The Slow Decay of Substantive Content

William Henry wrote In Defense of Elitism in 1994. Though the title may come across as pompous the book is actually a rallying cry for curiosity, exploration, and discovery for all. Henry was the Pulitzer Prize-winning culture critic for Time magazine. The book was slammed by critics as a very thinly veiled stab at egalitarianism. In fact, it was an attack on the dumbing down of society. More specifically, it identified the strange path America was on and goes a long way to explaining where it finds itself today.

One passage points out, “Today, even critical books about ideas are expected to be prescriptive, to conclude with simple, step-by-step solutions to whatever crisis they discuss. Reading itself is becoming a way out of thinking.”

Henry was accurate but may have miscalculated how quickly and, to what extent, this has taken hold in society. One only has to see the headlines in once-respected newspapers and magazines or take in the astonishing range of poorly written blogs or view scrolling tweets of perpetuating nonsense to conclude that we are losing the ability to search for, develop, and discover knowledge. This morning I was greeted with the following headlines from various sources “7 Things You Need to Know About …”, “13 Do’s and Don’ts of …”, “The 9 Most Common …”, “Top 10 Tips for …”, “5 Ways to …”.

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Ban the Elevator Pitch

Warning! This will take longer than 30 seconds to read.

Recently I was at a lunch with an interesting group. Two of the folks were the founders of a start-up and the other two were from an advertising agency. I was present to act as a bridge having been charged with articulating the new entity’s brand. For the next ninety minutes I was highly amused taking in a veritable verbal tennis match between my four lunch mates. At the end, I was more confused by the purpose of the intended business than when I first sat down and said as much.

One of the advertising professionals suggested the founders provide a “30 second elevator pitch”. We were then treated to a string of words that first came across as impressive but really added up to a dense, jargon-laden paragraph of nonsense. elevator-pitch1I am not sure who chuckled first but it prompted everyone to join in. We all recognized the absurdity of the exercise.

It made me think about the ‘elevator pitch’ concept and the broader, more troubling trend of simplifying almost everything these days. In business this seems to have started with advertising and relates quite closely to radio and television advertisement lengths. The thought being, if you could not get your message across quickly there was something dreadfully wrong.

Now brief, staccato-like messaging has become the norm in communications. This is attributed to the growing number of messages people are subjected to and the range of technologies that carry them. Experts claim that people’s attention spans have dramatically shortened as a result. So logically, somewhat ironically, and hopefully not irreversibly, what we communicated got shorter too. Read more

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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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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Professional Services Marketing

How do you differentiate a law firm?

What makes an ad agency relevant?

How can you tell one accounting firm from another?

Can brand-building really help a consulting firm win more business?

Professional services take away problems and capture benefits. This is why they exist. This applies to law firms, consultancies, advertising agencies, architects, wealth management or private banking services, creative agencies, and accounting firms. If they do it right they are rewarded with long-term, mutually beneficial relationships.

Professional services are fascinating. Tom Peters, management consultant and author, has said, “The professional service firm – with its obsession with clients and projects – must be the new organization model.” Yet, professional services are tough businesses to brand because the promise is intangible and requires a leap-of-faith purchase.

Professional Service Essence

Whether it be a consulting, accounting, advertising or architecture firm, common characteristics apply. Each involves a specialty that demands highly talented people (who can be highly demanding). Most firms pursue deliver services that are repeatable and trainable to efficiently and effectively grow revenue. And though these services are offered to a variety of clients, they must be delivered in a customized way demanding high levels of face-to-face interaction.

The essence of professional services is that they prepare clients for the future, preempt the undesirable, control what can be controlled, and identify new opportunities.

Because of these commonalities, firms tend to share the same business model. They rely on  leverage in organizational design for profitability, structure and process, and career path strategies.

In terms of business development, they become hunter or farmer. Then they endlessly debate how best to go-to-market and usually arrive at an unnecessarily complex matrix involving a combination of service, geography, industry, and/or client segmentation. They bore the market because they are talking to themselves.

The vast majority of firms are too flexible when it comes to strategic positioning. They react to any new opportunity or chase any expression of interest from a prospect, making them quite willing to deviate from “strategy.” They are known to chase fads. Or they bluntly apply defined service offerings to a broad range of client business problems, epitomizing the maxim, “If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

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Revitalizing a Wine Brand

I was born in 1965 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. That sentence reads like a dual confession and I have one more to share before this is over but we will get to that shortly. Any how, from the 1960’s to 1990’s, wine took a backseat to beer and spirits in Canada. In Manitoba, Old Vienna beer and any rye brand dominated for decades. When wine did grace the table or flowed at a party, invariably it was Black Tower, Blue Nun, or Baby Duck.

Black Tower suggested Teutonic dominance with its once clay bottles. Blue Nun had a pleasing name and label that implied organized religion had blessed your choice. Baby Duck was hugely successful. It sold 8 million bottles in 1973 alone. The name prompted many imitators. In the 1970’s, you could buy Canada Duck, Love-A-Duck, Kool Duck, Daddy Duck, and Fuddle Duck (say this last one three times fast). One brand even tried a poorly thought-out deviation and went by the name of Cold Turkey.

With all due deference to Black Tower, Blue Nun, and Baby Duck, they were outclassed by a fourth 158243774_-mateus-rose-pink-wine-bottle-candle-brazil-nuts----1powerhouse. Do me a favour. Close your eyes. Now picture a wine bottle unlike the standard. In this one, the 750ml of wine was contained in a squat teardrop shape. Remember it? I am speaking of Mateus. Following consumption that bottle often housed a succession of candles in its tapered neck. Waxes of different colours would run together in pleasing collages. In Manitoba, drinking Mateus and displaying the empty bottle as part of your household decorating suggested European refinement at its best (I am not joking).

Now take a break and allow yourself an eye-roll or laugh. Everyone pokes fun at Mateus. They attack the quality of the wine and claim in a self-deprecating way just how silly they were to ever drink it in the first place. Still, this indicates a fond nostalgia that the brand has never capitalized on. In its heyday, Mateus sold 4 million cases annually in the United States alone. The wine’s owner, Sogrape, now makes less than 2 million cases a year in total. This, to me, is a huge opportunity.

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Jeff Chats Canadian Brands

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

It works for Canada Goose, but how far can ‘made in Canada’ go? by Shelley White

Sun, sand and surf are not three things we’re internationally renowned for in Canada. Yet one of our hottest exports of the moment is Shan, a line of chic, high-end resort and swimwear that is designed and manufactured entirely in Laval, Que.

In addition to flagship stores in Montreal and Toronto, Shan has boutiques in Miami and the Hamptons, and 65 per cent of its revenue comes from the 30-odd countries it ships to, says Jean-François Sigouin, vice-president at Shan.

Shan is a line of high-end resort and swimwear that is designed and manufactured in Laval, Que., which allows it to retain full control over its product. As 65 per cent of its revenue comes from abroad, the “Made in Canada” brand works for the company because its international buyers recognize that to mean quality, the company says.

The suits aren’t cheap – they run about $300 each – but that’s sort of the point, says Mr. Sigouin.

“The philosophy of the brand is to offer quality instead of quantity,” he says. By manufacturing in Laval instead of overseas, the company has full control over its product. “We are totally vertically integrated from the design to production to retail because we have everything in the same building.”

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The Best in Narrative Psychology

When you meet someone for the first time or reconnect with an old friend or go to a dinner party what takes place? Think of any situation where you are interacting with others. We share an anecdote from our day at the dinner party. We tell that old friend about what has taken place with our family and career. We attempt to connect with someone new by conveying our experiences and interests. This does not mean listing or dating activities. In every instance we use storytelling to communicate, engage, and relate.

Storytelling helps us make sense of our lives and the world around us. They are an incredibly effective method of finding and sharing meaning and context. Mary Catherine Bateson, writer and cultural anthropologist, believes that, “The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” We are hardwired for stories because we have been telling them for centuries.

Marketing and advertising practitioners continue to debate the application of storytelling in business. The most voracious advocates cannot see past the construct and even the hardiest critics employ storytelling. So why all this sharing of tales? Stories inspire and motivate. Stories make ideas stick. Stories persuade. Stories educate and entertain. That makes for good marketing.

A few years back at the Festival of Creativity in Cannes I had the pleasure of interviewing Arianna Huffington, Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, of The Huffington Post. It was also a challenge as her handlers held me to just three questions. She once said, “People think in stories, not statistics, and marketers need to be master storytellers.”

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