Saturday, September 24, 2011

Siamak: Define your brand

What could be more fun than hanging out in a public library with 90 software developers, designers and entrepreneurs?

Let me rephrase that. How cool is this: Spending the day at “Startup Weekend Hartford” with earnest guys and gals in jeans coaxing new web businesses out of fertile minds.

One treat was the noon-time harangue by Siamak Taghaddos—co-founder of Grasshopper. Siamak looks into the heart of great brands and sees a clear definition, not confusion—a soul, not just features.

Siamak’s advice to the jeaned teams: “You can’t throw money at features and expect to have a brand.”

To illustrate, Siamak played a video of former Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz struggling to answer a single, merciless question: “What is Yahoo!?”

Yahoo is a great company that is very, very strong in content for its users, uses amazing technology to serve up what increasingly we think is going to be the web of one. For instance, on our today module in the front page, every 5 minutes we have 32,000 different variations of that module. So you don’t even know what I’m seeing in fact we serve a million different front-page modules a day and that’s just through content optimization. And that’s just the beginning…Customized because we know the things you’re interested in. Maybe you don’t like light entertainment maybe you like a certain sports team, etc., etc. And our click through rate went up twice. So the point is, people come to us to find out what is going on with the world in a very nice quick fashion to do their communications, email, messenger, check-in on their teens. We all know about Yahoo finance. It’s a place where you can just get it together. It’s collated for you, it’s all the things as you’re moving, you can even get your social information there. Everybody moves through many websites in a day, Yahoo is one they always stop at.

All features and internet gobble-de-gook. Siamak’s deadpan reaction: wtf

Per Siamak: Great brands have a simple, bullet-proof reason for being: Facebook—helps you hook-up easier. Apple—makes you feel innovative. Google—makes you feel smarter. Virgin—makes you feel cool. Grasshopper—makes you feel in control.

Well said. I’m with you, man. Google does make me feel smarter. (Though come to think of it, hearing the former head of Yahoo! bungle a simple question also makes me feel smarter.)


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

One picture, myriad themes, one complex narrative

If I were to teach U.S. History again, I would start (and end) with this picture, which I just lifted from this morning's Drudge Report.

In this one picture are themes, not only of race relations in America (such a central issue from the first moments of Spanish and English settlement), but themes of technology (the jet plane), social mobility, optimism (the upward slant of the staircase), the decline of formalism in dress and the arts, the remaining differences of class (note one man's suit, the other's shirtsleeves and body language), the relationship between employer and employee (how subservient, what rights have been achieved, what roles have changed or remained), individualism and individual expression, the stature and limitations of the U.S. Presidency... and on and on.

One picture. One history course. An entire syllabus captured, introduced and summarized in this one evocative image.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

UBS — Still not able to rest

We were hard on UBS last month when we made fun of their motto, "We will not rest." We said the line was grandiose, not credible and ill-suited to an industry struggling to return to sobriety after years of reckless greed.

Will not rest? It's just not smart to promise what you can't deliver—any marketer knows that. Not to be taken literally? I wrote: "Not to be taken seriously."
Well, here comes the dreaded confirmation of the foolishness of that tagline. UBS just announced that a supposed rogue trader lost more than $2 billion in unauthorized bets, seriously compromising the bank's operations and plans. The loss is being called a massive failure of oversight and evidence of deeply flawed risk management. It confirms that the tagline's promise is a false claim of vigilance.

Will not rest? How about UBS—Asleep at the switch

Okay, that's a cheap shot. I take it back. But the point is, going to market with the line "we will not rest" is leading with your chin. As it turns out, a single UBS trader ("unauthorized" "rogue" whatever) was able to find his colleagues dozing at their desks—and the rest is history.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

No longer saintly health care

I would love to have been in the room when the leaders of Saint Barnabas Health Care voted to drop the “Saint” and change their name to Barnabas Health.

From the standpoint of naming practice, the change is understandable. Briefer is better. “Barnabas Health” has a nice rhythm and fits easily on business cards and billboards.

Is there an implied message here? Perhaps “Saint Barnabas” suggests elderly nuns holding hands and whispering prayers instead of providing the latest drugs. Certainly dropping the old-fashioned font and New Jersey logo was an easy call.

But what about dropping that "Saint"? Not an insignificant signal, although the official explanation sidesteps the issue:

Changing our name to Barnabas Health connects our tradition of health care excellence with the promise of a dynamic and progressive future. Barnabas Health also builds on the awareness and positive reputation of the Saint Barnabas Health Care System. Barnabas Health brings a fresh, enthusiastic feel to its brand and identity as New Jersey’s Health Care Leader.

Is the organization now freed from religious sensibilities? Some must fear that practices such as euthanasia and abortion, formerly banned, can now be considered.

As one who resists the fashionable purging of historical references in names and logos, I see a loss of emotional richness in the change. The historical Barnabas was a colleague of Paul and a leader of the early Christian Church. His sainthood was bestowed because of a life sacrificed to his faith and a death suffered for his beliefs. Demoting poor Barnabas to mere citizen—even if only on brochures and ambulances—moves the brand toward secular sameness.

I once worked with the Catholic-affiliated Providence Health and Services—a vast chain of hospitals, clinics and social services stretching from California to Alaska. The Providence leaders were smart, ambitious and kind. They had an endearing custom of starting every meeting with a brief meditation—a prayer, poem or (slightly syrupy) song.

No matter how smart-alecky and jaded we consultants might be, you can stop us in our tracks by starting a review of marketing data with a poem by Robert Frost or a song by John Denver.

And Saint Barnabas? I doubt his soul is troubled by the drop in stature. I doubt the old fellow worries about today's imperatives of brand marketing and corporate growth.


Friday, September 9, 2011

People as Pixels

These displays of authoritarian aesthetics are endlessly fascinating. Little tiny insignificant human beings stand as pixels in a picture painted for the Great Leader.

What is in the minds of these human dabs of paint? Is that 1404th Korean from the left thinking, “I am such a good little dot of red!” None of these little people can see the entire picture – except vicariously through the imagined eyes of the Great Leader.

The political point is obvious. All of us together – perfectly playing our roles – make up one nation.

Is this different from our own “E Pluribus Unum”? Depends on what the “e pluribus” refers to – states, people, ethnic backgrounds – and how complete the “Unum” – one nation or one single organism throbbing on the tarmac for the delight of one man.

These people are proud of their unity and deference. We are proud of our individualism and self-expression. If this were staged in New York, the dot of red would be thinking, “Pee-yu, what did the blue guy next to me eat for breakfast?”


Saturday, September 3, 2011

More horror from Lionsgate Entertainment Corp.

My cousin Justin – who pores over a stock prospectus like a robin examining a lawn – came across this statement:

The registrant hereby amends this registration statement on such date or dates as may be necessary to delay its effective date until the registrant shall file a further amendment which specifically states that this registration statement shall thereafter become effective in accordance with Section 8(a) of the Securities Act, or until the registration statement shall become effective on such date as the Securities and Exchange Commission, acting pursuant to said Section 8(a), may determine.

It’s hard to imagine that these words were put together by a human being of our species. The writer – who actually thought this was communication – is, even now, moving freely among us.

A scary thought.

The person who wrote that sentence might be shopping in the next aisle over, might have handled the same plum or cherries you’re considering.

The world is populated by all kinds of miscreants and we’re obliged to treat everyone equally – even the person who wrote that sentence. Maybe it was you?