A Corporate Magazine and the Fate of Its Designer

Internal communications or propaganda, call it what you want, Pepsi-Cola World produced a notable publication. The monthly magazine was distributed to Pepsi-Cola bottling plants starting in the late 1950’s. It changed the way corporations communicated with employees to get them involved, invested and remain loyal. Yet, not all was what it seemed.

Pepsi was very style conscious given their shoestring budget compared to the big competitor. Much of this was attributed to Alfred Nu Steele, who took over the company at challenging times. Between 1950 and his death in 1959, Pepsi’s profits tripled. Nu Steele was flamboyant and loved weighing in on promotional and marketing activity. He respected the value of well-balanced art and copy.

Pepsi-Cola World was designed by Brownjohn, Chermayeff, and Geismar. Cover designs were largely the brainchild of Robert Brownjohn, who carried a witty style across all clients. The contract gave the design firm solid financial footing and earned them numerous awards. Other work followed, as did the magazine, but that would go on without Brownjohn.

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The Only 2 Advertising Books Worth Reading

No preamble required…

Where the Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign by Randall Rosenburg
This is almost a one-sitting read…but don’t rush it. The author puts you in every room of the ad agency and the car company client. It brilliantly covers Subaru’s problematic 1991-1993 effort to make hip its image by engaging Wieden+Kennedy. That case study is fascinating enough but the book is a platform to profile changes whacking the advertising industry (changes are always whacking the advertising industry). Check out Rosenburg’s career since this 1995 effort.

The book provides amazing reminders of how things once were, “Advertising agencies used to serve as their clients’ eyes and ears in the marketplace. Was there a need for a new product? Was a service now more popular in the suburbs than the cities? Were more men using a household cleanser than women? The ad agency’s research department was usually the first, and often the only, source for such information.” You can see why brands took that intel in-house. So much more in this book. Get it.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
It is one of those books that tells you that, even on its worst day, your office was an interesting place to be, if you looked for it, “We had the great good fortune and shortcomings of character that marked every generation that had never seen war.” I still remember reading this book when it first came out, on my condo balcony one weekend. It started over coffee and I finished it with scotch.

Check out this wonderfully astute, mundane wonderment, “We loved killing time and had perfected several ways of doing so. We wandered the hallways carrying papers that indicated some mission of business when in reality we were in search of free candy.” Oh yeah, it’s about advertising too.

The Branded Lunchbox

Mickey Mouse was the first popular character to appear on a lunchbox. That was 1935. As a highly personal statement and must-have accessory, the lunchbox really took off in the 1950’s. Television was a big reason for their mass adoption and accessory envy. Television made people and characters stars, it became natural for those celebrities to appear on lunch conveyances. It helps that lunchbox manufacturers built a good product. The metal carry-alongs did not wear out.

One company became the industry leader. Aladdin, introduced planned obsolescence by offering a range of options appealing to people’s fleeting interests and changing styles. They first licensed images from the Hopalong Cassidy television show, placing a design on the side of red lunchboxes. 

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Say What? Origins of Popular Expressions

It is interesting to dig back and see when common expressions originated. Not only when, but to understand the underlying meaning. Sometimes, we apply them improperly. Here are bunch to set you straight and use in the right context. Oh, and you will learn what, “Nuke the Fridge”, means.

The Acid Test: to prove something is real.

During the California Gold Rush, prospectors and dealers used acid to distinguish gold from base metal. If the metal dissolved in a mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, it was the real thing.

A Baker’s Dozen: one more over 12, or 13 in total.

Medieval English bakers gave an extra loaf when selling a dozen to avoid being penalized for selling a short weight. Bakers could be fined, pilloried or even flogged for selling ‘underweight’ bread.

Bite The Bullet: to make a difficult decision or one long put-off.

During early battles there was no time to administer anesthetics while performing surgeries. So, patients were made to bite down on bullets to distract from the pain.

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Are You Not Educated and Entertained?

When it comes to information, there is too much skimming and surfing. Too many soundbites, so little substance. We have a duty and privilege to inform and educate ourselves. Thankfully, a few publications don’t shy away from high word counts and provide deep reporting backed by tremendous research and fine writing. What follows are some of the better, longer business reads from last year. They are all jewels but among the shiniest are Marker‘s work on Alex and Ani, GQ‘s account of an infected cruise ship, and Leland Nally’s queasy look at Jeffrey Epstein’s black book in Mother Jones.

Much of the recent solid business writing is more true crime than entrepreneurial inspiration. I did not seek those out, I swear. Reporters and readers are drawn to the corporate grifters, start-up downward spirals, cult-like leaders with nefarious intent, and the shockingly inept. To be sure, they entertain and all stories carry lessons. So read on, learn and enjoy.

Unlucky Charms: The Rise and Fall of Billion-Dollar Jewelry Empire Alex and Ani

Medium’s publication, Marker, exposed me to a business and brand I’d never heard of. How reasonably priced bangles created such a wealthy soap opera will puzzle. The article eloquently chronicles a fall from towering grace. You’ll want to shake the main player so that the hubris falls off. It is also well written, “Clad in a simple pink cardigan over a T-shirt, Rafaelian stood at the lectern in a hotel conference room, her gum-snapping accent lending a common, relatable touch to what might otherwise have seemed a dubiously lofty message. “Every single person in this room is divinely put here by God,” she said, explaining that she knew this because He told her so.”

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Want to Write a Business Book…Write a Paper First

Having written a book on marketing and nurtured other nonfiction books from concept to shelf, I have learned much. Clearly, there are tangible and personally rewarding reasons to write a book. They establish you as a thought leader. Business books are proven to boost awareness, establish leads, and help close sales. Books are a ton of work but pay back in many ways.

It is a shame that the majority of them should never have been written.

There is an overwhelming amount of substandard work out there and more every day due to self-publishing and assisted self-publishing. I am not talking about books that have typos, horrendous grammar, and downright awful writing. My issue is with books that lack premise or have lazily and greedily repackaged what is commonly known and previously published. This happens across the nonfiction spectrum, from business books to self-help to the how-to varieties.

I have read over 500 marketing books and the law of diminishing returns kicked in 480 books ago. Further, when I was Chief Marketing Officer at DDB Worldwide, many colleagues were interested in writing to boost their personal brand. The global advertising agency had over 12,000 employees, so I expected waterfalls of thought leadership.

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Yogababble: The Spiritual Disguising of Brands

Language is fascinating. Written, spoken and designed communications are my trade, so my senses perk up when I happen across something new. That occurred while listening to one of Wondery’s entertaining and informative podcast series. WeCrashed covers the rise and fall of WeWork and its faux messiah leader, CEO Adam Neuman. 

On a side note, Wondery produced the insanely popular, Dirty John, among other titles. Its growing library and model of partnering to develop content, made it attractive to Amazon. The giant company paid US$300 million for Wondery on December 30, 2020.

One word hooked me through the WeCrashed series. It was, yogababble. According to Urban Dictionary, it means, “Spiritual-sounding language used by companies to sell product or make their brand more compelling on an emotional level. Coined specifically about WeWork’s IPO prospectus in 2019, which was full of phrases like “elevate the world’s consciousness” and at the same time showed problematic financials. Yogababble is intended to disguise or compensate for practical or financial weaknesses in a business or product.”

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Repeating Mistakes at the World Wildlife Fund

In 2015, I assisted a marketing agency who was pitching the World Wildife Fund’s digital marketing business. The WWF had grown in influence. At that time, it touted 5 million supporters, nearly 5,000 staff, and US$1 billion in annual funding. Its mission, ”to build a future in which people live in harmony with nature” was daunting. To get that message across, it deployed a serious communications budget. Ads for it were everywhere and media coverage high.

What I shared with the marketing agency was simply this, I did not care how clever the advertising (and the WWF’s was very clever), the net result suggested that people were awful and should feel extremely guilty. It was analogous to the ubiquitous advertisements featuring sad, malnourished children in the 1970’s and 1980’s. These initially shock and raise some awareness but quickly become preachy, judgemental, and downright depressing.

The WWF was repeating the same mistakes by missing the core idea or insight that helps bring more people in and maintains support. Their messaging needed big doses of hope and tangible evidence of progress. I was very direct. The WWF’s communications demeaned the intellect and cut the heartstrings of the people they were attempting to reach. The organization had forgotten they are in the business of communicating hope and sharing victories. Instead they lectured and chastised while asking for money. The cause was just, the communications had lost its way.

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How Spam Came to Rule the World (and why it is shoplifted in Hawaii)

What do you think of when you hear the word, “Spam”? First off, we are not talking about electronic junk mail. 

If you are thinking luncheon meat, you probably have a mixed reaction at best. For most of the grocery product’s 8-decade history, Spam has been disparaged and dismissed. The harshest critics cite is as inedible and mock it as “Something Posing As Meat” or “Scientifically Processed Animal Matter”. Yet, over 8.5 billion cans have been sold since Hormel launched the product in 1937. 

Americans buy 113 million cans of Spam annually. This means 3.8 cans are consumed every second in the United States. To keep up with demand, the slaughterhouse next to the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota butchers 20,000 pigs a day. So, how can we reconcile what is so bashed with what is bought (and stolen) in mass amounts?

Spam was successful right out of the gate, having grabbed 18% market share in its first year of sales. By 1940, 7 out of 10 of Americans had tried Spam. This was largely attributed to an economy still suffering from the Depression and it began Spam’s longstanding association with low-cost and frugality. Sales still spike when times are tough. 

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The Story Behind Richard Bachman

If you follow Stephen King in the press and social media, you will see he has passion for many topics. The author is politically vocal and not a fan of the 45th President. He is highly supportive of other writers, especially those starting out. He shares tips on the craft of writing and is delightfully self-deprecating, “I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.”

King is amazingly well-known, having sold over 350 million copies of his 61 novels. It is fair to say, his name is synonymous with the term, “bestselling”. He and other contemporary mass market novelists like Patterson, Picoult, Roberts, and Stine, pump out novel after novel.

When King’s career took off, publishers limited authors to one book per year. It was thought that the public would tire of a more active author. King has always been prolific so decided to write under another name. The idea was to avoid over-saturating the King “brand”.

Signet Books agreed to print a series of novels under the pseudonym, Richard Bachman. King used this opportunity as an experiment. He wanted to find out if his success was due to talent or luck? Would Bachman be as big as King? The Bachman novels were released with little marketing support. Unfortunately, the experiment ended too soon to come to a conclusion. King was linked to Bachman. Consider this though, the novel Thinner sold 28,000 copies under Bachman and then ten times as many when people found out it was King.

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