust the people you pay to execute on it for you, if you want to get results.




Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The other day someone told me that they didn't care much about the outcome of the election because "nothing changes anyway." The only thing that bothered them though was the "policy of killing babies."

OK, the abortion debate. I wasn't going to ruin a good conversation by responding the way I wanted to: "You must be out of your mind."

Because factually speaking an abortion is not killing a baby but rather preventing a fetus from becoming one.

Also when one considers that globally women are far from free to control their reproductive lives (let's work on child slavery/"marriage" shall we?), and the poor life prospects of unwanted children, it seems sort of farcical to insist in fetal rights vs. all other human considerations.

I agree that abortion is a problem. But if you want to solve it look to the causes (rape, incest, peer pressure, poverty, absent parent, etc.), rather than focusing exclusively on the symptom (unwanted pregnancy).

At work there is a tendency to focus on the symptom, the immediate and visible problem, rather than the cause. Most "crises" can be traced to factors that are intangible, invisible, difficult to measure, non-obvious and slippery. Strong leadership, management, teamwork etc. are not things you can "see" but their effects can be observed in how the organization is run.

A great doctor treats the whole person - body, mind and spirit. S/he asks questions that range widely across your life, not to intrude but to get at what is going on. Because a single illness can cause multiple symptoms that are seemingly unrelated.

Similarly when you assess a situation it is helpful to back away from the symptom itself and look at the context around it. It is there that you will find the cause. And once you have the cause you can begin to identify workable solutions.

In medicine this is easier than in organizations and social life of course. But it can be done even at the individual level. Simply refuse to perpetuate the dysfunctional behavior. Act normal. You being a voice of reason despite pressure to fold and become a "zombie" can have incredible ripple effects.

Good luck!

P.S. All opinions, as always are my own. Not a political endorsement or non-endorsement.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The other day my daughter said to me, "Feminism is just fine, but men and women are not the same." She is an aspiring neuropsychologist and given any social situation, where I see the group dynamics she sees a brain chemical. 

From a sociological perspective there are a lot of reasons why gender differences exist and a lot of uses to which groups put them. From a marketing (or outreach) perspective what matters are the patterns. Here are a few that I see:

1) Expressed vs. Implied: Marketing to men has to be tangible - auditory, visual, kinetic (hear it, see it, move it) versus to women merely a suggestion is enough and even preferable. Another way of putting this is that women are engaged with the story around a product while men are engaged with the idea that the product itself approaches perfection.

2) Status: Men buy things to compete with other men and they think of it as "acquiring," so there is a certain level of permanency. Women will buy virtually anything if they think it makes them look good. For women, the competition is self-oriented - between themselves as they imagine they are, versus as they imagine they once were or could be.

3) Delegation: If men could get away with never setting foot inside most retail environments they would, because they see shopping as feminine. So they prefer either to automate the process (e.g. shopping online) or to let the women take care of it. Versus women see shopping as a "quest" for the right thing which hopefully ends in a "Victory." 

4) Time: For women, shopping is a destination, an activity, a hobby, and a release and so they lose all concept of time once they enter a store. Versus men believe that time spent shopping is time wasted. 

5) Guilt: Both women and men feel guilty about spending money. Both justify the guilt in some way. Women tell themselves they are shopping to take care of someone (even if it's themselves) versus men justify purchases based on whether it enhances their prospects for survival - not just literally but in the abstract sense, e.g. survival at work.

At the end of the day men and women may purchase the same things. Literally - clothing, perfume, even tattoos can be unisex. But the mode of taking in information that drives a purchase, and the motivations for handing over the money, do seem to differ. A very interesting topic of study.





Sunday, November 25, 2012

Image via Kilmer House, a blog dedicated to the story of Johnson & Johnson and its employees. Frederick Barnett Kilmer, for whom the blog is named, was J&J's first scientific director. The blog is written by J&J corporate communications. This is a great example of corporate branding best practice.


Marketing, as an industry, trades on shame. Subsistence happens on one level, admittedly not cheap but not nearly as expensive as the stuff you are routinely offered to buy. Or the stuff you don't need, but that marketers invent, convincing you along the way that you must have it ("creating a market.")

It is a paradox that shame is universal, and yet we universally seem to have trouble talking about it. Maybe that's because of the nature of shame. It's designed to keep people in line - nothing more and nothing less.

Shame is a spiritual theme. In the Garden of Eden, the Biblical story goes, Adam and Eve felt shame when they sinned against G-d. There was nobody there to make them feel that way - they just did.

Shame is enforced by the group against the individual. It's a way of keeping the powerful in power. The targeted person - who may or may not have done anything wrong - is marginalized, punished, laughed at, silenced.

Usually there are interlocking forces around shame as a tool. So you learn in religious school about what G-d supposedly wants, and then there are people in power who enforce those rules and enforce themselves as the keepers of them.

It occurs to me often that organized religion creates more problems than it solves because of the way it shames people. Honestly I think there would be peace in the Middle East right now if religion were not a factor among the negotiating parties. Because too often it defines any compromise as shameful.

Shame makes us take on debt we could otherwise avoid. It makes us fight with people we otherwise have no bone to pick with. It drives us to shame other people, just to relieve our own agony and despair. Shame makes us try to compensate for our own insecurities by becoming overachievers. And overachievers run a lot of races that don't matter, distracting them from more important priorities that don't come with an award attached.

Listerine makes it sound simple to get rid of shame: Just rinse with antiseptic and you'll be fine.

The problem is that only works temporarily.

In real life the answer is not that simple, but here are some thoughts:

1. Probably the first thing is to admit your own shame, even if only to yourself. Whatever it is, stop spending a lot of energy fighting it or directing your energy to temporary fixes. Preferably, write it down. Once you look at it on a piece of paper, that scary monster loses a lot of its bite. Like the movie says, you can "burn after reading."

2. The second is to look to a third party for validation. Even if you just go on the Internet - it is pretty big and I guarantee you, whatever you are going through, no matter how strange or minor it may seem, someone else is going through it as well.

3.The third is to gain support from a community. Online, offline, close friends, acquaintances, formal or informal support network - you name it. The last time I went to Panera an elderly man looked at my computer and then lifted his hands and said, "I couldn't ever use that thing, even if I wanted to." He was surrounded by other elderly people who laughed and said the same. That's support.

4. The fourth is to take concrete action steps to eliminate the impact of shame on your life. Are you living beyond your means to prove you're not lesser than anyone else? Working in a career you hate? Those are good places to start. Everything is subject to change - you just have to take that first step.

5. The fifth is to offer your support to other people. It doesn't have to be that they are the same as you. You don't even have to know what their problems are. But as you give your support to others, you get support back from the Universe. It works that way.

All this is not to say that marketing is bad. I find that it gives me tremendous joy. I love advertising of any kind. The sight of new products gives me joy. It's fun to take them apart in terms of marketing strategy, and it's fun to actually buy them.

But shame as a motivator isn't fun. It isn't necessary and it doesn't really propel you anywhere, in your career or in life. Like I read somewhere the other day - just be who you are. You have no other choice, anyway.



Saturday, November 24, 2012


Yesterday I wrote about reaching customers from high-context cultures, where meaning is transmitted implicitly. But what if your audience is low-context? What does that mean, anyway?
Basically:
  • High-context means they have a strong shared understanding in terms of values and the meaning behind communication. Examples include culturally homogeneous immigrant groups and also specialized work groups who speak in terms nobody else understands.
  • Low-context means they have less shared understanding and diverse identities and need to have things articulated clearly in ways that span cultures. A prime example is the United States of America as a mass audience, as the identities of its citizens varies dramatically from place to place.
When you are marketing to a low-context culture:

1) Emphasize one primary language. The global language of business is still English.

2) Put diverse-looking people in your marketing copy. It's about appealing to a broad base and showing how anyone can fit in.

3) Focus on mass advertising, not word-of-mouth as for high-context cultures (should have included this in the last post).

4) Artificially create a new community out of whole cloth. Do not apologize for this, just do it boldly. When you join the Army, buy a Harley, or visit Disneyland you join a created community. 

5) Use a lot of words. What's the storyline? Explain it, tell it as if it were real. Think narrative - like American Girl dolls.

6) Think about shiny, glossy, artificial textures. High-context cultures want authenticity (for example, marble and wood). Low-context cultures want the sense of starting something new and clean (e.g. plastic).

7) Emphasize consistency rather than excellence, because normally low-context cultures have to accommodate a high volume of potential members. McDonald's french fries might or might not be the best in the world, but you know that no matter who you are, you'll get the same ones every time. 

8) Focus on speed, innovation, imagination, breaking the rules. Low-context cultures are not bound by convention and seek products and services that reinforce that identity.

9) Talk to newcomers. Low-context cultures are very much about recruitment and welcoming people into the fold without question. If you watch Joel Osteen's show every week, for example, he tells the viewer to visit Lakewood Church, where they will be made to feel "right at home." There is a reason for this - low-context cultures thrive on diversity and newness.

10) Emphasize equal opportunity rather than being a "status brand." Low-context cultures are populated by people who seek a different kind of community with invented rules. Normally they are very into equality rather than declarations of status, because that is how heterogeneous communities stay harmonious despite a high volume of people each seeking their own interests. 






Friday, November 23, 2012

Over the past few weeks I've had the opportunity to observe Russian, Korean, Hasidic Jewish, Muslim, and Hispanic consumers in their natural habitats (e.g. going about regular life).

Speaking very broadly, one thing all of these groups have in common is that they are high-context. Meaning, they have a broad base of shared understanding. It doesn't take a lot of communicating for them to transmit meaning to one another.

Marketing to high-context cultures can be challenging if you don't understand the culture, or if you're used to a communication environment where things are spelled out very clearly.

Here are 7 things I've observed that may prove helpful no matter what audience you're dealing with:

1) Communicate in their native language. The native language is not only a technicality of words and their meaning. Culture is imbued in it. For example, some languages can be gender-neutral and others cannot. Beliefs about gender and gender roles are imbued in language. When you trespass on these (even inadvertently) you turn off the customer.

2) Be represented by members of the community. High-context cultures operate within a tightly knit community in which the rules are very intricate. The rules are based on values that hold the community together. There is normally a perception that outside influences are dangerous and must be carefully moderated so that the community's influence is not subverted or diluted. Therefore, it is only members of the community who can make an outside product or service acceptable. Also, members of the community can tell you when you are doing something offensive without realizing it.

3) Package the product in ways that remind them of "home." Home is a very broad term. It means the place where you were born, raised, feel most yourself. So for example in Miami, the architecture that appeals to the Russian community is very ornate. There is also an emphasis on the concept of the spa, the baths, the capacity of salt to cleanse and detoxify. In Maryland, I observed Korean people congregating in a nature preserve, collecting water from the creek, and marveling at the various local creatures with what seemed like incredible joy.

4) Treat the group as a consumer - do not focus on the individual. As mentioned above, high-context cultures are very tightly knit and somewhat defensive against the larger society. They survive by operating as a group. They think collectively. They have more permeable boundaries between the person and the family, and family and community. It is believed that the individual has a responsibility to the group equal to or greater than the responsibility to fulfill oneself - in fact this is normally seen as selfish. Focus on the group.

5) Don't judge. Marketing is about catering to what the customer wants. If you can't respect their values, do not market to them.

6) Be authentic. Members of high-context cultural groups love America, they love the brand it represents in their minds, they love the idea of freedom and the melting pot and education and opportunity. This may sound contradictory to catering to the values of the group, but it's not. It's about understanding that for high-context groups, there are very clear demarcations between "who they are" and what "buying American" represents, and they are happy to do so at times. The subtlety is in navigating the breach or the gulf between the two worlds.

7) Focus on technology. Technology is a culturally agnostic freedom tool. It brings access to information, freedom from the grip of the "elders" and the hold the community has on you, it is power.  People from high-context immigrant cultures love technology, they understand what it can do for them as individuals in terms of empowerment and they take every opportunity to learn it and obtain it. If you can market technology to the immigrant community in a way that is accessible - i.e. affordable and where the utility is clear, and with reliable service - you have a huge advantage.








This question was posed on Quora: "What should agencies care about regarding mobile apps for brands - winning awards or getting downloads?" 

Here is my response:

I. Winning the business
Clients want apps that 


1) Look cool 

2) Are better than the app they saw that made them decide to get an app 

3) Are EZ to use 

4) Load fast 

5) Drive brand awareness. 

Awards = irrelevant as are # of downloads (this happens after they pay). 

II. Winning and keeping clients, general advice
1) Be easy to work with


2) Talk in simple terms not techy 

3) Provide a few tables/pie charts showing how competitors have benefited from a similar app. Nobody wants to be behind the curve.

III. Keeping the business
Show results. 


With an app, the best way to show results is to offer some useful capability for free, that also relates to the brand message. This is marketing, sales and branding all at the same time.

Apps like these get people to download and use. To build awareness of the app, integrate on sites and perhaps in other apps where the target goes anyway - drawing new prospects in.

So for example if you are promoting a boutique hotel, create an app that geonavigates people to local hotspots and gives them a discount for scanning w/ the smartphone upon arrival.
Today for the first time I actually read the Hamas charter, which you can find pretty easily online. It struck me that the writing was clear and logically consistent with their anti-Israel rhetoric and violence.

It struck me that most people have probably not actually read the document. If they did they would see that peace agreements are not in keeping with their brand.

A mistake we make when we think about things is to get our biases mixed up with our brains.

Personally I am Jewish, somewhat secular and embrace the Western "live and let live" worldview: "Who am I to judge?" "It's all good." All of these factors introduce bias.

At the same time I have enough cognitive independence to know that if an organization issues a brand promise and then lives up to it, they probably mean what they say.

The Western secular mind does not easily comprehend a culture so different as Hamas. But you can if you use the language of branding.

Their vision is a greater Palestine as part of a pan-Arab nation that lives according to Islamic law.

Their mission is to wage war against those who get in the way, and in particular to
purge the land of any semblance of a Jewish nation.

Zionism, as a brand is incompatible with Hamas. Zionism says that there is a democratic and independent state called Israel. It is a place where everyone may practice or not practice as they wish. It is a place of diversity and tolerance. And it is a place with a distinctly Jewish identity.

To respect all sides in a matter of disagreement one has to acknowledge the reality of each. The reality is that Zionism and Hamas are opposing brands. The charter if Hamas makes it so.

I unfortunately do not have the answer to the Middle East crisis. But I do have a clearer grasp of the dimensions of the problem. That, to me feels like progress.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Think of the modern economy as a funnel.
  • Services sits at the very top and captures nearly everyone. No matter what you actually do, you get employed and stay employed based on the quality of your relationships with others.
  • Knowledge represents fewer people, but captures many.  If you are a technical or subject matter expert of any kind you fit into this category. 
  • Manufacturing includes still fewer and captures some. These are people who actually produce goods for the rest of us.
Now think of where you sit in relationship to this funnel:
  • Frontline workers deal directly with the public and can fall into any of the categories above.
  • Support personnel support the frontline and make sure they are equipped to get the job done.
This article is for support personnel in the communications field. We're not doing a good enough job of taking care of the frontline - and that includes the public. Because a key challenge faced by frontline workers today (internal customers), as well as the public confronting the organization, is the lack of an "easy" button. Wherever they go they are confronted with discombobulated systems - a Tower of Babble - set up to speak languages that may or may not be useful to them.

We see this very clearly with respect to 5 related fields that rarely talk to one another: knowledge management, public relations, corporate communications, internal marketing, and the visual brand. All of them deal with the collection and distribution of information; rarely do they work hand-in-hand. If you think about the ecosystem of information you can see the need for integration on the customer's behalf. It's our job to support them by:
  • Harnessing knowledge: Collect information and return it back to employees in an organized way
  • Supporting the growth of internal social networks: Enable a culture that is warm, welcoming and closely knit to promote employee engagement
  • Providing digestible and relevant information: Corporate communications
  • Explaining what we do to outside parties, including the media: Make it easy for public relations specialists within the organization to promote its achievements, provide clear and comprehensive status information, and explain missteps
  • Implementing a consistent visual identity: The visual brand tells our customers when we are speaking; it is a mark of authenticity that they count on when dealing with us.
The challenge we need to think through right now - ideally, supported by IT is aligning all of the above fields. If we can integrate information without putting an extra burden on the frontline worker, we should be able to increase their productivity and our own effectiveness at the same time. 



Monday, November 19, 2012

Recently I did a micro-experiment in marketing for work. Basically I'm helping with a charity drive and to that end ran a small "mystery gift" event. I took dollar-store gifts, wrapped them, put a bow on them and "sold" them for a contribution of the donor's choice. The following observed behaviors taught me a great deal about the importance of packaging:

1) First brand, then color: When people did not know what was inside the box, they looked at the box itself. They picked wrapping paper with Snoopy on it versus other brightly colored papers. The black wrapping paper iwth a design was the leaset popular.

2) Shaking the package: I hadn't seen this one before but at least three people actually picked the various packages up and shook them to determine what could be inside. (Two of them were right.)

3) Irregular shape: People tended to pick up the odd, irregularly shaped packages versus the simple, symmetrical ones.

4) Relationship marketing: Sales picked up when I engaged with the "customers" rather than just sitting back and letting them choose something. They liked having a conversation about what could be inside, how they could use it, what the purpose of the event was, etc.

5) Everyone wants a deal: All the gifts were relatively worthless, but I told every customer that I would give them a special "deal," or that certain gifts were better than others, and that very much moved the merchandise.

6) Pay-what-you-want: The policy of letting people pay what they wanted yielded twice the value of the outlay for the gifts.

7) But you must pay: If it's not clear - either from the signage or from the collection pot or from the conversation - that you must pay something, people will walk off with something.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

I asked for comments on this article in Fast Company at my group Brand Masters. My former boss Mark Morris, Founder and Senior Strategist at The Brand Consultancy, said the following. It's very well said and I appreciate that he provided me with permission to share it publicly:
"The most common thing organizations do to mess up their brands is not knowing what their brand is. It lives somewhere out there with their customers but everyone internal to the organization makes up their own version of what it stands for, what promise it makes and how that promise is kept. Great organizations bring their customers voice into every decision they make. We say "they have breakfast with their customers." A ongoing dialogue in every channel available and practical. In essence, they speak in the voice of their customer."

Friday, November 16, 2012


One of my interns asked me to help with a class assignment. Sharing this Q&A in case it might be helpful to others interested in the field of PR or government. 
1.Please briefly describe the duties and responsibilities associated with yourposition and give the name of the profession? 
I am the communications director for a largedepartment (bureau) of an agency within the federal government. The scope of myduties includes external and internal communication.

2.In your opinion can you briefly describe public relations? What are the generalgoals? What would you say are the usual techniques for achieving them?

Public relations is the practice of obtainingthird-party endorsement, particularly by the media. The goal is to enhance theclient's reputation and therefore marketability to their customers. Theusual techniques involve writing official press releases, and subsequentlycalling or emailing reporters and editorial representatives. 

Some PR specialists work in the field of crisismanagement and so their focus is on helping clients navigate situations wheretheir reputation is at risk, by managing their presence on broadcast media.Another specialization is event planning, trade shows, and so on as events tendto generate press. 

A newer focus that has gone mainstream is socialmedia, although in the blogosphere there is additional focus on theauthenticity and objectivity of the speaker - so PR representatives face alevel of distrust that undermines their job if not handled skillfully. It's avery difficult job but addictive if you enjoy it.

3.Would you describe your position as a managerial position, or a technicalposition?

It's a combination of technical, andcoordination between various offices.

4.How would you describe the goal of your work in relation to public relations?Are you trying to create a specific image? Maintain an existing one? Create aspecific relationship with certain publics?

Our goal is to provide accurate information in amanner that is both clear and engaging. 

5.How would you describe the goal of your work internally? Does your work have aneffect on morale? What type of message if any, do you communicate toshareholders?

Internally our #1 goal is to make our employees'jobs easier by providing them with a coordinated communication service thatsupports them operationally. That way, when they are asked to provideinformation to the public they can do that quickly and effectively. Our secondgoal is to engage employees as part of a unified bureau. Our third goal is toraise the profile of communication as a critical skill that enhances all theother work that we do. 

6.What types of strategies are you employing to achieve said goals?

The strategies we use are customer-driven. Whenpeople (externally or internally) ask for things over and over again, it meansthat there is a pain point. When you solve the problem once, you also learnabout how to develop solutions they may need in the future. That is what wewant to focus on the most. The language we use to talk about that is customerservice.

7.What skills would you say are most relevant to your work?

The #1 skill in PR is the ability to synthesizean incredible amount of incoming information to generate actionableinsight. 

8.What training/education helped you to achieve this position? In what ways didthat education prepare you for the real world? In what ways if any were yousurprised when entering the actual occupational field?

Studying sociology, in addition to writing, wasgreat preparation. But the best education is always outside the classroom. Ilearned most of what I know from life experience - internships, reading, andalso from interactions with my family.

9.How would you say the nature of your organization in terms of profit/non-profiteffects how you do your job?

Working for the government means that you areaccountable to the taxpayer, and it's a responsibility that I take extremelyseriously. We are under more scrutiny than those in the private sector as well.So there is a heightened sense of transparency and accountability (even if thepublic does not believe that). Also, there is a stereotype that governmentemployees don't work as hard, and are not as qualified. If you take yourselfseriously you have to work harder, produce more, and demonstrate that theenvironment in which you work not only doesn't negatively affect your skillsbut in fact enhances them (which is true, for me at least).

10.Are there any examples of media used for purposes of public relations, or internalrelations that you wouldn’t mind sharing?

A guide to contracting that we distribute to thepublic in direct response to their need for greater accessibility ofinformation. This is exactly what good public relations does - provides usefulinformation that is real, accurate and helpful to the audience. In the endthose efforts are what enhance the reputation of the client.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Screenshot from Kindergarten Cop via The Kazan Times

Everybody has moments in life when things feel totally out of control. And that makes us feel upset. We like to have our lives in order.
It's odd because if you look back over your life, isn't "out of control" actually the norm? And unexpected disasters could have been expected?
When things go smoothly it's probably then that we should be shocked.
The Yiddish saying "Man plans, G-d laughs" pretty much sums it up.
It's starting to feel a bit like that right now. We've got a hotly contested election and a bitter, angry, frustrated public. Sequestration looms. Beltway is in gridlock. And scandal.
But all of this is not the worst thing. If you've been around D.C. for any length of time you've seen it all before, and then some.
The worst thing - what concerns me as a government communicator - is that the public seems to be laughing at us. 
I don't have any data to prove this.
But if you watch the news, and listen to people talk, there is a kind of incredulousness in their voices. Like,
"This is crazy."
"I've never seen anything like it!"
"You can't make this stuff up."
We in D.C. tend to take ourselves pretty seriously, and think that nobody ever questions us. But they are questioning us all the time.
Rampant mistrust is bad enough. We are used to that, too.
But laughing? That takes mistrust to a whole other level.
Laughing means they take for granted that we are incompetent. That's a bad perception for government to have.
It isn't fair, and it isn't true, but I think it might be out there.
We could argue back and forth about what the data shows, if anything. But in the meantime it's probably a good idea to think about government communication in the context of changing public perceptions.
If in the past we needed to loosen up a bit to keep up with the social media times, now we probably have to get a bit more stuffy. Back to the basics...recapturing the image we needed to keep all along - reliable, trustworthy, safe.
Probably fewer video contests and experimental pilots, and more simple data-rich information provision. More frequent press conferences. More substantive FAQs. Back to the basics.
If they are laughing, we shouldn't ignore it, but do our best to win back the public's trust.

*As always, all opinions are my own.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I posted some brief thoughts yesterday (they're included again today) but wanted to reflect a bit further in sharing this. Because it's always difficult when you write about topics that have to do with very serious, sensitive and complex matters, including unresolved matters affecting our national security and an ongoing investigation (none of which this is about - sorry folks, it's just marketing).

Like everybody else I'm a subjective human being with emotions invested in the day's news, especially news that touches on topics I am passionate about.

But the job of a marketer is to be objective. When I write here it's not about preaching but rather sharing insights based on real-world examples. This is in fact the difference between an academic science, a discipline, and a subjective exercise in political correctness or religion, neither of which I am here to provide.

But in the meantime I hope nobody is offended if I say what I see, and at this time I see the Paula Broadwell-Gen. Petraeus scandal taking on monstrous proportions in the marketplace. The products I identified yesterday remain the same:

1. Movie on Lifetime
And probably a feature film too - because this narrative is just too dramatic to believe and hits on just about every anxiety you can think of with respect to national security, marriage, women's incredible power to mess men up, etc.

2. Teary memoir
Because Paula really was in love, she and her husband had an "understanding"...

3. Toned arm exerciser 
Such as QVC, because if you have toned arms there is very little that can stand in your way

4. Self help book for older wives 
Likely by a Dr. Laura or Dr. Phil type, possibly one the betrayed spouse, to help other survivors of infidelity

5. Reality show appearance by Broadwell 
Survivor? Dr. Drew? - because we do need to know what drives an overachiever to go over the edge

Here are the common themes driving all these products, and why I think they will most definitely happen and sell:

1. The power of popular culture to absorb and ameliorate anxiety
In the post-9/11 era, Americans face unprecedented national security threats. Retired Gen. Petraus represented strength (not incidentally, a father figure) who was protecting us from those threats. We are having trouble processing what happened in this incident, not just because we don't know but because we don't like to see weakness in our leaders - it makes us feel vulnerable. (Of course there is also the matter of seeing a trusted person commit an act of betrayal.) Therefore, turning the incident into simple popular culture products like books, memoirs and film will help us emotionally process and work through the anxieties raised by this event.

2. Persistent fears and anxieties around gender, relationships, marriage
The events in this story play into the most dramatic and time-tested fears and anxieties. And we are much more comfortable on the emotional side than trying to grasp things we know nothing about. On the emotional side, people can relate: There is a "young, beautiful woman who leads to the downfall of a general." There is the "crazy mistress with uncontrollable possessive jealousy." There is the "otherwise brilliant man who made a life-destroying mistake." There is the "innocent, noble and suffering wife." 

3. Mistrust of Washington
This is still very much a new story, but already one can see the meme of mistrust in the headlines. We have now landed in the "incomprehensible shadowy world" where things are not what they seem, where powerful people square off against other powerful people, and where the average American can do nothing more than look on. The level of the individuals involved, the proximity to the election, and the lack of clarity around the roles of the individual players and their impact on national security domestically and overseas - all of this contributes to a heightened sense of proportion. There is an intense need to understand what's going on and bring D.C. into the "pop culture jurisdiction" where it can be reviewed, assessed, talked over and worked out.

Briefly, back to the notes around the difficulty I had writing this post.

Have you read the book My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok? In that book the main character (Asher Lev) is a gifted painter and his art takes him out of the ultra-religious world of his upbringing. He can't be like the others in the flock who shape their brains according to tradition because artistic gift is about sharing your truth no matter where it takes you.

That's sort of how I see marketing. It is a marketers' job to identify potential customers and convert them into actual ones. That's it. You can't write a marketing blog and at the same time worry about political correctness. Hopefully good people will take the techniques and use them to sell good things with passion. 

Finally, I also want to note that everything in my blog is an expression of my personal opinion. It is not sponsored, supported or representative of my employer - as you probably already know, I work for the government - or any other individual or organization.

Hoping we can work through this painful time as a nation and arrive in a better place.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The future of branding is as "hyperlocal" as ever, hat tip as always to Marian Salzman. Hyperlocal means that the brand seems rooted in a very particular place and time, and precisely because of that its appeal crosses global boundaries.

One of the main things to understand about hyperlocal global brands is that even talking about them is not politically correct. That's because they are heavily rooted in deeply personal categories like race, culture, nationality, gender, and so on. But that is exactly why they work today - in a politically correct world, they are raw and real.

Oddly however, despite the fact that the brand can offend one often doesn't really understand much of what the story is about. You aren't from that hyperlocal place after all. But that's OK - you do get the basic idea.

What this means overall: Identity is very much top of mind now, both in the sense of "reclaiming" what is old and in the sense of "reinventing" categories so that anyone can shop for the kind of self they want.

1. "Dispossessed Women Talk Back"

You can read about M.I.A. on Wikipedia; she is an English singer of Tamil heritage (India). Vaguely she's the disempowered, impoverished young woman talking back, speaking out, owning her destiny and insisting on FREEDOM. Check out her videos on YouTube, especially Born Free (warning: graphic), Bad Girls, Paper Planes, and of course Galang.

2. "Post-Colonial Adopted Whiteness"

Russell Peters is the prototype of this trend. He is a Canadian comedian of Indian descent who's spent a lot of time thinking about identity in the context of race, culture and country. Great clips are available on YouTube including the "Green Card Tour 2011."

3. "ex-Hasidim Cross Over"

No lasting breakout stars yet, but see Matisyahu, the Jewish musician best known for his reggae Hasid persona and the song "One Day," later re-recorded by the Yeshiva University a cappella group the Maccabeats. Also see Deborah Feldman, author of Unorthodox.  And Pearl Perry Reich, who is part of the reality show Shunned, not yet on TV. Also see "Chassidim Go To Hollywood."

4. "White Trash"

Exhibits A and B: "Winter's Bone" and "Honey Boo Boo." I also count the Kardashians in this category despite their Armenian heritage.

5. "Fat and Proud"

See: Adele and on the cover of Vogue, Lady Gaga's "body revolution", the Dove "Campaign for Real Beauty," and the TV anchor who gave a hate mailer a piece of her mind.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Photo by Rebecca Blumenthal

Have you bought your identity or do you walk around comfortable in your natural skin?

Mostly it's the first case. Judging from money spent on brands over equivalent no-names, branding matters because people define themselves by what they buy.

They do that because they either don't like who they are inside, don't know organically, are denying something or are reinventing themselves. Any way you slice it the purchase becomes a symbol of the sought-after self.

Voting is a kind of purchase. You can think of elections as referenda not on the candidates but on what we imagine them to be. We pick one based on the self we want to align with - the one that boosts our self-esteem.

The theory that voting is an expression of brand preference, mostly, means that elections are marketing contests. Elation or depression at the outcome is the result of your substitute self either rising or falling.

Do most people pore over policy documents and news before they vote? Or do they watch TV commercials, scan the headlines and commiserate with friends - whose opinion and approval matters because they are part of the constructed self?

Are people upset or joyful at the result of a vote, or its symbolism?

I had an epiphany today - I am persistently culturally "chasidish" (Hasidic) despite never having lived in Brooklyn nor being even remotely as observant as them. All my life I wanted to be a regular American, and yet in my heart I am somehow like the Fiddler On The Roof.

Interestingly, after this epiphany we went shopping and I still cared about buying Brand X vs. Y.

How might our psychology and our society be different if we could just live without the contortions branding feeds into?

Just a thought, a little frightening.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Photo by Mayan Brenn via Flickr

Buddhists believe we create our own problems through ignorance. (Also hatred, fear, attachment but that is another blog.)

One thing I see more and more as I get older is that Buddhists are right about a lot if things. Because ignorance takes a lot of forms and it's not just as simple as "not knowing."

Here are 5 things I do to try and help myself be more objective and better informed.

1) Trust my gut, which is quiet (believe it or not) but persistent. Interestingly the more I try to ignore "inconvenient truth" the louder it gets.

2) Force myself to question groupthink. Oh, this is so hard. Nobody wants to be rejected or unpopular.

3) Force my brain open. I am a "J" in Myers-Briggs meaning I like closure. But your brain can close wrong and often does.

4) See people with the "third eye." People, like events and facts, are not always what they seem. A lot depends on your perspective. Your ego can tell you one thing while the truth is another.

5) Be willing to entertain the ugly truth but also willing to be bored with reality. We all can tell stories "nobody would believe" but most of us also know that day-to-day reality can be pretty mundane. You have to fight the impulse to deny a serious problem where one exists, but also the drive to create drama out of simple misunderstanding or even boredom.

I like the Buddhist idea of detaching from the world an detaching from ourselves in order to gain greater objectivity. To do that through meditation, exercise, hobbies etc. makes you more effective at work even if it feels like you are "goofing off."

Thanks to the smart people who have encouraged me to think freely and critically and to seek that state of balance.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, November 8, 2012



The next time someone insults a Fed please direct them to any CFC volunteer.
Last week someone at my agency put the doubters to shame.
In the space of 1 weekend day she whipped together a feast of baked goods and brought it in.
The next day she sold it without asking for a dime - it was pay what you want.
Generous customers bought mini-cupcakes, brownies and cookies for a total of more than $500.
This person will never take credit and actually feels guilty for not doing more!
I am awed by her generosity and humility and for the first time in nearly a decade of Federal service, truly grasp the meaning of CFC.
It's about giving back to the community, first and foremost.
Culturally though - inside the agency - it's about showing who we are and what we can do when unleashed from the usual bureaucracy.
(Of course you have to get Counsel approval of events before holding them.)
That's a snippet from our poster for the event up there. Please give this quiet but incredibly productive volunteer a round of applause.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Photo by Mark Evans via Flickr

A long time ago I had a boss who compared branding to the game of dominos. Also to a light switch. At the same time.
If you are into branding you know that it soaks into your mind. It's like trying to wash red Kool-Aid out of a white ceramic mug. Impossible.
So the boss was talking, and of course you are not going to disagree with your boss, unless they say something totally nuts or offensive. He said:
"Branding is like a light switch that goes off in your head. Until you get it, you don't get it."

Yep, yep, yep. Dilbert me. Absolutely.
"And then once that light switch goes off, it's like the dominos keep falling. You want everything to be branded, and everything to fall into place."

I did not really see my own rose-tinted glasses until a few months ago, when I changed positions to lead communications for a large, complex, technical and operationally focused division of a government agency. 

Here are 5 things I've learned:

1) Communication is a support function (!), not the center of the universe. You forget this when you work in public affairs, or in a branding consultancy, because you and your peers are constantly arguing over "what is a brand" or "will social media eclipse print?" First of all this means - learn the business because you probably already know enough technique. Second of all it means - do.not.bother.busy.people.

2) Writing still matters. Grammar counts. Consistency is valued. Templates are beloved. Clean, clear, crisp text is adored. It's nice that not every corner of the Earth has been replaced by texts, tweets and status updates. Concise is good but specificity is just as important.

3) Talking is not considered "communicating." (Yes I know it actually IS communicating, but this is about perception.) Do you want to improve the quality of face-to-face communication, group interaction, culture and meetings? Get a degree in organizational development. Become a consultant so that you can lead retreats.

4) Social media is largely beside the point.  If you are dazzled by all the gizmos and gadgetry associated with digital design you will be bored because operational people need practical skills. Project management. Process reengineering. Knowledge management. Collaboration sites. Portals. How to sort the wheat of information from the chaff that is most data. The production, organization, and retrieval of quality information. Believe it or not, it is an art form and it is hugely in demand.

5) Branding is only a byproduct. This last part is what really astonished me. Much of the conversation in the communication world has to do with persuasion. What's the right tool to create awareness, engagement, loyalty, conversion to purchase (or membership or voting), etc. Often the "what" (the substance) is buried beneath messaging to the point where the original meaning almost gets lost. This kind of talk, which most of us would recognize as brand communication, is 70-80% useless in an operational environment. There, the desire is for factual information conveyed just-in-time.

In an operational world, it's not that there is no connection between words and brand. However, the typical equation that we see nowadays is reversed: it's substance first, decoration later.

Sometimes the creative part can take precedence. On "Inside the Actors Studio," Johnny Depp said that when he used to write songs, he wrote the music first and the words later. On the same show Robert Downey, Jr. said that the '80s director John Hughes used to write the movie according to the soundtrack. (Look how well they've done.)

But in an operational environment, the soundtrack comes last. And that's the way it should be.