Thursday, February 11, 2016

Once more unto the breach

A flood of memories comes back whenever a news report touches on a topic once explored by Brandsinger. We revel in that second look at a subject we wrote about earlier, though our observations have as much profundity as a teenager ordering an after-school snack. We know our limits—but we take pride in being ahead of the news. 

Consider Republican candidate John Kasich. Back in December we mocked him for sending an email overloaded with unseemly first person pronouns. "I'm running, I was, I can, I'm running, I helped, I can, I'm running, I served, I was, I'm running, I can, I won."—we counted 'em up. Well after a strong showing in New Hampshire, Kasich's latest email reads: "Fellow Conservatives, we did it." WE did it? Someone has been reading Brandsinger. 

Last night the Manhattan Symphonie performed Aaron Copeland's Lincoln Portrait, with the venerable former Mayor David Dinkins as narrator. What did Lincoln say? "Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history." — perfect advice for Ben Affleck about whom we wrote in November: 

Ben Affleck urged the PBS producers of his genealogical profile to omit a distant ancestor who had owned slaves, or at least served as a trustee of slaves. This limb of the family tree “embarrassed” the actor, Affleck said. Obligingly, the producers removed the ancestral miscreant from the program, giving them more time to dote on ancestors who fit the actor’s self-image.

I can now add, inspired by Lincoln, "Mr. Affleck, you can intimidate friendly PBS producers, but you cannot escape history." 

Last month we commented on the unpopularity of the term "politician"—which is a dirty thing to call anyone. As Donald Trump rolls on and on with his "I'm not a filthy politician" campaign, I am reminded of the quip of e.e. cummings: "A politician is an ass upon which everyone has sat except a man." Cummings clearly would have been a Trump voter. He was a Republican

Way back in 2013 I wrote a disgracefully sarcastic comment on librarians ("Ask Marian," 2.15.13) about which I often felt remorse. Who could possibly suggest that librarians are obsolete and irrelevant in the age of Google search? Well, here's a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that says exactly that... written by... a saddened but acutely alert and realistic... librarian.

Was Brandsinger kicking a beleaguered profession? It looked that way, and I regret what seemed to be glee. Mr. Barker ended his lament with a wistful: "The role for librarians and public libraries is shrinking. But I imagine that in another hundred years, we will still be here, in one form or another."

Every now and then during the football season we came across the controversially named Washington Redskins. Despite all the politically correct scolds calling for a name change, the name seems to endure. But is that right? Hell no! That name is a vicious racial slur and must go, as we said in 2013. Some day Brandsinger will have the pleasure of looking back on its obliteration. Pigskins is a better name for that bunch.

Speaking of the NFL, a recent New York Times article discussed at length how the NFL keeps failing to tackle the issue of "what's a catch." To help out, I quote from Brandsinger 1.15.15: "An object is tossed by a schoolchild, friend or colleague ... and it's flying in your direction and you reach up with both hands and gain possession of the object,  bring it close to your body and then come back to earth on both feet. What do you call that?" NFL take note! 1000 lawyers won't help you answer that one. Get a child to do it. 

Finally: A few posts back Brandsinger depicted WINTER as a brand, one full of mirth at humans' expense. Ha ha, winter laughs, as we labor against its mighty blasts. Just last Monday the Brandsinger chariot nearly became the latest butt of winter's joke when a truck up ahead lost its footing on the Interstate. "No injuries," winter snorts. "...this time." 
Time? I've got news for winter: Time is on our side, pal. Just wait around a few weeks. Come April, we get the last laugh. 


Monday, January 25, 2016

"Politician" —n. an unloved person

This morning's cartoon puzzle—the "Jumble"—shows a politician exploring nature on the "campaign trail." He asks fellow nature-lovers for their vote, and one tells him to "take a hike." 

Why the gratuitous belligerence toward a poor politician doing his job? 

In our culture—which celebrates freedom of speech and democratic choice—calling someone a "politician" is a rebuke—even an insult. 

Look up politician and you may find something like this: "a person who acts in a manipulative and devious way, typically to gain advancement within an organization." 
Linking politicians to odious behavior has a long history in our culture. If you recall Shakespeare's Hotspur railing against the hated King Henry IV, he calls him "this thorn, this canker" and "this king of smiles" and—of course—"this vile politician." 

Calling your king a mere canker is not damning enough. You need to add "politician"! 

Today, Donald Trump disrupts the U.S. political scene—blowing up formalities, shocking officials, sneering at newspapers, mocking journalists—and what is his central message? What makes Trump different and, to so many, appealing? It is simply and basically this: 

"NOT A POLITICIAN!" Not a VILE politician, he might have said, to add a Shakespearean je ne sais quoi. 

Ironic, isn't it? Even as we revere our form of civil government, we use a reference to our elected representatives as a curse.


Friday, January 15, 2016

Trump v. Bush — "It's so obvious"

In the 1954 classic Seven Samurai, the two main characters (1) stand out in a field to watch a duel to the death. 

Before the duel unfolds, the two duelers pose for a moment (2), seeming to freeze... and one of the observers — a veteran swordsman himself — says, "It's so obvious."

Just looking at the two duelers preparing to fight, the veteran knows who will win. The stance, the expression, the position of the sword — the body tells all.

There is a scream, a charge, one terrifying swipe of the steel blade (3, 4)... and then (5), the victor holds his pose as the hapless foe tumbles into the dust.

The same is true for presidential debaters. Look at these two duelers. The fated outcome is so obvious.
The first man here is negotiating — preparing for give and take, and expecting to get struck in the face. He's not exactly pleading for his life — but he seems hoping for something to intervene... Maybe a fuse will blow and the fight will be called off.

This second man enjoys fighting — especially the punching and slashing. We observe from the sidelines and watch his combatant's jaw and hands. We sense that his feet are planted under him... and that he expects to win.

It's so obvious.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Is Winter a Brand?

Winter is distinctive. The other seasons don't sting your face. They don't laugh at you — "Ha ha I guess you feel that, don't you!" Fall doesn't mock you, and summer doesn't, and spring doesn't. But winter snickers as you walk by and sneers while you sniffle.

To winter you look funny. What the heck are you wearing? That old coat with things stuck to it? What a joke. And look at that hair! What's left of it is flattened into a mat of grease under your... under that whatever you call it... Is that a cap of some kind? A sock-like object? You look ridiculous.

Winter is laughing at you as you try to get somewhere. Look at you pretending not to notice that your cheeks have been buffed raw by a giant finger-nail file.

To winter you're pathetic. A quaking joke stuffed into so many layers of fabric you remind winter of a pimento in the olive. You're the mushy rice inside the grape leaf. The stale air in an old bicycle tire.

But I bet you didn't know this: winter likes having you around. Yeah, you cheer winter up, you shivering, squinting squirt. Winter thinks you're amusing.

When you're driving a car in winter... gripping the wheel as darkness falls and ice forms on the roadway, who's laughing at you?

I think you know who's laughing. You know that winter is a brand — and its target audience is you.


Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Moral Dilemma of Brand Consulting

This weekend I received a message and attached article from a friend and former consulting colleague, Kenneth Cooke — a famed creative force in brand identity. Kenneth notes, or rather laments, that brand consultants often make corporate misdeeds appear acceptable or even noble. I reply (below)… then he replied, then I take the last word. Let’s pick up the dialogue here:

1 Saturday a.m.

Hi Claude:
Remember how I would remind your students that, at essence, they will be participating in propaganda. Not a condemnation — merely a reminder of what we did/do.

This article [NY Times Magazine, Jan. 6, 2016] gives one pause to reflect about sacred cows like 3M and Dow to name but a few. Attributes like "Integrity, Caring, Responsibility, blah, blah” are insultingly glib at best. We were/are such rubes.
I'm sending on this article for reflection. We should never forget the impact, however small, our work can have in cloaking unfortunate personal behavior, and we all know corporations are people. —K

2. Later on Saturday

Dear Kenneth:
What you say is true — too true. This article is disgusting (chemical corporations’ behavior) and uplifting (one lawyer’s crusade for justice). But that’s not why you sent it to me...

Years ago I worked for DuPont for a few months… I visited a couple of polymer plants… At one in Victoria, Texas the workers complained in a focus group that they weren’t getting answers from management (about job security) and commented bitterly about “safety” programs that emphasized holding onto stair-rails and being careful with hot coffee.

Yeah, we are party to these big companies’ behavior — and it would be better to see evidence that our clients were not hypocrites but adhering to their grandiose values. But what’s the answer? If a wonderful-sounding proposition like Chipotle — local produce providers, healthy food, responsive assembly lines, etc. — can poison hundreds of people, then how can we draw any moral lines, assuming we want to? I worked for Bates / Cordiant, you’ll recall, which advertised Lucky Strike cigarettes for British American Tobacco — even doing TV commercials in developing countries where TV ads for tobacco are allowed. I drew the line there, of course, because it was easy. I was asked into a meeting on Lucky Strikes and was repulsed and left. But that was an easy call… what about a bank? do we know their lending practices? What about the US Air Force? — should we inquire into the use of napalm or cluster bombs? What about Arby’s? — what the heck is in their “pressed meat” sandwich?

The alternative to vetting every corporate prospect is to work for not-for-profits, I suppose. I’m working with colleges and universities in recent years… — but shit, what about suppression of free speech in the name of politically correct policies? What about social science departments that are 95% Democrats and reject faculty candidates of a conservative stripe? and what about sky-high tuitions so that administrative infrastructure can be enlarged and sumptuous amenities built for pampered students riding along on federal loans and grants?

My point is, your article and your warnings are a reminder that we brand consultants SHOULD be alert for situations to make moral and political judgments in our work. But if we felt the gnawing social conscience too painfully, I suppose we should quit and become farmers or, god forbid, social activists. I’d like to be a farmer anyway.

Pondering along with you, Brandsinger

3 Saturday p.m. Kenneth’s reply:

I would add that we believe what we want to believe—that in our hubris to “solve a problem” we are (and have been for decades), in fact, shilling for people who are more than reprehensible. We sat/sit in board rooms and office suites taking notes, believing we were developing “insights” when we were (and still are) duped into helping “top” management advance their agendas. And it happens over and over, industry after industry. 
Don’t get me started on the financial sector—So, are we naive? No, but we are readily adaptable in a murky landscape. Sadly, there is no solution. But one should always be aware of the effects our massaging (messaging) can have. Always the skeptic be…eyes wide open. Oh, and If you want to be a farmer, don’t fuck with Monsanto. 

4. Nearing midnight: My reply to Kenneth’s latest and my last word for now:

Brand consultants, like lawyers and PR professionals, work for hire. We’re advisers… and yes, advocates. We should steer clear of representing organizations that do deliberate harm. But if we apply our own moral and political compass to judge clients before serving them, we would miss chances to learn about human behavior — and miss opportunities for influencing clients to abandon misdeeds.

Would I ever promote Lucky Strike? No. But what about the New York State Lottery? Is that a good deal for working people who buy tickets every week at astronomically poor odds? Would I work for the horse racing industry — which is often accused of animal abuse? What about a circus with a mule diving into a swimming pool? A chicken producer that uses cramped cages? What about the bank that lends to the chicken producer? Bankers pay for branding advice too.

I’m getting myself into your mood, requiring either a change of profession or the heavy injecting of soothing chemicals — which is not Brandsinger’s style. Does a surgeon cure a murderer? Does a barber cut a mobster's hair? Does a... 

Time for Brandsinger to join a church.  


Monday, December 28, 2015

Trump — The Five Stages

Donald Trump’s explosive emergence as the leading Republican candidate has caused shrieks of horror — I’m speaking of sounds coming from ideologically staunch conservatives. A Trump candidacy is not what they signed up for, and over recent months, I've seen conservative reaction go through five stages of reaction:

The first stage was amusement.

Oh rally, dahling? The Donald, as it were, is running for President? Oh and why not… He’s such an entertaining chap. Pass moi the pecan crackers, won’t you?

The second stage was revulsion.

How dare he call McCain a coward! It’s sickening the way he transgresses all bounds. Only drop-outs like the guy. Such a vulgarian will never be President. Get me a scotch – no ice!

The third stage is paralysis.

You say Trump still leads in the polls? Well, that just shows you that… it only means that at this stage he’s… in the lead. Leading means being ahead… It... mean... Trum… Some pudding? No thanks… don't have much of an appetite.

The fourth stage is despair.

I can’t believe it… The Party of Lincoln! We had ideals! Now we’re a cheesy pro wrestling show. I hate him, hate him and hate myself. He proves HuffPo readers right about us. My sister is so smug. Her and her perfect kids and the husband who just got tenure. Might as well have another slice of cake with Nutella icing… Nothing to live for.

The last stage is still to come: acceptance.

Okay, Trump’s a man of the real people. We live in a media-saturated age, and he’s made for TV, lord knows. I love the way he keeps Democrats puking. Nothing wrong with vicious personal attacks in politics — as in love and war. I love his mouth — not just what comes out of it but the shape of his mouth. Its symmetry. Its pinkness. If Trump can beat those stuck-up, politically correct liberals, I’ll send him a thank-you note. I'll even buy his brand of moisturizer or whatever he’s selling these days.

Pass me the crow.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Favorite Taglines from 2015

Are these the best taglines of 2015? — probably not. But here are nine very provocative lines, some of which might change the course of history. That's right, some taglines have clout. 


1 Memorial Sloan Kettering's "More Science. Less Fear." had healthcare marketers drooling for over a year. Why didn’t we think of that! It has the "work hard, fly right" cadence of the old Continental line — and it marries technological skill with human benefit.

2 Let's go to three good but not great taglines about being "great." Pandering to the escapist fantasies of every teenager and the adolescent ache in every grownup is PlayStation's thundering line, "Greatness Awaits."

3 Cadillac — that doddering beast from the 1950s — got in on the greatness game with the variation above. I'm guessing the writers were torn between their boss's insistence on using "great" and two guys in a bar who thought the word "dare" sounded cool. Et voila! 

4 Trump's variation on greatness is a heady concoction of nostalgia and patriotism. You can question the premises (When was America great? Is America not great still?), but you can't deny the perfect alignment of tagline with the Baron Munchausian posture of Trump the candidate.  

5 Jack's Dollar Store's disarming line — "worth every penny" — has been around a while — but I never noticed it before Scott Buckley challenged me to name the five visual elements on the front of a one-cent piece. We happened to have lunch near a Jack's store, and I just happened to see a big penny in the window depicting the five elements. An easy win — and hope I was gracious enough to spring for lunch.

6 Something epistemologically sublime about this one. Maybe "it" didn't happen at all — but, funny thing, I still had to give ServPro a check.


7 When on vacation you're a sucker for whatever quaint thing the townspeople write. The tagline above is a disarmingly modest Massachusetts blend of marketing speak, parochial pride, and harmless pun.  

8 The beauty of the 2015 Starbucks campaign — "race together" — is that it showed marketers everywhere that someone can always come up with a stupider idea than you.

9 "Illa tahin" is the slogan of the Shiite Rambo known as Angel of Death. It means — roughly — grind you into flour! — which is what he and his militia vow to do to ISIS. I doubt the US Army could come up with anything nearly as scary as "We'll grind you into flour." The American version would be something like "We'll force you to admit your great uncle was a racist."

You might think that taglines are lowly scraps of ephemera not worthy of serious thought — like dabs of icing on your fork. But to me, a good tagline has the power to scramble nerves in your frontal lobe and spark a change of heart. 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year