Opinions about branding by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal

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Saturday, April 30, 2016

We spend a lot of money on training and the money is wasted most of the time.
Sunshine & Organic Granola
Let's start with the conferences, retreats, and weekends out of town. This include "Ted Talks," "SXSW," and all that other good stuff.
We should be honest: Mostly it's a lot of crap from an actual learning perspective. Because officially approved case studies, no matter how compelling the subject matter, are normally sanitized to death. Because of course, we don't embarrass ourselves, we're here to tell a positive story, we don't want to burn our bridges, the organization would have a massive fit if they found out you were telling us about that disaster, and so on.
Mostly these things are about big companies selling stuff, by getting smart and moneyed and influential people together. It's about saying "I was there and I met XYZ and heard that." Of course it's about trying to network as well, and get a better job.
I remember one training conference in particular, one session in particular, where the speaker had so much to say, clearly. But it was equally clear that we would never get anything substantial out of him, because confidentiality. Frustrated, I listened to the other audience members ask difficult questions, only to see the speaker do a kind of thrust-and-parry.
After the session I sat outside in the luxuriously decorated convention area and watched people form a line for little pastries, ask where the restroom was, flip up their laptops and mill about the vendor tables looking for free trinkets to take home.
Life-Changing Exceptions
Of course, some speakers will turn your entire career around. They are so dynamic, and frankly they just don't give a damn about sanitizing the story, and wonderfully they have the ability to actually tell you the truth. When you get to witness a talk like that, your life will never be the same.
For me one such experience was a 2003 "boot camp" sponsored by Ragan Communications. I had just started working for the government as an internal communicator, and my main job was to help write the monthly newsletter.
The main speaker at that event was employee communications expert Steve Crescenzo. Like many brilliant people he came off as absolutely crazy, this bald guy waving around really bad newsletters from various Fortune 500 companies and saying they were winning his "C.R.A.P. Awards." 
The one thing that stuck with me from that training event was Crescenzo's passion for the subject matter. I think it is fair to say he was on a kind of moral crusade against bad writing, fluff writing, writing that wasted people's time.
A dozen years later, it is Crescenzo's ethic that informs my work as I write for the U.S. government. The writing here has gotten better, but the tendency toward C.R.A.P. remains always the same. What Crescenzo helped me to see is that fighting useless garbage words is a kind of war, and that even a single compromise of the keyboard has a domino effect.
We can't afford to let up, not even for a minute. Because then we've drunk the Kool-Aid, and even a little bit spreads through your body and to others, poisoning everyone in the system.
Similarly I had the good fortune to attend a solo seminar by Shel Holtz, Crescenzo's one-time training partner at Ragan, on social media communication. When they use the word "guru" they are talking about him: No fluff, he told us what mattered and why we should care about it, and then he told us what to do based on time-tested best practice. Many years later, his words are as accurate as they were when he uttered them.
The most important lesson I learned from Holtz was that in social media, you do not control the conversation but can only hope to be a valued part of it. The second most important thing is that you aren't required to tell everything, but you must say as much as you can. And then tell your audience explicitly, "we simply cannot share any further information at this time."
Every single minute of that seminar was vital to my professional life, and I burned those words into my brain like they had been applied by a branding iron.
Cheap, Easy, Online?
But life-changing teachers are few and far between. And the training business - like the higher education business - is potentially very lucrative. So just as in higher education, online training has become a popular alternative to in-person events.
Theoretically, you can see where this makes economic sense. The problem however is that few people are actually going to learn anything by listening to the equivalent of Siri for an hour. So you've taken work time and exposed people to words uttered by a computer screen. It feels like progress, but is it?
Most of the time, again, I don't think so. That is, unless:
  • You genuinely want to learn the subject matter, and can't get to a live training class.
  • Your job requires you to learn the information or get penalized in some way.
  • Your professional advancement requires that you master new and unfamiliar subject matter, and you need to use online resources to teach yourself.
Take Six Sigma, for example. In my environment they use Six Sigma terms a lot, and so I found a free training class online that offered an introductory "white belt" in exchange for viewing the modules for a few minutes. I was motivated.
Unfortunately however, I did not have any specific tasks at work that I could tie the unusual jargon to. And the history of the discipline had no meaning to me. But I was invested intellectually in this journey, and so I read the information - again and again. 
Will I get an advanced degree as a result of taking that class? Nope. No way. But do I have a somewhat better understanding of the subject, why it matters and how to apply it than before? Absolutely.
And when it comes to technical subjects like computer programming, online training is in my view an absolute must. I can't begin to count the number of people I know who are self-taught on coding, web development, and graphic design - normally through a combination of work assignments and supplemental self-guided courses.
Real-World Disaster: Where The Rubber Hits The Road
Even with all of this said, we haven't touched upon the most important way that people learn stuff applicable to jobs, to relationships, to anything important in life. 
Frankly, we learn as a result of crisis. Failure, screwups, just plain getting it wrong and embarrassing ourselves in the process.
I'll never forget my first fashion faux pas in summer camp, when I approached the rich girls from Long Island and complimented their designer clothing.
"You can't even pronounce Benetton," said one of them. "Ewwww you."
The pain of transitioning from a private-sector, self-promotional environment to the low-key, conservative world that is a government agency. 
"Where did you come from? Are you aware that this is the government?"
The realization that my assumptions about being a parent have very little to do with what is actually necessary for parenting, and everything to do with making up for the mistakes I perceived my parents to have made.
"Mom, do me a favor, would you let me cross the street by myself just once in a while?"
Learning Techniques of the Resilient
Each of us, of course, has a large collection of failures and it's up to us to decide what we do with the impact they have on our lives.
Here are the tactics that don't work:
  • Some people put their heads down. They get depressed. They hate themselves. They remind themselves every day what a loser they are, how they never have been any better and how they probably never will be.
  • Others just don't really think about it. They simply continue in their routines, trying to avoid making another similar mistake in the future - effectively crossing the street because they tripped in a particular spot.
  • Still others assign blame to the people around them, to their bosses, to their parents, to their significant others, to their life situations, to the placement of the moon, or to the weather - anything as long as they don't have to be responsible, figure it out or fix it.

But the people who really survive, thrive and move on do something else.
They are those who fail regularly, but have the capacity to stop and break the problem down.
Because it is through crisis that they see where the problem manifests.
It is through a rupture in the system that they can retrace their steps, and ultimately find remedies.
What were the steps that got me into this mess? They say.
Never mind who's at fault, how can I fix it?
They make a bulleted list - Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 and this is how I got here.
And then they take a look at all the resources available to them to fix it.
  • They read.
  • They talk to friends.
  • They make a game plan for change.
  • They establish small milestones for progress as part of the game plan.
  • And they ask other people for support.
Every single day, every person faces crises big and small.
Every single day we fail and fall and are embarrassed at the smallness of our minds, at our limited capacity.
And every single day we have the choice.
We can learn our way through the problem.
We can get up.
________
All opinions are my own and not those of my employer, any Federal agency or the U.S. government as a whole. Photo by SuxsieQ via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Thursday, April 21, 2016



Remember that classic book by Al and Laura Ries, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding? It's an excellent read, not only because the advice is so good but because it is offered with such certainty.

If you do any kind of writing in a professional capacity, I'm here to tell you that there are also immutable laws for that, and that they can be learned. Just remember three words: strategy, readability, and usability.
 
#1. Strategy
 
This means that you've thought ahead of time about what it is you're doing. Tips:
  • Find out what information your audience wants and/or needs and give it to them. Avoid generating words that have no purpose to your audience.
  • What will they do once you’ve told them? Don’t put it out there if you don’t know the answer.
  • Never be boring. If it’s boring to you, it’s boring to them.
#2. Readability
 
This means that your user can easily understand what it is you have to say. Remember:
  • When you use jargon, the reader feels like you are acting superior and gets turned off. Therefore, don't use jargon! Think about how regular people talk, the people you're trying to reach. Mimic them.
  • Your reader has a very short attention span and likely is not a Ph.D. So use short, simple, clear, easy to understand words to get the message across.
  • Talk to your user like a friend – don’t lecture. “You’ll need to visit the office by 5 p.m. in order to get the form.”
  • Don’t make the reader wait for the key information. It’s not a hidden treasure. Put it up front.
  • STOP THE PARAGRAPHS. Paragraphs are for novels. Much better: bullets and lists.
  • If you need to take a breath to finish the sentence, it’s too long.
  • Go headline-crazy. Then add subheads.  Break up the text as much as possible.
 #3. Usability
 
This term has a very specific meaning in the web world, but in general it means that you have presented the material in a friendly, accessible way. Think about  things like this:
  • Please add a diagram, chart or photo to break up the text and help the reader get the meaning quickly. (Tables are tricky because they can be too dense to follow.)
  • White space is your friend. Use it.
  • Check the spelling and grammar by reading it out loud to your ears, not following silently with your eyes.
  • On the web, check the technical usefulness of your webpage – meaning that the content should be shareable on social media, optimized for search engines, etc.
________
 
All opinions my own. Photo via Wikipedia.
 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

I've been watching Steven Soderberg's The Girlfriend ExperienceIt is a show soaked in sex. But really it's about branding's stock-in-trade - how well some people trade money for fantasy, how they anticipate and fulfill those deep dark desires inside our heads.
Christine, the main character in GFE, is more than a commodity, she is a brand. They don't want to pay just any female partner - they want to pay her. A thousand dollars an hour, to be exact.
As a person-brand, Christine's value lies in her consistent ability to accomplish at least five critical things at once:
  • She zones in on a target market, men who want companionship as well as sex.
  • She takes the time to know her audience well, and to fulfill their most common fantasies - the physically attractive, upscale girlfriend who is smart but also deferential.
  • She is deeply customer-centric - available instantly, will say and do anything to please.
  • She creates additional desire with every interaction.
  • At the same time, she creates boundaries around the transaction, and when it's over, it's over.
Christine knows that others look down on what she does, but like a true brand she has adapted her value system to accommodate her profession. As she says to another character in the show, who condescendingly calls her a whore, "I fuck them but at least I don't fuck them over like you do. They know exactly what they're paying for - and i give it to them."
Also like a true person-brand gone to the extreme, Christine only sees herself as real when she is looking in the mirror. So much so in fact, that she videotapes herself performing sexual acts, and we see her watching herself on the screen, over and over again. In the moment the experience does not feel real. But as a third party watching herself perform, she is mesmerized by the viewing.
We know that great company brands do all of the things Christine does. They consistently give us a personified fantasy in consistent, specific, valuable ways. They offer a moral view of the world, one that implicitly justifies every interaction with the customer. And most importantly, they recreate the semblance of an authentic self, reassembled, packaged and "productized" in a way that only makes sense hwen you buy it.
It is obvious on watching the show that Christine is deeply troubled. But it is just as obvious that her psychological complex parallels the way that branding has developed over the past thirty years or so. Far beyond Arlie Hochschild's concept of "emotional labor," Christine personifies the idea of a human being paid exorbitant sums for the most invasive of duties - to actually be a complete human substitute, wholly available, on every level, for cash, on demand.
We can look at the way Christine carries herself and learn how to refine our brand model. But even as we do this, it is impossible to ignore the fundamental questions that lie beneath:
How far are we willing to go to have a successful brand?
What is the impact on all of us, if some of us refuse to draw a boundary between what we do at work and how we live our lives as people?
If we are all just for sale now, all of us, on every level - what is it about us that is real anymore?
And finally, if we have all been reduced to "something consumable," ought we consider some sort of personal commitment and social action, to keep certain parts of ourselves off-limits?
_________
All opinions my own. The Girlfriend Experience photo via Starz.com.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


We may argue over who is most qualified to lead.

We may engage one another warily on Facebook.

We may be horrified by the nature of the cruelty and the suffering we often face.

But we will be great anyway.

We are a nation built on impossible dreams.

We stand on the shoulders of those who laid down their bodies and died for us.

For us.

As we seek to be great we will stumble, and fall upon the way.

We will be fooled by charlatans.

We may even give up hope.

But we will be great anyway.

Because we are a blessed nation. (Not perfect by any means.) But seeded with seeds of greatness

It may seem that corruption is strong.

But we, together, are stronger.

May the One Above guide us to be wise, and courageous.

More important, may He help us never to give up.

________
All opinions my own. Photo via Wikipedia.






Saturday, April 2, 2016

 "Secret Lives of the Super Rich" is my new TV addiction because I get to, number one, vicariously live a filthy rich life and, number two, imagine that I could duplicate how they actually did it.

This week I watched an episode with luxury yachts, luxury cars, luxury homes and an entire home that is a luxury closet. Plus there were the world's most lavish safes and a man who makes everything from fishing lures to toothpicks out of 100% gold.
I realized that these people were living by a different set of rules - some smart from a branding point of view, others not so much. 

1. Smart - The Yacht People: One guy on the show is a well known party organizer. He's the one who stocks the bar with gold-flecked champagne. He told the interviewer that the value of his parties lies not in the food and drink, but in the company and the atmosphere. Clients are paying for someone who can get the right high-class people in a rolm, make them feel good, and bring them back over and over again.

2. Stupid - The Empty Houses: A few people on the show had lavish homes that were sitting empty. It was hard to believe that anyone would spend, spend, and spend some more on a stunning place they did not even inhabit. You could make the home a museum and charge admission. You could turn it into an orphanage. You could use it as a school, company headquarters, or even a design lab. But to plant olive trees and spray them so they don't yield fruit and mess up the look of the grounds? Crazy! And when they interviewed one of the owners of such a home, it was clear the whole place meant absolutely nothing to him. Somebody sold somebody the Brooklyn Bridge on that one. A case of having more money than you know what to do with.

3. Smart - The Bulletproof Mercedes: One company tricks out the already-luxury car and adds glass that can withstand an AK-47. The customers are celebrities who want a subtle status symbol and also walk around in fear for their lives. Makes sense to me.

4. Stupid - The House-Sized Closet: On the show, this one lady was shown joyfully running around her insanely huge clothing space. She was about fifty years old, but looked like a child. Whatever she was buying when she bought that space, it seemed totally useless to me. Regressive and no status benefit. 

5. Smart - The Titanium Safe: They hd a company that makes super-strong safes that are also pieces of art. One customer didn't even know what he would use it for. But I could see why having this functional, stylish, hard-to-get status item around made a lot of sense to the buyer. 

At the end of the day the reasons why people buy super-premium things vary. Although we can isolate some general patterns, often it is simply remain a mystery, locked in the buyer's head.

___

Copyright 2015 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions my own. Photo by me.