Fear is America’s Top-Selling Consumer Product

The Summer, 2017 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly tackles the subject of Fear. This literary magazine examines a theme using primary source material. Each edition contains dozens of essays, speeches, quotes, art, photos, statistics and excerpts from contemporary and historical authors. I attest that its Spring, 2012 issue on Communication is among the finest things I have ever read.

On the subject of Fear Lewis H. Lapham’s Preamble is highly compelling, intelligent, and troubling. He cites “the innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for making something out of nothing and the equally innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for self-deception.” His point being that the country has lost its capacity to reason critically. What I have noticed in the last two years is America is becoming more tribal and trivial. Ever greater numbers of smaller, more specific self-interest groups take increasing exception with whatever is being said by whoever says it.

The publication and Lapham himself  believe “Fear is America’s top-selling consumer product, available 24-7 as mobile app with color-coded pop-ups in all shades of the paranoid rainbow. Ready to hand at the touch of a screen, the turn of a phrase, the nudge of tweet.” It is important to note that when fear rules populaces crave a strong man. History is replete with such examples and a near corresponding number of disasters.

One could read this piece and conclude that the publication is anti-Trump. That is far too simple a conclusion and naively narrow in perspective. Indeed, in its totality this issue basically concludes people reap what they sow. America is not a Trump America but its fear gave Trump, his supporters and doctrine ground to flourish. American’s now react to a tagline to convince them of deeper thinking and reasoned arguments. “Just say No to Drugs”, “Shock and Awe” and “Make America Great Again” are mind-numbingly inane and absolutely deceptive or self-deceptive.

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For Retailers, The Struggle Continues

Two years ago I wrote about the struggle of retailers. At that time the big story was Target’s retreat from Canada. The chain closed 133 stores, laid-off 17,600 employees and absorbed US$2-billion in losses. That figure did not include the $7 billion the company invested to enter the market.

Target dominated the headlines but at the same time in Canada Sony closed all 14 of its stores, Mexx 95, Smart Set 107, and Jacob 92. In North America, Staples shuttered 225 stores, Office Depot 500, Radio Shack 200, Abercrombie & Fitch 180, Aeropostale 250, JC Penny 39, Wet Seal 338 and Coach 70.

Are they missed? Not really and the numbers and types of stores shedding physical locations continues to grow. Credit consulting firm F&D Reports that in the U.S. 3,600 stores have closed since January. That is about 20 a day. The firm expects the number will reach 10,000 by the end of the year. Vulnerable brands include Neiman Marcus, Sears (no surprise), Claire’s, and J. Crew.

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10 Communications Challenges

Communications holds the power to change minds, prompt action and move the world. But it has to get better. It has to strive to be the best. In business communications, we have identified ten challenges that are standing in the way of it being better. These come from the breadth and depth of our work with leading brands and brands that want to lead.

Challenge #1

Everyone is talking about disruptions and innovation yet communications are predictable, safe and boring. Are you satisfied with being a me-too brand? Communications that are compelling and different are in short supply. Effort and spend are going up in smoke. Too few brands are bold.

Challenge #2

Communicators are attracted to shiny new toys and forget the fundamentals. Are you overcomplicating while missing the tried and true? Social media, V/R, video, SEO, programmatic – these are important tactics but they are that, tactics. What is missing is smart, sharp and penetrating strategies.

Challenge #3

Businesses think impersonally in terms of “audiences” and “targets” and “markets”. Do you really know who wants and needs what you have? The science and art of segmentation is a terrible state these days. The business schools teach it poorly and businesses employ it haphazardly. This leaves very real customers thinking you do not know them or care to.

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Dissecting FT Weekend’s New Branding

Two months ago The Financial Times refreshed FT Weekend. This was introduced through an integrated marketing campaign “aimed at a growing readership who favour the immersive experience of print on the weekend while remaining highly engaged with digital journalism during the week.” That is an insightful and challenging objective.

What piqued my interest was the print component. The campaign’s tagline grabbed me (isn’t it great when that happens?). The three lines are compelling. “World-class writing” is sharp and smart. I can see how they arrived at it and am grateful they did. The cornerstone of journalism is a free press. That means possessing honesty and objectivity and marrying them with insight. Those are lofty ideals to sell a paper. Perhaps too lofty and I expect FT and their advertising agency thought so too.

Instead they now focus on global reach and fresh perspective along with how they write and communicate. The three words in the tagline are absolutely power-packed. The line represents the core skill-set of journalism and what must be the overriding differentiator of any publication online, off or both. That is quality of writing. As far as I know no other publication is landing on that notion or boldly claiming it even though it is fundamental.

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Measured Marketing: Why Aren’t Marketing Departments Run on a P&L?

Jay Baer has it right. Baer is a marketing consultant, speaker, and the author of book, Youtility. He said, “Make your marketing so useful people would pay you for it.” It is a wonderful notion. The quote gets at excellence in marketing while holding the practice accountable.

It is strange that most marketing departments are structured so loosely. I am not talking about the organizational structure. There is far too much written and explored on that topic. I contend that the organization of a marketing department would become extremely clear, efficient and effective if it was subject to being its own profit and loss center.

Instead the vast majority of marketing departments get a budget. The team executes within that spend and produces mediocre results for the most part. The next year the budget gets a little bump to reflect inflation and higher costs. This cycle repeats until the CEO removes the head of marketing due to vague results.

I have run global marketing teams and advise companies on how best to set-up their marketing organizations. In chats with CEOs and CMOs I passionately suggest the P&L route. CEOs love it. CMOs not so much. That is too bad because it would make marketing so much better and would weed out the real good CMOs from the ones who bluster and obfuscate. This move would have positive impact on CMO turnover.

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How Blogging Has Influenced Writing

It is hard to comprehend that a new blog is created every 7.4 seconds. Nearly 3,000,000 posts are made public every day. Over 10,000 updates take place each hour. These statistics come from Technorati and prove that there is a hell of a lot of content in our world.

The Internet and social media democratized writing. Unfortunately, so much of it is poor. The content tends to be unoriginal, dumbed-down, misleading and misinformed. Other issues persist including the regurgitation of the same content and the writer lacking credibility. There seems to be a need to pump out more, for more’s sake, rather than providing real thought, real value.

These issues impact the profession of writing and the efficacy of blogging. For those with a formal education in writing the vast majority of blogs provoke cardiac arrest. The very basics of writing are missing; structure, spelling, tenses, storytelling, and grammar. Too many blogs fail to include a unique point-of-view and a motivating call-to-action.

It is fair to say that the very nature of blogs is sloppy. They are opinion pieces lacking interviews and research, they are short compared to articles and papers, the content is built around SEO keywords, the style is casual, and, as covered, good writing is optional. Every single blog post would benefit from proofreading and editing.

Writing is an art form. Blogging must correct the ‘quantity over quality’ mission it currently pursues. Here are ways to make that correction.

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There Is Too Much Written Content

Every day your inbox is pummeled by content you forgot you signed up for (or probably didn’t). You are on Flipboard, Twitter, LinkedIn and a bunch of other time sucking “tools” you vow not to check but you do. It doesn’t help that you are “pinged” every minute like Pavlov’s dog. Texts and Facebook Messenger fight for your attention. Friends send you stuff they think is interesting. Then there is traditional media struggling for your attention.

There is so much content. The world now has 1 billion websites. You can read 470 million blogs…I know this seems awfully low but most go dormant after a post or two because they offer zero value. Still, there are tens of millions of posts every day. Online magazines are ever growing. There are really no accurate counts. Suffice it to say there is overwhelming content. And way too much bad content.

The net and social media promised dialogue but it is a one-way loudspeaker. Everything screams at us with a false sense of urgency, importance and value. It is like everything stated should have an exclamation point. At the same time the content is horrendously dumbed down. It starts with attempts to hook us with titles like these:

The Numbered List: 7 Ways To Irritate Your Partner

How-To: Build Your Own Aircraft Carrier

Case Study: How We Grew Our Twitter Followers By Buying Them

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Taglines…need to be all they can be

Read this piece below or download the nicely designed PDF (Taglines).

It is ironic that a short bit of writing used to concisely convey an idea is called different names. These communication devices go by slogan, catchphrase, motto or tagline. For the sake of this piece and my preference, I call them taglines. Slogans possess a cheap connotation, 8701catchphrases seem vacuous bits of pop culture, and a motto is actually a hard rule more than an idea or aspiration. You can also throw jingles amongst them as a type of slogan set to music. So tagline it is.

Taglines are battle cries and statements of benefit and intent. They exist to offer information in a succinct, appealing and creative way. Ideally they deliver a message that shapes opinion and changes behavior. Taglines, when combined with action, have spurned whole movements.

These tools have been around for centuries and were refined during political campaigns in the 1800’s. In the latter half of that century they began to be employed to create awareness for products and services. Ivory Soap’s 99 and 44/100ths percent pure was a pledge of quality to ivory_old_1954consumers. It floats was added in 1891 because competitive soaps did not float. Heinz’s “57 Varieties” came along, as well as, Nabisco’s clever Uneeda Biscuit that was both tagline and name all in one.

Memorable taglines have stated clear positions. There is American by Birth. Rebel by Choice. for Harley-Davidson, A Diamond is Forever for De Beers, and AVIS’ We Try Harder. Some engage by asking questions including Capital One’s What’s In Your Wallet? And UPS’ What Can Brown Do For You?

These lines tend to offer clear benefits like M&Ms Melts In Your Mouth, Not In Your Hand or the United States Postal Service We Deliver for You. Others include the name of the product or company to firmly plant them in our conscious or subconscious. Examples include Virginia Is For Lovers for Virginia Tourism and Like A Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There. Some appear www-VA4L-neg-verdefensive like Live in your world. Play in ours. for PlayStation.

Taglines have been historically a pithy short sentence or combination of words meant to live for several years if not decades. They have been locked up with a brand name and logo. That choice of words, “locked up”, is deliberate. This use of taglines is incredibly confining and tethered to antiquated marketing thinking that has lost relevance.

They should not always be carved in stone. While the idea of finding some all-encompassing nirvana statement that nails it and resonates for years is appealing, I believe the tagline can be doing so much more for a brand. In fact, I view them as mini campaigns that deserve far more freedom.

This epiphany came to me through a series of client rebranding engagements. A new brand or rebrand all demand fresh communications. When launching a rebrand I was repeatedly recommending a launch tagline that would live for a few months or upwards of a year. Then at the appropriate time it would be swapped for an attempt at a more timeless rendition. This meant avis-logoconcocting a handful or more for the client to evaluate. In every case this bundle of taglines had one or two that did not create a spark but the others were always enjoyed. So why cast them all away?

I advocate the use of different taglines at different times for different audiences. Branding is much more flexible and tailored these days. The heavy and thick guideline books that once dominated the practice no longer exist for a reason. A single tagline has diminishing value given the fluid and variable applications we use today. I often think that brand guidelines were less about consistency and more about command and control from the brand owner. They limited creativity in a monolithic manner.

There was also the fear of the cost of changing anything “locked up” in the guidelines. This I can understand. No business can change where a key brand element lives with frequency. Now in this time of digital, brands can afford and need to tailor their communications and that includes taglines.

Arguably HSBC has been doing this for years. Granted they go by The World’s Local Bank but all of their communications leverage the notion of tailored taglines used in combination. They employ, We see no problem in different points of view. Only potential. Then there is, The more you look at the world, the more you recognize people’s different values. and The more you look at the world, the more you recognize what really matters to people.

So though A Diamond is Forever a tagline does not have to be. Taglines need to ‘try harder’. Rather than use a tagline as a static statement or one battle cry, set loose a manageable army of them. Lead them and make them work together but act fast because soon every brand will be doing the same.

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Missed Merger Opportunity?

Last November, Publicis Chairman and Chief Executive Maurice Lévy, announced a merger to create an “unmatched leader”. This combination of two agencies was orchestrated to “serve clients that are transforming into digitally-driven businesses in a marketplace that is undergoing a rapid pace of change”. Levy was heralding the union of SapientNitro and Razorfish.

Both are veterans of the digital wars. They have lived through the dotcom bust, the advent and expansion of social media, and were independently trying to define what digital means to business before being combined. Undeniably they had two of the coolest names in the business.

Lévy noted at the time of the merger, “When we formed Publicis.Sapient we integrated the strongest set of capabilities in digital, consulting and technology amongst any of our peer group. We are now taking this next, important step, to further integrate these formidable assets. SapientRazorfish is a powerful new entity in the marketplace uniquely combining customer experience strategy, omni channel commerce, and technology deployment to create a new breed of digital transformation partner pointed at today’s most critical client need – reshaping their businesses for the future.”

That is a lot of industry jargon but you get the gist. What I took away from it is Publicis had no real merger or integration plan. They just hoped the merged management groups would create some magic. Along the way I am sure they hoped for cost savings by paring down staff and real estate.

Fast-forward four months and Publicis reported it would write down its digital arm, Publicis.Sapient, that houses SapientNitro, by roughly $1.5 billion or almost half of its initial valuation. Analysts and media saw this happening for a few different reasons. Some pointed to spending too much on Sapient (Publicis paid $3.7 billion in 2014}. Others suggest it has become a drag on Publicis’ overall business. While still another contingent believe the merger with Razorfish is to blame.

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New & Improved: This Branding Trendsletter Is A Must

Its not on any set schedule. We send out New & Improved when we have good stuff to share. Not only our own ideas, cases and thoughts leadership but the best thinking in branding, marketing, and thought leadership. Sign up here. If you don’t like it you can opt-out any time though we will go into a deep depression.

Check out the graphic eye candy below to give you an idea of the content…like these wonderfully designed headers…

And how about this proprietary content?…

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