Branding is Prioritizing

The fact is every product, every business, does lots of things. And no doubt we could conceive of a world in which advertising entailed listing all your features and functions and benefits and people could decide if your product was right for them. But there are a lot of products and brands vying for people's attention. Which means your product only has so much time, so much opportunity, to be heard. This is a question of knowing when and where to speak to people, a classic marketing question. And it's a question of knowing what to say, which is a question less of marketing per se than of branding.

The instinct of most business owners is to talk about everything their product does, all the features, possibilities, and benefits. It does this and this and this and this and will save you money, be reliable, high quality, with great customer support, too! Use it and you'll see! I know; I've been that business owner. After spending months and months on developing my product, after thinking about it day and night, dreaming about it, waking up in the night to scribble some revelation, it's hard not to want to show it all off.  

But people don't want to hear all that. They can't hear all that. They're inundated all day long with brands and products screaming at them, not to mention their bosses, spouses, friends, kids. It's your job, then, not just to make the right product, not just to approach people at the right time, but to know what you should say in the small window during which you have their attention. You don't have time to list everything. If your audience doesn't hear what it needs and wants to hear, it will tune out.

You need to know what to say first, what to hit home with, what to let linger. You need to prioritize.

It's not easy. Everything in you is screaming: But we're not just fast! We're also really, really smart! And, in the long run, we'll save you money and headache! Alas, you can't say all that — not at first, not all at once.

English, like most languages, is linear. Something — some word, some idea — must come first. So what do you say first? What's the lead idea? What is that idea and feeling and knowledge you want them to walk away with? Performance? Smarts? Friendliness? Safety? Value? Coolness?

This demands that you say No to many aspects of your product that you may love. So it goes. You can talk about it all you want once you have their attention. Then they're all ears, or at least some of them are. But if you try to speak really quickly to get it all in, to try and say it all at once, it's going to come out gobbledygook.

To brand is to prioritize.


Brands in the Age of Agility

All brands today face a new challenge: the speed of technology and market change demand a certain agility. But too much change by a brand and, well, it's not a brand anymore as it runs the risk of losing its customers doing things the customers just don't believe. Too little change and the brand loses its audience to new brands.

Digital brands, of course, face this in a much more real way as digital fads and technology change almost daily.

Many digital brands move quickly — growth and loss come often and fast. But what dictates the terms of that change? How can a brand construct itself so that it maximizes flexibility — allowing it to adjust, to enter new markets, to launch new experiences — while still offering a coherent vision?

One strategy is to create sub-brands and let the master brand move into the background to a greater or lesser degree depending on the kinds of experiences it creates. Creating sub-brands — brands that are related to the master but not subservient, if you will — give the brand permission to address specific markets with different kinds of products and messaging. EA, for instance, created EA Sports with its own tagline, its own sub-mark, its own advertising, etc.

Archie Comics found itself cornered and then did an interesting thing: it superseded its brand through irony, making an obsolete vision relevant to a new market. But this is a difficult thing to achieve and I think only worked because it had such cultural currency to begin with. IBM, of course, did a similar thing, moving from hardware to services. But, again, that was a brutal slough for the company.

One strategy, then, is to build a brand that is predicated on a vision of life, of the kinds of experience it believes in, rather than on products. If IBM had started as a "smarter planet" company, moving from hardware to services would have been much easier.

The problem is that few companies take the time to foster a vision. They have a product — wooohooo! — and take it to market — wooohoooo! And next thing you know, that product has come to define the brand. Meanwhile, the C-suite never stops to think because the company is making money. But they're not looking ahead to the change that is both inevitable and imminent.

Without a sound strategy, the brand runs the risk of making decisions that leave it in a corner where it loses permission to change.


What is Innovation in Medicine?: UCSF Telemedicine Website

This is a site for which I did the positioning, architecture + navigation, and wrote all copy, including the blog posts (I co-produced the video, as well).

While the site may not seem like the sexiest, hottest experience, its position and claims are actually quite radical as many doctors at both institutions — UCSF and SFGH — are really thinking about medicine and technology. Which, in turn, made me think about it.

Here is one blog post from the site about design thinking.

What is Innovation in Medicine?
When we think of innovation in medicine, we think of breakthroughs in research, in drug treatments, in procedures. But we don't think about the patient's experience. We don't think about how best to deliver healthcare. And yet seemingly simple gestures such as making specialists available to the underserved via
video conferencing can save innumerable lives and have tremendous impact on quality of life.

So much of medicine turns on information and communication. Researchers speak with other researchers; doctors speak with other doctors (or they should); professors speak with students; students speak with each other, with doctors, with patients; patients speak to doctors; patients speak to each other. From one perspective, medicine is a vast network of information communication.

To state the obvious, we find ourselves amidst an explosive revolution in how information is communicated. Telecommunications have done more than dramatically recast how we do business; they have dramatically recast the very way we relate to each other, to information, to the world.

And yet medicine, conspicuously, remains way behind this revolution.

Consider, for a moment, the number of deaths and injuries suffered with doctor misdiagnosis or treatment. This is not to blame doctors per se; medicine is complex. But that's all the more reason to enable doctors to share information, to communicate with each other. Think how many deaths and injuries can be avoided if doctors speak with each other, if they share their respective knowledge, expertise, and experience.

At UCSF, Dr. Pierre Theodore, a thoracic surgeon, is creating a web-based collaboration tool that will allow doctors across disciplines to work together on a patient case (starting with tumor boards). The business world, of course, is overrun with competing collaboration tools. But in medicine, there is a conspicuous dearth — even though such an application can save lives and dramatically improve patients' quality of life.

The medical community needs to rethink what it considers innovation. Of course breakthroughs in understanding diseases and drugs and treatments are necessary. But we need to think about how we deliver our findings, how we deliver our expertise, how we actually deliver healthcare.


SoDA 2011 Digital Marketing Outlook: Designing Digital Intimacy

Society of Digital Agencies 2011 Digital Marketing Outlook

I wrote an article for the SoDA 2011 DMO on "Desgining Digital Intimacy" (p. 80). But there's lots of good stuff in there. Here's the article:

The new digital platform is intimately entwined with our lives. It’s with us in the morning when we rise, by our side as we drive and stroll and lounge. It tells us where our friends are and converses with us when waiting for a bus. Even when silent, it is always navigating the ether as we dine, socialize, work, sleep. It is an active participant in our daily lives.

Computing has become more than a screen we look at. It is tactile experience ripe with vibration and a plethora of telling signals. And it demands to be touched. Our fingers play across it with a knowing feel, much as we scratch an itch.

In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan argues that technology is an extension of the human body — the book an extension of the eye, the wheel an extension of the foot, electric circuitry an extension of the central nervous system. The mobile computer is at once a neural and physical appendage scanning the environment for signs much as our eyes and nose scan for sights and sounds. It is always on, always “looking,” pulling in data, making sense of it, and sending signals to the brain via sound and vibration. It is quite literally an extension of ourselves.

The promise of the Internet has hence shifted from being an exhaustive archive of media to being alive, immediate, proactive. While we may still go to websites to survey media, computing has become an encounter, a conversation, an event.

As computing entwines itself into our most private spaces, it forges, foments, and facilitates intimacy. Consider FaceTime and the casual ease with which a traveling parent shares his or her journey with children — “Look, this is my hotel. Isn’t it cool? And look: you lost a tooth.” And the parent can actually look into the anxious eyes of his or her child, providing comfort from across the country.

Or Chatroulette and the way strangers put themselves into immediate conversation with each other. It creates what McLuhan calls the global village, the world folded onto itself as a mother in Milan sits face-to-face with a banker in Bangkok, an investor in Ireland stares into the living room of a developer in Dubai. The hesitation some of us feel towards Chatroulette stems precisely from the power and palpability of this disappearance of boundaries, this sudden intimacy.

Or consider a dinner party, guests enjoying wine, cheese, crackers while the host, still cooking, chats and prepares, the iPad proffering the recipe and dj-ing the music, a glimmering participant in the gathering. Now that’s social media.

Or all the uses in telemedicine as a dermatologist in San Francisco examines the rash on a woman in Eureka. Now that’s intimate.

This digital intimacy shifts the very terms of how we engage people. We are no longer creating experiences off in the distance, on some website sitting on a server somewhere. We are now creating experiences that live in people’s pockets, in their beds, in their hands and always top of mind.

The question is: How can we create relevant, engaging, experiences? How can we create intimacy between our brand and our consumers? Here are some things to consider:

For whom is this intimacy?

• Is the interaction between your brand and an individual? EZface Virtual Mirror Application, for instance, lets a person see what she’d look like with certain beauty products applied, certainly an intimate relationship between a brand and a consumer.

• Your brand and a group? Thinks of flash mobs that mobilize a group in a way that remains quite intimate.

• Or between individuals via your brand? Applications as simple as video chat rooms let people connect face-to-face with each other, the brand silent in the background (think: fan sites).

Go to them. Don’t make consumers come to you. Go to them. Push content — relevant content, that is. Which means knowing what they want and, as important, when and how they want it. Which leads us to the next point….

But don’t over do it.
Use good manners. No one likes telemarketers interrupting their dinner.

Engage the body
. Move past eyes to engage faces, fingers, and voices. Digital kiosks in public spaces can use face recognition software to engage people smartly, delivering utility and/or delight. See the SapientNitro/Unilever ice cream machine in which people are invited to smile and, if their smile is big enough, they “win” an ice cream.

Make it live. The new digital environment is immediate, live, turning on the promise of the dings, rings, and vibrations of smart phones. Design for the now. The entire interaction with the ice cream vending machine is live, sensing when someone is close, inviting the person closer, and using face recognition software to determine gender, age, emotion. The point is this: engage people, start a conversation, create events here and now.

Serve the now — with utility, whimsy, and delight. The digital has moved from the archive to the now. So what can you do for your customers right now? Suggest a place to eat in the neighborhood. Or perhaps what’s most tasty on that menu. Or how the food one’s eating fits with his diet or health needs. Or perhaps tell them a joke, a quote, a story. The question is: How can you fit into the living moment?


On Brands, Stories, and Arguments

There is a lot of talk these days about storytelling as an essential part of branding, of the brand experience. Frankly, I am often confused by how this word "story" is being used.

A brand is always and necessarily an argument of some sort — buy this because....it's good for you, it makes you feel cool, it's inexpensive, it's nice — and, more often, because it's some combination of these things. In rhetorical terms, an argument always has three intertwined components: ethos, pathos, and logos.

- Logos is the logical argument: Buy this as it works better and costs less.
- Pathos is the emotional argument: Buy this because it's cool.
- Ethos is the argument of the speaker: Buy this because I am cool.

An argument links disparate things together; it makes sense of the varied components of a brand's offering — its logical, pathetic, and ethical components. There are many ways to construct an argument, many ways of linking things together, many ways of making sense. That is what a brander does for a living: he, or she, puts it all together in a coherent and compelling manner.

A story is one kind of argument, one way to link things together. Story turns on narrative, on cause and effect, and often on conflict such as good vanquishing evil (clean vanquishing dirt, liquid vanquishing thirst, etc). This may be simplistic, especially if we're discussing literature and its many approaches to story (think of Jorge Luis Borges' strange, beautiful "stories").

But the point is this: story is one mode of argument. Sometimes, story is appropriate. Sometimes, it's not. What is always appropriate is a compelling argument.


The New Platform is Relentless Reinvention

We live in a time of relentless technological change. The web as we know it, barely 15 years old (if that), is pronounced dead. Platforms vie — Windows, Linux, Android, Apple — as do languages — Flash, HTML5, and so on.

While there are some standards, for the most part, standards are up for grabs.

Blogs, those dense textual renderings, once so revolutionary now seem passe.

Games and movies begin to resemble each other.

The means of marketing have shifted — web banners, web experiences, the social, branded utilities, complex configurations of integrated campaigns.

Business models morph, adapt, disappear, explode — sellers, rellsers, auctioneers, platforms, apps, amalgamators, curators: they come, go, borrow and steal from each other.

But it is a mistake to think this will settle down, that there is a war to be won, that a plateau will be hit. No, these are the conditions of digital technology: relentless change, constant innovation. It is the very nature of the beast. The digital — the computational — is a medium of constant reconfiguring. That's what it does.

Welcome to the new media world, a place of relentless reinvention.

It's hence a mistake to ask: What's the next big thing? The question is: How do I invent another thing?


In this new media world, who runs strategy?

Brand agencies, web agencies, digital agencies, ad agencies, PR agencies, media agencies, package design agencies: In this ever shifting world of new media, who dictates strategy?

There are not only multiple touch points — each with its own technology, reach, function, and metrics — the very notion of the touch point is shifting. Where marketing was once purely a matter of seizing people's eyes, ears, and attention, it is now a matter of insinuating a brand into people's lives. It's no longer just ads or banners or websites or viral videos; it's useful iPhone apps, interactive kiosks, and websites that talk back.

And, perhaps most importantly, it needs to all be integrated: TV needs to speak to billboards which need to speak to web which needs to speak to the guy Tweeting for you which needs to speak to apps — and vice-versa and back again. Everything needs to speak to everything.

I worked for an agency in 2000 that claimed to be integrated — web, print, advertising, marcom, brand, naming. But, of course, we were better at some things than at others. And, even if we were good at everything, our clients just couldn't see it that way: we were a web shop, those guys did brand, those other guys did print.

So while an integrated agency sounds great, it's a difficult thing to pull off. The reality is that that web has very different demands in terms of knowledge and staffing than TV advertising does and these are different than branding and naming and those are different than media buying and then there's packaging and POS displays and store design.

A truly integrated agency that does everything equally well poses certain insurmountable obstacles.

But this doesn't mean the thinking can't be integrated. The question, I think, is this: Who owns that nexus? Who sees all the moving parts? Who runs strategy?

I did a gig for a media agency several years ago and they felt they were in the best position to dictate strategy. After all, they sit at the juncture all media, that place where different touch points intersect. I could see their point.

I've worked with digital agencies who feel they're the ones to do it. The world is digital now. And understanding the digital is really understanding how people interact with a brand. It seems natural to move from digital thinking to strategic thinking. So why not let the digital shop run strategy? Makes sense to me.

Then there's the branding agency, the place that specializes in strategy. In many ways, this makes the most sense: Set the brand strategy and let it cascade down through everything else. There is no doubt that the brand agency is in a unique position to dictate strategy. And there's no doubt that having a good brand strategy is an essential ingredient — fundamentally, what does the brand want to accomplish?

But does this mean the brand agency is the owner of the integrated strategy? Does it have a deep understanding of the web, of digital, of advertising and of how they all intersect? Perhaps.

Maybe it's a matter of agency collaboration, an always sticky undertaking.

Maybe it's not a matter of digital vs. brand vs. media but of this agency vs. that agency. This brand agency gets digital; that digital agency gets brand. Go with one of them.

Or maybe the new role has yet to emerge. And maybe this role is not agency-side but client-side, a great conductor of the media orchestra, not a CMO, not someone who knows the numbers but someone who knows media and strategy, someone who understands trees while seeing the forest.