Sound Thinking

November 30, 2023  • 3 minute read

This episode of the RebelRebel Podcast, hosted by Michael Dargie, features a captivating conversation with Jeff Swystun. Known for his expertise in branding and marketing, Swystun shares his journey from the bustling world of Madison Avenue to becoming an acclaimed author and branding sage.

Key Discussion Points:

Madison Avenue Memories: Swystun delves into his early career in advertising and branding, sharing anecdotes and insights from his time on Madison Avenue.

Transition to Independence: The episode explores Swystun’s shift from corporate life to becoming an independent branding consultant, offering strategic insights across a variety of industries.

Literary Ventures: Swystun talks about his books, including Why Marketing Works, and a unique exploration of the history of TV dinners, blending social and business history with culinary evolution.

Storytelling and Brand Strategy: The conversation highlights the importance of storytelling in branding, with Swystun discussing how brands connect with their audience through unique narratives.

Personal Side of Creativity and Entrepreneurship: Jeff shares personal anecdotes from his global business experiences, including the challenges and triumphs he faced as a creative professional.

Looking Ahead: The episode wraps up with Swystun discussing his future projects and aspirations in the realms of writing and branding innovation.

This episode is not just an interview; it’s a masterclass in branding, marketing, and creative expression. Jeff Swystun’s journey provides invaluable insights for anyone passionate about the creative industries.

September 12, 2022 • 3 minute read

Recently I visited a small grocery store. As a marketer, I enter a retail environment with a different set of lenses than most consumers (though all consumers are trained to be marketers). The space was so packed that there was no flow or logic to merchandising and customer need.

Aisles dictated some order but a mish-mash of promotional displays, shouting signs, and a non-linear order to the layout was off-putting. One display literally blocked my way. It belonged to Kit Kat and its crazy proliferation of product extension sweet treats. I grew up humming the chocolate wafer bar’s jingle, Gimme a Break, and am a fan of the bar. Yet, this was a barrier rather than a welcoming promotional tool.

The cardboard display stood four feet high and two feet wide, holding a vast array of confusing sub-Kit Kats in different flavours, shapes, and sizes. There was the Chunky Popcorn Wafer Bar, Roasted Almond Wafer Bar, Caramel Crisp Wafer Bar, Matcha Green Tea Multipack, and 2Finger Orange.

The confectionary’s website lists over 40 variations of the original four-finger bar. The strategy seems to be, more is more. This is a mistake. Marketing studies prove that such proliferation will erode sales and the different manufacturing and packaging required is costly.

This reminded me of the Head & Shoulder’s story in the book, The Art of Choosing. When Proctor and Gamble reduced their Head & Shoulders line from 26 products to 15, sales increased 10%. The author, Sheena Iyengar, conducted an experiment to discover how extensive options impact consumer choice.

Sheena was fond of a bespoke grocery store that had hundreds of tourists but very few people bought anything (including herself). She ran an experiment where she offered jams for tasting. Once she offered 6 flavours, another time she offered 24. While people were more likely to stop and taste the 24 flavours, nearly none bought a jar. She got 6 times more sales from the experiment with only 6 flavours.

Maybe that is the Kit Kat strategy. Confuse everyone with Matcha Green Tea and other bizarre offshoots then when they ditch 30 of the 40 varieties, sales will truly take off.

May 5, 2022 • 5 minute read

Language is fascinating. Written, spoken and designed communications are my trade so, when I happen across something new, I perk up. That occurred while listening to the WeCrashed podcast from Wondery, covering the rise and fall of WeWork and CEO Adam Neuman. And was further reinforced by the entertaining television series.

One word hooked me throughout the podcast. 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.”

Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at New York University, coined the term. He once shared the stage with Adam Neuman at a business conference and was immediately put-off by the founder’s quasi-religious turn-of-phrase. When WeWork’s US$47 billion IPO prospectus came out, Galloway poured through it. On the very first page, it stated, “Here’s to the power of We.” Cults are more subtle.

The professor was unsure if the document was describing a pharmaceutical company, an exercise brand, or a religion. It was written by Neuman and the design was directed by his wife, Rebekah, who had the title, Chief Brand and Impact Officer. No one at the company was really sure what responsibilities that carried and were further confused when Rebekah tended to relate everything back to her yoga training and particular brand of wellness. It seemed her role was to aggrandize her husband as more of a spiritual than business leader.

Given she studied Buddhism and business at Cornell, that was a familiar cocktail. Critics inside and outside WeWork, pointed out that Adam, who stands 6’4”, appeared in most photographs with his arms stretched out like a mystical wonder. The prospectus mentions him 169 times when most mention their CEO’s no more than 50. He is referred to only by his first name in the financial document, conjuring up Old and New Testaments in equal measure. A Jesus complex seeped into the disclosure document.

For the professor, such yogababble in the IPO was a giant red flag. After years of following this company, and publicly doubting its positioning and claims, his frustrations grew. Galloway must have wanted to scream, “You rent desks!” His ire is not reserved for WeWork only. Galloway calls out the Peloton fitness bicycle phenomenon. That enterprise refers to itself as, “an innovation company transforming the lives of people around the world.” The professor’s response? “No. You sell exercise equipment.”

You have to laugh because corporate-speak and business communications have been humorous for a long time. Decades before I worked on Madison Avenue, there was the notion of, “sizzle and steak”. Your product was grilled beef, but you differentiated with a florid and fanciful description of how the meat slices like butter, melts in your mouth, and tells the world you have arrived.

Now marketers have adopted new age terminology used in non-religious and non-spiritual contexts, to convince people to buy. WeWork was a bricks and mortar business but sought the excitement, respect and valuation of a Software as a Service enterprise. Liberally peppered in the communications was a seasoning of fake do-gooderness and an incredibly vague, irrelevant notion of becoming a global movement.

It is hard not to roast all wannabe unicorns for, “wanting to make the world a better place”. That god-like, hollow goal permeated WeWork. Adam once spoke of solving the worldwide problem of orphans at a company retreat. Rebekah started a school, WeGrow, for adolescents who were to be schooled in entrepreneurship and marketing. She touted that the toddlers would be treated to “branding masterclasses”. Rebekah’s cousin is Gwyneth Paltrow, so questionable branding claims are in great supply within the family.

Galloway’s honest assessment went viral. It prompted him to create, The Yogababble Index®. It is meant to expose those who overpromise and underdeliver, who embracing faking it until the capital is raised, “when firms are still searching for a viable business model, the temptation to go full yogababble gets stronger, as the truth (numbers, business model, EBITDA) needs concealer.”

The professor is not a fan of corporate communications professionals, “According to LinkedIn, there are more corporate comms personnel working for Bezos at Amazon (969) than journalists working for Bezos at the Washington Post (798).” This attack is warranted. I held the title, Chief Communication Officer at DDB Worldwide. I saw my job as protector and marketer of the DDB brand while witnessing other corporate communications professionals being doe-eyed cheerleaders for the business leaders.

Galloway must be lauded for the attacks on WeWork and Peloton brand positioning. I wrote a blog, A Brand is Not a Way of Life, questioning why every brand is a “lifestyle” brand. I cited the absurdity of Listerine desiring to be one. Rich Duprey agreed in The Motley Fool. He profiled Burger King’s desire to be a lifestyle not a burger restaurant. He called Burger King, “delusional”.

Consumers expect brands to sell to them, but they are not asking to define and run their lives. Where Galloway likes to pick on Peloton, I go after Soul Cycle. Having written more brand stories than most will read, I barf a little when reading, “At Soul Cycle…we aspire to inspire. We inhale intention and exhale expectation.” That is new age snake oil. Further, I believe it irresponsible for the exercise company to state, “Addicted. Obsessed. Unnaturally attached to our bikes.”

The podcast hints at fraud and explores what Galloway calls, the Unicorn-Industrial Complex, “the pursuit of stupid capital.” I appreciated the impact of language and its impact. A strong narrative is incredibly powerful. As the professor points out, there is a thin line between vision, bullshit, and fraud. Stories sway, so they come with incredible responsibility.

Novembe 2 2022, 20213 minute read

Let’s start with a confession, I was a mediocre student. Prescribed reading and set curriculum ignited rebellion. Unfortunately, that meant denying myself the love of reading until my twenties. When I had choice of what and when I wanted to read, it became a passion. I estimate having read over 2,500 books.

But it is not quantity, nor quality. It is what you gain from a beautiful page of prose and how tightly you held your nose reading a stinker. Both experiences are equal. The value is in the reading. It is the practice, the fun, and the discipline. The sense of discovery. It is fireworks of enlightenment and understanding. It is individual debate and collective understanding. It is an unexpected tear and a surprising chuckle. What we read moves, influences, and changes us. Both fiction and nonfiction are powerful vehicles, extraordinary time machines, and streaking spaceships.

Now for confession number two. There are strong forces eroding my exploration of the written world. These are the frenemies of reading. They can be conquered and managed but it is critical to identify and come to grips with their existence.

Frenemy #1: Streaming Services
Reading for me took a big hit because of Netflix and other services. I justify this by saying, “Well, it is storytelling. It is entertainment.” I have binged amazing amounts of programming. There are only so many hours in the day. So, something had to be sacrificed and that has been reading.

Frenemy #2: Amazon Reviewer Rankings
I am a performance-based fellow. I am competitive. I have been a reviewer on Amazon for years. Once, I was reviewer #1,215 on And number #17 in Canada. There was pride in this activity. I only reviewed books. Yet, I was lumped in with anyone who reviewed anything sold. How a teaspoon review can be on the same level as reading, War and Peace, is something Amazon needs to fix. If the company segmented properly, I would be in the top 100 in book reviews. But I rant.

This ranking race sped me through books. I did not fully enjoy or appreciate the effort made by the authors. I was responding to Amazon’s algorithm. More reviews meant better performance as a reviewer. I sprinted through books rather than digest and reflect on the content. Shame on me.

Frenemy #3: Goodreads Book Challenge
Amazon subsidiary, Goodreads, offers a challenge. You pick how many books you want to read in the next twelve months. Guess what behavior that drives? It is a stupid metric. Once again, it is about selling more books, not enjoying books. By the way, I chose 50 books for 2021 and am sixteen ahead of schedule. Goodreads tells you that you are falling short or exceeding your goal. Goodreads wants me to buy more and guilt me in the process.

Frenemy #4: Audiobooks
Purists disdain the audiobook. I am divided. I listen to thrillers. Escapes. Easily digestible and often forgettable. That is because I am listening to them while doing something else. Are they in direct competition with my actual reading time? No, I don’t hike while reading a book. However, when I finish an audiobook, I give myself permission to be lazy on real reading because, hey, I just “read a book”.

Frenemy #5: E-Readers
I was the earliest adopter of the Kindle. I still have my first one tucked away with my first cellphone (a brick) and first iPod (thick as a pack of playing cards). I now use the Kindle app on my iPad. There are three big problems with this type of reading. First, percentages instead of pages makes me race faster. Second, it is too easy to download books, so I amass tons then feel pressure to consume them rather than enjoy them. Lastly, I miss picking up a tangible book and seeing the cover. I can be reading an e-book and never recall the title or author’s name.

Tangible books still rule. The tactile, precious nature of their printing and binding demands reverence. Recently, I reread Robert Caro’s, The Power Broker. It is bloody fantastic. I bought the hard cover edition and cradle it like a Faberge egg. I digest and revel in every word. That is reading.

May 13, 2022  • 6 minute read

Oliver Wendell Homes said, “carve every word before you let it fall.” I love to connect with people through writing and take the practice most seriously. It is about illuminating and exploring the world without necessarily solving or resolving. Yet, when it comes to business writing, solutions are at the heart of the practice.

Josh Bernoff wrote in The Daily Beast a piece titled, Bad Writing Costs Businesses Billions. Bernoff has been a writer for 30 years and published, Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean. The article grabs with an amazing statistic. It seems that bad writing is costing American businesses close to $400 billion every year.

He writes, “Think about it. You start your day wading through first-draft emails from colleagues who fail to come to the point. You consume reports that don’t make clear what’s happening or what your management should do about it. The websites, marketing materials, and press releases from your suppliers are filled with jargon and meaningless superlatives.” The last sentence resonated with me. I am on a mission to ruthlessly improve my own writing. It is more important now given the pandemic forcing us to be better at working remotely.

We spend nearly a quarter of the day reading work stuff. Much of that is wasted because the material is poorly written. Bernoff has done the math, “American workers spend 22 percent of their work time reading; higher compensated workers read more. According to my analysis, America is spending 6 percent of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material. Every company, every manager, every professional pays this tax, which consumes $396 billion of our national income.”

He illustrates the problem with this mind numbing job description example: “The Area Vice President, Enterprise Customers will develop and manage a sustainable strategic relationship that transforms the current commercial model by creating joint value that results in the ongoing reduction of costs, continuous process improvement, growth and profitability for both partners with the ability to export key learnings.” The language is poor, embarrassing and grating.

Kaleigh Moore’s article in Inc., examined a related aspect. She makes the case that communication, “is an essential skill for any business”. She cites CollegeBoard, a panel established by the National Commission on Writing, “businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training annually. Of this budget, $2.9 billion was spent on current employees–not new hires” because, “even a college degree doesn’t save businesses from the effects of poor writing skills.”

A report from the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills identified 26.2 percent of college students having deficient writing skills. These educated folks “also lacked proper communication skills across the board.” This should come as no surprise. Writing makes you a better reader and conversationalist. It improves presentation skills. All make for a more resilient, more innovative and efficient workforce.

Carolyn O’Hara tackled this subject in Harvard Business Review. Her piece, How to Improve Your Business Writing, paraphrases Marvin Swift, “clear writing means clear thinking.” Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management is also quoted, “You can have all the great ideas in the world and if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them.” That is true. I have witnessed clients making the mistake of not only assuming they’ve been heard but that they have been understood. Often, neither has taken place. O’Hara lays out sound advice:

Think before you write: don’t start writing on the spark of an idea. Talk it through in your own mind before words flow on paper.

Be direct: make your point right up front. It will guide everything after. Prove or disprove a thesis.

Cut the fat: avoid the unnecessary and build up the necessary, not with words, with emphasis.

Avoid jargon and $10 words: Converse, don’t impress.

Read what you write: I agree and read it out loud. You will edit for greater impact.

Time off: We write every day but walk away from that book, article, blog, or report. Athletes do not train the same muscles every day.

Josh Bernoff suggests, “The Iron Imperative” where you “treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. To embrace it means that every time you send an email or write a document, you must take time to structure it for maximum readability and meaning. We are lazy; we’d rather save our own time than someone else’s.” That is true. It is easier to press “send” than edit.

Smartphone or computer screen reading, “reduces attention spans and concentration” so it “demands a radical rethink of the way you communicate in writing. In this environment, brevity must become a core value.” I am not a proponent of this in a strict sense. Bernoff’s mantra of ‘clarity, brevity, and plain language’ misses the opportunity to be creative, inject personality and tell a richer story.

Poor business writing costs businesses big dollars and everyone needs help to be a better writer. This means you. You can always improve. If you do, it will contribute to your career, business success, and the economy. Advertising professional, David Ogilvy, had it right, “People who think well, write well. Good writing is not a natural gift.”