Friday, March 21, 2014

Sometimes you don't need a brand

Let's face it. Sometimes you don't need a sparkling brand. Why bother investing in a name and logo when your convenience trumps everything. You're there with the goods people want when people need them.

And your brand name is?… Well, whatever.

Honey, run to the corner and get me a beer. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Let’s parking lot your idea

I was at a meeting the other day when someone offered an idea and someone else said, “Let’s parking lot that issue for now.” Then everyone moved on to another subject. 

Parking lot an issue? I immediately embraced "to parking lot" as a transitive verb.
I parking lot, you parking lot, he, she or it parking lots.

So many obvious everyday uses. Let’s say your child asks you something you can’t answer. “Sonny,” you say, “let’s parking lot that question until you’ve done your homework.” Your kid is instantly backed into his slot, engine off.
Your best idea here.
Or say a colleague challenges you at work, questioning your intelligence, your relevance to the company, and your knowledge of anything other than the one Hemingway novel you skimmed in college while watching cowboy shows on TV. And furthermore, the colleague wonders aloud if you’re even man enough to…

“Okay, okay,” you say in firm command of the latest comment-quasher from the world of commerce, “Let’s just agree to parking-lot those minor issues until I get a chance to check with HR about your legal status.” 

One caveat. You can’t use the verb parking lot in an actual parking lot. You can’t ask an attendant, “Do you have available parking spaces in this parking lot where I can parking lot my car?”

Likely answer: “Why don't you take your issue and shove it.”


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Obama's body language

As Russian troops swarmed over Crimea this weekend, President Obama and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone for 90 minutes. If you flip through CNN's gallery of photos, you'll see pictures like this of troops representing Russian aggression and Putin's resolve.

You'll also see — in the same CNN gallery — this shot of Obama speaking with Putin. Look at Obama's stance — his slumping posture, hand on hip, head down — and his clothes suitable to an insurance salesman on golfing day.

As war in Central Europe looms, what impression of our President does this picture convey? Is this the body language of strength? This picture could be that of a man being scolded, not of a man standing up to a military bully. The composition sends the wrong signal: Small man in a big room.

Personally, I believe the White House needs a clear, bold and principled foreign policy. But short of that, the White House could at least APPEAR to have a clear, bold and principled foreign policy. Start by portraying our commander in chief as a chief, not a chef.

PS - Look up Putin and Obama on Wikipedia. I don't know who chose their photos, but again, one guy shows resolve, the other guy congeniality. Now I know one is a dictator and the other a fairly elected leader. Still, in times like this, the world looks to America for power. To portray that, I'd use a picture of Michelle, who looks like she can handle Vladimir.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Billboards — A few punchy words long before Twitter

Billboards and Tweets have a lot in common. They come up on you all of a sudden, use only a few words, and have emotional punch.

The difference between highway billboards and Tweets is that — when you hit 80 — you can read a billboard without looking down in your lap. 

Bad billboards and bad Tweets belong in the same junk-pile. 

I found this little mock-up (never actually produced) in a pile of stuff from an ad agency. Could you figure out what this thing is about as you speed along to work? When those trees grow bushier, drivers will be spared their confusion.   

Now look at this master monster from the recent battle over unionizing a VW plant in Tennessee. You might love unions and adore Obama — but you have to admit the visceral power of this roadside ad. I'm sure drivers chewed on these words long after they'd digested their Egg McMuffins. 

From the same Tennessee union battle came this digital thingy with an equally crude but effective message. In SEVEN words — far fewer than 140 characters — it accuses the UAW of ruining the great city of Detroit. Admire the crisp choice of words even as you might gag over the sentiment.

A good billboard is economy of language plus verbal punch — born in a pre-Twitter era.

I will definitely add a billboard-writing exercise to my NYU communication course this spring. I can squeeze it in right before we discuss spit balls and just after sky-writing. 


Monday, February 17, 2014

My newest favorite logo

So, drawing logos. A fine art. A strategic statement. A brand's most dramatic manifestation. Sounds like serious business, right? And usually a visual expression that is subtle and understated.

Usually. But sometimes a logo is just, well, straightforward. It speaks to you directly and unaffectedly. No artistry — just sheer communication of an emotional benefit.

Take this one. "davids check cashing" on Amsterdam Ave in New York. What could be a more perfect logo than a big thumbs up.

Even the name is unadorned. Shouldn't there be an apostrophe in "davids"? Nah. Why bother. What about capitalizing that D? sheeeeesh. Who cares...

davids check cashing... The name and logo say it all:
"You need to transform that piece of signed paper into actual money you can use. You came to the right place."

Thumbs f----ing up.


Monday, February 10, 2014

New leader at Metro-North? What's your best message?

While driving in to catch a Metro-North train, I heard that the railroad had named a new president. His voice came over the radio: "I know this organization, I was here from its first days in 1983, I worked here for decades."—That was the gist of the new Metro-North leader's message.

Why would he say that, I wondered. This railroad has a terrible reputation right now. 2013 was a year of derailments, commuter deaths and power outages. Why would they pick an insider, and why would the insider emphasize his role in shaping the status quo?

I parked, got on the train, googled the new president—Joseph Giulietti—and discovered that he spent the last fifteen years as head of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority. Ahh, so Giulietti was trying to reassure people that he was not a carpetbagging outsider but a guy who knows the ropes—and where the bodies are buried.

I quickly devised the following model. When announcing a new leader, your options for messaging depend on the intersection of organizational track record and your leader's perspective. Thus:

You can see that in two quadrants your job is easy but in two others, tricky.

Let's put it like this:
You can finesse three situations, while one of them is just, well, hopeless. If you run a railroad that has recently had derailments, deaths and power outages—and you still hire a veteran insider as its new president—then you just have to admit that you're completely screwed... as is your ridership.

Boiled down to your basic options, the four possibilities are these:

Now, if you've paid attention, you notice that the new president of Metro-North is both a veteran insider and a successful outsider—presumably with insider's knowledge and outsider's objectivity. He is perfectly positioned to champion change without frightening the troops.

Doesn't fit my paradigm, I see. But the main message is that my train arrived on time without incident.


Monday, February 3, 2014

Super Bowl ads

It's late the next day and no one cares which Super Bowl ads I preferred. Just like I don't care how others rate them. I was at a party anyway, and most of the time it was too noisy to hear the ads. The best part of the Super Bowl hype is hearing Mike Francesca slur the words so they come out "Soop Bowl." "Let's tawk about hoo won the Soop Bowl."

Back to the ads. Today's advertisers have figured out that viewers are sick of seeing a Jeep splash through a creek or a shiny sedan cruise along a rain-slick street or seeing Cheerios cascade out of a box, or hear a voice state how fresh Budweiser is. Face it, no ad exec thinks anyone has time to hear useful details (or lies) about actual products. That's old-fashioned and prosaic." Ahem, our washing-machines are quiet and reliable." Nope. Yawn.

So Madison Avenue (if that's still where ads are conceived) has decided that Americans care about whether a client company seems nice and sweet and whether their ad can express a politically correct, audience-coddling sentiment. That's it. It's easy. Just get a film crew to go across America and film ordinary guys and care-worn wives in trucks. Film a guy with a beard, a reddish beard (that's good, close in on the bristles)… and dogs are good—a fluffy golden one… a young dog. Or maybe an old adorable one too, for pity's sake.

Here's the creative brief for half the ads I half-watched:
"Team: I want to show 100 million viewers a family that's got different races in it… you know, but not too black… and drives a truck… and the dad sweats as he looks bewildered… and is not too thin—you know, people like pudgy neighbors… and I want music that swells and grows and builds and sounds triumphant as the American flag unfurls and a young soldier kisses his… no kisses HER mom…her mom in a wheel-chair... and as the camera sweeps across the Mississippi through an apple orchid in Indiana, I want to see a flock of passenger pigeons… that's right, North American passenger pigeons swooping high and then sweeping in low as they— what? they're extinct? Shut up, you're breaking the mood with your literal-mindedness! Don't you know anything about branding! —The passenger pigeons sweep in low and ruffle the hair of a man loading a bag of corn onto a big truck. That's your creative brief! Go for that experience! I don't want a dry seat in the house! — oh, and then a bugle softly plays taps."