Saturday, June 25, 2016

Brexit lessons for branding

Britain’s stunning vote to leave the EU yields this basic message: No matter how diverse and interrelated society has become, people still want to belong to something familiar. They like having their own country, their own language, their same ol' flag.

I won’t delve into the psychology of this phenomenon. Disparage it as atavistic tribalism if you wish. Tie it to dark fears of ancestors prowling the earth in tiny bands beset by famine and beasts. Whatever its roots, the instinct to cluster together in familiar settings calms the blood and squirts out waves of whatever hormones turn human lips into a smile.

Brand marketers beware. June 24—last night's British Independence Day—has three lessons:

1 Little is big.
There is something to be said for small and knowable. Gigantic, faraway companies run according to sophisticated metrics may not be the best magnets of consumer love. Mom ‘n pop, start your store! You may have a competitive edge.

2 Localness is universal.
A global company that acquires a local competitor—e.g. financial giants gobbling up regional banks—should think twice before obliterating the local name and culture. Everyone hates “the big banks.” People might cut bankers some slack if they still looked and acted like Marine Midland or Republic National Bank of New York or Credit Commercial de France, all of which were ground into the ghastly monolith called HSBC.

3 Force is feeble.
Forcing customers to do things often fails. The EU bureaucracy's imposition of rules, regulations and mass immigration sparked a populist revolt. The annals of marketing are filled with examples of Coke, Netflix and other big brands telling customers to change their habits… and then having to back-track and apologize.

But the real lesson of Brexit comes from brand marketing to international politics: “Listen to your customers”—a tiresome platitude of marketing! The EU bureaucrats and Britain’s political elite did not heed this lesson. They dictated to their British customers, and last night those customers told them to go to bloody hell.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Truths lying around

Yogi Berra was said to have said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Loosely translated—Yogi’s insight was that truths are right in front of us if we just take the time to look at them. 

I've been just watching these past three or four weeks—and this is what I’ve observed. 

1) The arrogance of some corporate leaders knows no bounds. Here is Tim Cook, head of Apple, pontificating on a stage-set so pretentious that it would make a Roman Emperor blush.
2) Speaking of Romans, I walked by a statue and by just watching learned why the Roman Empire declined and fell. Look—it’s so obvious. 

They rendered simple dates like July 4, 1876 as July IV, MDCCCLXXVI. WTF! Those Romans were so exhausted from calculating dates and weights with all these capital letters, they were too tired to fight off the Vandals. 
3) Marketers in the global economy often ask: “Should we translate our tagline into foreign languages when we expand overseas? Or keep it in English.” 

I was in a drugstore the other day and observed this bit of evidence—a sign in two languages—that suggests  no, translating is too cumbersome. Look at that reflexive Spanish verb! Just stick to the English version. Es verdad!

4) Another truth lying around: This squad of black-suited New York cops at Lincoln Center is a new fixture in the wake of the Orlando massacre. 

I’m just watching and thinking: They’re not here to fight off gay-bashers. They’re guarding against Islamic terrorists who hate all of us.

5) One morning I was just watching out my window when I saw this man doing his job 18 floors above the street. 

Come to think of it, I never saw a woman window washer. There has to be at least one in the world. She would be one wonderful woman window washer, wouldn’t she.

6) Here’s an odd object I noticed while just watching out my window: A bright orange bug built like a World War I biplane. It was 16 floors above the street clinging to a rope... or so I thought. Maybe the bug was holding the rope steady for the workers on the roof. Truth is, we may never know.
7) Here’s another truth: Even dogs insist on politically correct language. What else could account for the obsolescence of this old sign I saw near the coast of Connecticut?

“Dog pound?” Outrageous! Politically incorrect. If I had had a can of paint handy I would have painted over “Dog pound” and written “Canine shelter,” which is in favor today, I know by just watching. Dogs are people, too! Well, actually this is not a truth, but seems like it should be. It’s a blast of outrage that sounds right at home in our age of vociferous victims.

8) Here’s a final truth: People who sell ice cream should not eat the stuff themselves. Look at this menu. 

I’m guessing that a summer employee who chalked these items on the board was high on rum raisin ice cream and incapable of organizing information. He or she couldn’t—just could not function—for no one can think straight with a brain floating in a cold puddle of sugary cream.

Yes, there is much to observe all around us. Truths are everywhere, and you can see so much [and learn] by just watching.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

World's Worst Logo (a new champ)

The brilliant creative director Kenneth Cooke has a rule for corporate identity: "You get one trick per logo." I've seen Kenneth shoot down many a gimmicky logo with that devastating line. 

This season's worst logo features about, oh, four tricks—maybe five, if you count the cute red dot in the letter i down at the end. 

I don't know this company—I first saw the name in an ad ripped out of a magazine. The company probably comprises nice people offering worthwhile services—though this logo makes you doubt it. 

Let's face it, using this logo is like walking into a new job wearing clothes made of taped-together Dentyne gum wrappers. You still might be the world's best executive whatever... but you'd have to overcome first impressions to be taken seriously. 

As for how to fix this thing, I would start by shortening the clumsy name to "Imagene"—and then drawing a logo based on a distant star or a mysterious woman or a race-horse named Imagene. 

Of course she would be a one-trick pony.


Monday, May 30, 2016

Syndergaard HAD to throw at Utley

Sometimes people expect you to do something, so you have to do it. You may have second thoughts... Is this right?... But popular pressure overrules your qualms... and you do it. 

Such was the case with the Mets' pitcher Noah Syndergaard as he faced the Dodgers' Chase Utley. There are unspoken rules in baseball, as in life. In this case, the rule is: "Whenever an opposing player deliberately slides into your second-baseman resulting in a fractured leg, you are obligated, when that player comes to bat, to throw at him with the intention of hitting him in the body." 

Okay, there is no rule but there are expectations of the crowd—the fans discuss it, the sportscasters speculate, the players—no doubt—wonder, grumble, tease and ask about it. Everyone expects it... But when?... how?... 

Then May 28... It was time to act... time for this: 

You can debate the act's morality, wisdom or execution, but you can't fail to understand the motivation. 

It's like Orwell and the elephant in colonial Burma. Orwell represented British authority. An elephant had gone mad and was wrecking a village. The villagers sought his help... so Orwell HAD to shoot the elephant

As you read his account, just replace Orwell's "I" with Syndergaard's... This is what Syndergaard was thinking as he faced the elephant (Utley).
I had halted on the road (stood on the mound). As soon as I saw the elephant (Utley) I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him (drill him). It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant (hit an opposing player)– it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery (multimillion dollar athlete) – and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating (waiting in the batter's box), the elephant (Utley) looked no more dangerous than a cow...
I decided that I would watch him (Utley) for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home (throw strikes).
But at that moment I glanced round at the (New York) crowd that had followed me (sat expectantly in the stands). It was an immense crowd, two thousand (35,000) at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces (and brown, red, black, white faces) above the garish clothes (tacky jeans, truckers' hats)-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant (Utley) was going to be shot (drilled). They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me (because I too am a rich, white  privileged athlete), but with the magical rifle in my hands (my 99-mile-an-hour fastball) I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all (drill Utley). The people expected it of me and I had got to do it.
And so, because expectations of the crowd often dictate the outcome of human actions, Syndergaard shot the elephant. 

Or tried to. Unlike Orwell, Syndergaard missed. 


Monday, May 23, 2016

Maryland state song—From bloody rebellion to House and Garden

Here at (the culturally influential) Brandsinger, we frown at  efforts to sanitize references to history's unpleasantness. When actor Ben Affleck asked public television producers to omit mention of his ancestor who owned slaves—in a show about his ancestors!—we guffawed. When students suddenly realize that their college dorm is named after a long-dead guy who was not politically perfect by today's standards, we snicker and mutter, "Children."

There are exceptions. Sometimes the past must yield to an enlightened present. Those Washington Redskins must—and will—change their name (to Washington Pigskins or, why not, just Pigs). 

And what about the lyrics to "Maryland My Maryland"? The lyrics were written at the start of the Civil War by a Southern sympathizer calling the people of Baltimore to attack Union troops passing through Maryland.

This song—for some reason—was embraced as the state song in 1939—looong after the Civil War had ended, I'm sure. Here's the opening: 
The "despot" here is our beloved Lincoln. To hum along, the tune is the same as "Oh Christmastree." Here's the last verse:
Odd, but this bitter reference to "Northern scum!" was tolerated by the good people of Maryland for 77 years. But recently the state's legislators have decided that 77 is enough! So this year they're going to scrub the song of "Northern scum."

Here is one proposed new version being sung by school children and tourist guides
This version begins, as you can see, with Maryland's famous mountain vistas, well known for skiing, avalanches... wait, what mountains? The highest point in Maryland is Hoye Crest—all 3360 feet above sea level. The 99th highest peak in Colorado is more than three times higher—Mt. Silverheels. 

From these "rounded mountains' highest 3360-foot crest" the proposed verse moves to "ocean beaches with bikinis blessed," then to city streets where ... what happens in Baltimore's city streets? Better not ask... and gets on to "the Chesapeake's abundant charm." 

I love the way "oaks growing gracefully" rhymes so well with "crabs swimming beautifully"—and don't miss the "lawyers writing dutifully."

Ah, the scrubbing of the historical past. We like our state songs, statues and university names so clean and idyllic that they sparkle like the countertops of a suburban kitchen. 

...which inspires my proposed new verse: "For modern kitchens shining bright, my Maryland will stand and fight."


Thursday, May 19, 2016

New York Times bias

Is The New York Times biased in favor of the left? Let me count the ways!... Or just give a recent example. 

If the paper were not biased, and supporters of a left-leaning candidate threw chairs and lodged death threats against people they opposed, well, you would expect the paper to report these acts in a straightforward way. The story would open like this: 
Shocking behavior: The supporters of such-and-such a leftist candidate have been accused of throwing chairs and threatening the lives of people they opposed. 
That would be the expected opening line, right? That would be the way you would report such death threats unless you instinctively favored the leftists who were the ones accused of throwing chairs and lodging death threats. 

This is the May 16 NYT headline on the violent behavior of Sanders supporters:

Now let's pick up the article's opening lines: 

"No, this is not the work of Donald J. Trump supporters"?? Excuse me?? Well, no, it's not the work of Trump supporters—because this is not an article about Trump but a report on the violent behavior of Sanders supporters. 

So programmed is the reporter, Alan Rappeport, to besmirch the Trump movement (but not our leftist darlings), that even his article on death threats from Sanders fans opens with a gratuitous slam at Trump supporters.   

It would be as if I wrote a piece on Jason Blair (the notorious reporter who fabricated articles in the Times), and opened by writing this: "Acts of journalistic fraud were not the work of current Times writer Alan Rappeport, who is not known to have made up his reports for the Times, and who is not the reporter Jason Blair, who was in fact exposed as a fraud while writing for the same paper for which Alan Rappeport writes today."  

I'm just following the example of my local paper of record. 


(...or as the Times might explain to you, this Brandsinger fellow who is exposing our leftist bias is not the same person accused of knocking over an old lady on West 96th, stealing her purse and chalking mean things about her on the sidewalk.) 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Physical labor in the computer age

Sitting at your screen all day? Working hard are you? Sweating it out, as it were? 

When you walk around New York City, you're struck by how much work is still done by human hands—with the help of human shoulders, backs and legs. 

Even in this age of computer-screen work, there are thousands of lift-and-haul-and-push-and-dig-workers—the ones who use muscles other than their fingers and eyelids. I'm talking about laborers—the usually invisible guys you step around on the sidewalk, the ones who LITERALLY sweat—and who do their jobs without a grunt or a gripe. 

I was walking to work on a chilly morning a few weeks ago when I came upon some guys lifting heavy boards up and up and up along the side of a building. 

You will be amazed at their dexterity and teamwork. 

Think about these workmen the next time your coffee is not quite the way you want it or when there is a slight, annoying glare on your computer screen. Think about what these guys are accomplishing together with their bodies while you sit there frowning at the supposed exertions of your mind.