Monday, 22 May 2017

Exit Isolation.


Every time I hear of a musician’s untimely death – and there have been a lot of them over the past few years – my first thought is always “please don’t let it be an overdose or suicide.” Most of them are.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates in the North America increased by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, but in the same period, rates jumped to 43 percent for men aged 45 to 64.

As messed up as it seems, I was happy to hear that George Michael died of a natural cause at the age of 53. It’s somehow nicer to consider a quick, natural surprise passing, than the self-administered result of long-festering pain.

Musicians and songwriters tend to spend a lot of their profession analysing and expressing emotion. Sure, there are lots of happy songs, but there are also a lot of songs that delve into angst, loss, anxiety, despair, and cynical submission. This is particularly true of the 90s scene that produced Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Chris Cornell.  

There’s a bent romanticism attached to younger musicians who kill themselves. Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis became gothic heroes, the tragedy of their deaths tied to “what could have been” more than to the immediate, awful circumstances of their passing. The suicidal angst of a 20-something is often viewed as somehow poetic or poignant, but a middle-aged death is a signpost for a deeper level of pain.

From Michael Hutchence to Stuart Adamson, Cobain and Staley, Scott Weiland, Prince, and now Chris Cornell – preventable middle-aged deaths are so troubling. These people had talent, resources, opportunities, families, and many had children – but depression is an ugly beast that isolates an individual, overtaking all of these assets until nothing else matters.

To be clear, I consider the overdose death of someone over 30 to be the result of a slow suicide. Accidents happen during youthful misadventures, but at a certain age you know what the possibilities of your actions are, but you do it anyway. Every addict knows it’s only a matter of time until you quit or it kills you, but under the cloak of isolation, again - nothing else matters.

Overdoses make a middle-aged death darker, weirder, and sadder for me – the subjects knew what could happen (or worse, they knew exactly what they were doing) but they still needed to self-medicate. They weren’t doing it for fun. Sure, they had so many opportunities left ahead of them, but the bleak isolation and malaise of a single moment in time was greater. If they couldn’t get out of that pit, then what chance do us faceless mortals have?



I have only written about men here, but that’s part of this discussion – men die of suicide at more than three times the rate of women. Perhaps men are more resistant to getting help? Maybe they are less inclined to quit dangerous habits? Maybe they tend to ingest more than they should? Or perhaps they have fewer true friends?

Men tend to stick to old friendships, building fewer new friendships as they age. In the case of successful musicians, perhaps it is even more difficult to trust the motivations of people in your life – but the same would ring true for anyone in business ownership or management. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whom to trust – but everyone has to get past that. If you feel isolated and alone, go to a Doctor, go to a support group, or attend a series of Anonymous meetings. There are no hidden agendas or egos there, as long as you are willing to abandon yours.

It’s clear that opportunities, status, money or talent don’t rescue anyone from the clutch of anxiety, depression, isolation, or cynicism about individual circumstances. So, what does? Reducing isolation may be a start – connect with other people. Getting clear and clean is another one - many successful musicians are “all or nothing” types, but if you can’t handle consuming everything in the room, perhaps it’s better to ingest nothing at all? It is achievable – trust me. Avoid opioids too. As Weiland, Staley and Prince demonstrate, opioids will beat you eventually, and the only way to surely beat them is to stop taking them.

Music is an escape for so many people, but it shouldn’t illustrate a path towards permanent escape. Everyone is unique. Everyone suffers from a variety of diseases, but some can be treated. Treatment of depression and isolation will, at least, allow you to feel less shitty, more often – and isn’t that worthwhile? Isn’t sticking around a little longer worthwhile too?



Friday, 7 April 2017

Thoughts on teaching as a marketing professional

About this time last year, I investigated the possibility of teaching University students as a part-time lecturer. I was accepted to teach two separate marketing courses, beginning last fall. When those went well, I was offered to teach two more courses in the winter semester. The final day of classes wrapped up yesterday.

As a solo marketing practitioner who must assess a breadth of information each day, I am acutely aware of how limited my range of experience can be. I know what I know, and I read as much as I can, but nothing matches the benefit of shared human experience and knowledge. I expected to learn as much from my students as they learned from me, and that expectation has proven to be accurate.

My “day job” focuses on brand development, which is the act of distilling the entirety of an organization’s assets into a few core ideas, before sharing those ideas through focused goals, plans and objectives. Teaching is similar: in a world of options, the trick is to deliver focused learning in a compressed time frame - to choose and deliver the most relevant information within the confines of a single University course. It’s a challenging task, but it is exciting too – especially when you “get it right.”

Strategy is a fancy term for planning, and good plans require accurate, relevant information. Marketing professionals have to understand current trends as fully as they must know theories, tools, tactics and best practices. I can tell you that engaging in a structured dialogue with hundreds of marketing students will sharpen your mind better than any book, video, or colleague discussion can. Part-time teaching provides very little monetary compensation, but that was never the point – my experience has demonstrated that teaching provides so much more.

A few faculty members have moaned to me some negative clichés about “Millennials,” but my experience has proven that today’s students are uniformly smart, applied, focused, and practical about their future. To suggest anything less does these students a great disservice, and proves that you aren’t paying attention (or are clinging too tightly to fading skills and credentials). Today’s University students know what they can offer. They understand that they have a lot left to learn, they embrace a spirit of lifelong learning, and they are realistic about how their skills will connect to future opportunities. I can’t say the same thing about peers in my age group. It would be easy to be threatened by their competence and confidence, but I choose to be inspired by them – especially when they are so generous in sharing what they believe. Teaching and learning should always flow both ways, and these students are proving to be fantastic teachers.

As I look back on a whirlwind academic year, I am genuinely surprised to have a year of University teaching added to my list of accomplishments. A calendar year ago, I didn’t even think it could be an option. It has certainly been a time-consuming avocation (especially with preparation and grading), but I wouldn’t change a thing. I hope to add a few courses of teaching to my professional calendar for the foreseeable future.

If you are an expert in your field, I strongly recommend that you share your knowledge, without any thought to the return-on-investment. I strongly believe that your investment of time in sharing your experience with students who are eager to learn - regardless of monetary compensation - will provide a huge return on your own development as a professional, and as a person.

Starting a Communications class with Sloan's "Underwhelmed" - to ensure nobody misses the point




Monday, 14 November 2016

Public speaking - find performance tips from musicians, comedians and athletes

There are thousands of public speaking tips and resources available, but if you want to learn how to deliver content effectively, listen to creative performers speak about their craft. When you are speaking in public, you are sharing information that you have probably already written. Comedians (generally) do the same thing. Musicians do as well, performing music that has usually been written, arranged, and recorded before. All of these people will riff and improvise around their core content, and those nuances greatly enhance and inform the performance, but their performance will almost always follow a fairly straight line to its planned conclusion.

What unites a business speaker with a comedian or a musician is the fact that they each share information publicly in a manner that is presented consistently, and with the appearance of spontaneity. Their audiences share similar expectations that they will be engaged, that they will be provided with relevant information, and that they will share “moments” that may change their lives, if only in tiny, subtle ways.

Consider for a moment why people attend live performances in music, theatre or athletics, rather than watching it onscreen at home. Why do you do it? Getting to a live show can be a pain - you have to buy tickets, you make plans to readjust your day, you have to get babysitters, travel, find parking, and find a restaurant before or after the show. It’s a lot of work and expense. So why do so many people do it?

If you are a business speaker, you can learn as much from musicians, actors, comedians and athletes as you can from other business speakers. Public speaking isn’t just about business - there is a lot of “show” that goes with it, and the best source of show business expertise comes from those who deliver a show night after night. If you think public speaking is hard, try singing, cracking jokes, or carrying the expectations of fans on your shoulders.

A live performance, even when its entirely scripted, delivers a balance of fear and confidence that can’t be found in a published or recorded work. As an audience member, you participate in the delivery of the “product,” sharing in its balancing act of fear and professionalism. In a live performance, anything can happen (and often does). This is a part of the experience that is rarely articulated - the entire production can crash and burn at any moment. It’s the same in sporting events - as an  audience member, it is exciting to watch professionals perform at the peak of their abilities, in the moment, because they are trailing the edge between grandeur and failure. It’s exciting to witness, and your presence within a broader audience adds to the drama. When a live performance is perfectly executed in any genre, it’s a rush for everyone involved. There is a release of energy between performers and their audience that is legitimately exciting, and collectively invigorating. 

Like anything else in business, the key to success is often to model the success of others. You may never be the Jerry Seinfeld or Wayne Gretzky in your field, and you shouldn’t try to be - but they can give you a lot of ideas from their experience that you can curate into your own distinct, successful presentation style.

Sharing Ideas


The following video is a long one, and pretty NSFW (thanks largely to Louis C.K.), but it’s worth watching - not only because it’s funny as hell, but because it shares dozens of tips about how to deliver a good show (which in their case, when you think about it, is an effective 90-minute verbal presentation). These guys talk about using fear to your advantage. They discuss understanding the needs of your audience, the benefit of rehearsing your work, and acknowledging all nuances of the physical space you are performing in to avoid surprises. They talk about creating “moments” with an audience, and using an audience’s reaction to your benefit. View this clip through the lens of delivering content to your audience, and you will learn tonnes about how to assess your approach, and how to deliver your ideas confidently and effectively.


Find Your Core

Similarly, check out Robert de Niro as he discusses the subtleties of his acting approach. Haven’t you seen a speaker that clearly “overdoes it” with their energy and gregariousness? You can learn as much from the poor speakers as the effective ones, so consider how de Niro’s approach may apply to your speaking style. There is something to be said for a “less is more” approach, and he defines how he makes subtlety work for him. I present this to you to suggest that, with all the tips in the world, you still need to be “you” when you speak. Audiences can smell inauthenticity, and it kills effectiveness. Over-reaching and over-delivering is rarely good.


Ninety Percent Mental

Creative professionals always advise aspiring professionals to find their voice, be extremely well-prepared, and be ready to go. These lessons are clearly transferable to business speaking. Wayne Gretzky once said “Ninety percent of hockey is mental and the other half is physical,” which applies to public speaking too - everything that is carried by your voice and body begins in your mind. You must be clear on your message, you must have clearly-developed content, and you should present it well. Embrace your fear, and use it to your advantage. Rehearse your content and understand it well enough to improvise if necessary. Engage your audience to support and enhance your message. Make them part of your performance, and understand that they went to a lot of effort to see you in person - so include them in the process, and give them what they want, which is the counsel of a professional at the peak of their ability - one who will provide moments and an experience that may change their lives, if only in a tiny, subtle way.


Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Understand Your Enemy - Brand Identities in Politics

Marketing works. I’m not talking about advertising - I’m referring to the science of developing a methodical understanding of a defined audience, targeting that audience with a relevant, resonant message, and articulating that message to them as a clear brand promise. A strong integrated brand message will transcend communication mediums, and a well-developed strategic message is usually more important that how that message is tactically conveyed.

Americans chose to elect a Republican government yesterday, and the Republicans were successful largely because they provided a brand promise that resonated with an actionable majority of the electorate. That’s marketing, in its purest form. You don’t need to market to everyone - in fact, you shouldn’t even try. Great marketing defines a target audience, and engages them with targeted, resonant messaging. While great marketing doesn’t engage non-target audiences, it should still be built on a clear understanding of what their non-target audience needs. “Know your enemy and know yourself” (Sun Tzu) has been a battlefield standard for centuries, and it is the core of effective strategy in warfare, business, and politics - but still, people forget that this standard is made up of two essential parts. 

The primary product that Republicans were selling - their Presidential candidate - had obvious flaws, but those flaws were clearly less relevant than the promise provided in his core brand identity. The Republican Presidential candidate clearly knew himself - he understood what his audience wanted, and while that majority of voting citizens will learn over time if their chosen brand can deliver on its promise, at this moment, job-effectiveness is almost irrelevant. Right now, what matters is that his audience made a choice based on the brand identity that was presented to them, and whether anyone likes it or not, that’s how democracy works.



What I find more interesting in the U.S. election is that the opposing brand identity under the Democratic banner was burdened by significant strategic marketing errors. With the benefit of hindsight, I suggest their greatest error was that they understood their supporters, but they failed to understand the competition. They didn’t know the enemy. As they watched election results unfold, commentators were stunned at how results were not matching polls. It was immediately evocative of watching Brexit returns. The commentators expressed evident, repeated disbelief as reality outstripped research results. Even the Republicans seemed a little surprised - but not as much as everyone else. Research is the key here, for in both the U.S. election and the Brexit decision, one side of the political equation did not understand their opposition, and they therefore failed in their fundamental research positioning. They did not ask the right questions. What they could have done with that research is another question, but effective market positioning flows from effective research, and they obviously failed in this regard.

It’s no surprise to me that the leader of the Republican party (and now the President-Elect of the United States of America) is a service industry marketer. As a hotelier, he would understand a thing or two about human motivations. As a real estate developer, he would definitely understand how to motivate people on an emotional level. Residential real estate is rarely built on rationality: the decision-making process around choosing a home is deeply, fundamentally emotional, and any successful residential real estate entrepreneur knows how to target emotions. Emotions, once engaged, are very difficult to change. You can’t prove emotions wrong. Emotions are often impervious to logic and reason. “It feels right” wins over “the research shows…” with surprising (and sometimes alarming) frequency. If you know yourself and your audience, and you understand what motivates the emotions of your audience, you will earn some success. If you can provide something that your competition cannot provide in equal measure, you will earn a majority of success. 

At the time of this writing, the Democratic Presidential candidate received a majority of the popular vote, but did not win the White House, nor did the Democrats win a majority in the Senate or the House. That’s the way the U.S. system works, and this certainly feels like the 2000 election all over again to me. Still, what’s most remarkable to me is how insanely close these results can be. In spite of the quality of all marketing efforts, success or failure in American politics is still decided by thousands of votes from the millions cast. Again. It demonstrates how iffy marketing can be in general, and how tenuous its successes (and failures) can be. Brand communication requires effective research, focused targeting, and great messaging - and then you have to reassess and do it all over again. The biggest mistake any marketer can make is to feel they are “safe” - to feel that their support is assured - because it rarely, if ever, is.


The marketing lesson is that complacency, at any level, is not good idea. This is the “know yourself” part. Understanding your enemy, and constantly reassessing their assets and capabilities, is essential. The greatest tool in a strategist’s kit is research - especially when it comes to understanding what went wrong, so that a momentary failure can be assessed and incorporated into future strategic plans. Right now, both sides of the political spectrum should be doing a lot of research and analysis to figure out why everyone was indeed as surprised as they are right now - and understand how they may do things differently next time.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Advertising with Grief - Budweiser, Cheerios, and Iconic Brand Assets

Advertising can be very effective when it engages human emotions, but the most distasteful misuse of advertising’s power is when negative feelings are leveraged for unashamed gain. When Prince died earlier this year, dozens of print ads appeared in purple, many from brands that had nothing to do with the musician. Some were subtle tributes, but some were overtly branded - as if the company’s priority was to ensure you tied their brand to the deceased (which of course was their ultimate goal, regardless of how they spun their intentions).

Cheerios released an ad that, at first glance, seemed subtle in its branding, but the Cheerio dotting the “i” is actually pretty obvious.

Getting ready for a bowlful of complaints.
General Mills, the company that makes Cheerios, faced a wave of complaints, and they pulled the ad.

Alcohol manufacturers were also quick to jump on the opportunity of Prince’s death, which was doubly transparent because Prince was well-known to be a non-drinker.

Maker's Mark - Probably not Prince's beverage choice.

Prince almost certainly would not nave endorsed a booze manufacturer when he was alive, so the association was distasteful and disrespectful to the person that Prince was - he may have at least enjoyed an occasional bowl of Cheerios.

In 2002, Budweiser created a Superbowl ad that aired only once. It was a “tribute” to New York City and the human tragedy that struck the United States on September 11th of the previous year. A slightly revised version of the ad was run once more on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

The former executive vice president of Anheuser-Busch Global Creative said at the time, "We filmed in New York City. We had a helicopter going over the Brooklyn Bridge. Mayor Giuliani let us into the city - the only film company of any sort right after 9/11. To actually come into air space with our helicopter to film the Clydesdales - it was amazing - just amazing.”

It is a powerful ad - it looks beautiful, its tone is perfect, and it was widely praised at the time. It received particular praise because the company’s logo is absent until the end.


My question is this: the Budweiser Clydesdales are one of the most iconic, recognizable brand assets in the United States - so why did Budweiser show their logo at all?

It takes a brave executive to keep their logo off an advertisement for any reason, but the respect and honour an unbranded tribute provides would have been ample reason to do so. With such iconic brand assets, an ad with no corporate logo would be undeniably powerful, much less exploitative, and yet it would still be unmistakably “Budweiser.”

You can argue that Cheerios took an unbranded approach with their Prince tribute, but paying tribute to a fallen rock star seems much more opportunistic than providing a moment of support to a city or a nation - and if you can’t use a person’s brand image without their consent in life, then how can it conscionably be used after their death?

I believe that Budweiser’s corporate heart was in the right place with their tribute advertisement, but the logo placement at the end makes it crystal clear that their platitudes aren’t as important as selling more beer - which makes it a little harder to swallow. Budweiser could have played it a lot cooler if they let their horses do the talking. Wouldn’t that ad have been exponentially more powerful?


Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Chasing the "Big Idea" - Do Your Research

Marketing agencies have traditionally prioritized “the big idea.” It’s the sexiest part of the advertising process, and it embodies a lot of the mojo that marketing agencies get paid for – it is often suggested that the big idea is what clients get billed for. The Big Idea is traditionally what elevates a brand’s advertising to something that is bigger, fancier, and even more attractive that the brand itself. It often draws upon assets that may have nothing to do with the brand, drawing the glow of those parallel assets into its orbit. Celebrity endorsements are the most obvious example – if some superstar chooses to eat a particular snack food, then it must be pretty great – right? But does an endorsement actually reveal anything substantial about the product itself?

Sometimes a big idea may highlight a key asset of a brand, and this approach is fantastic if a brand already possesses fantastic assets. WestJet has built its advertising upon a ‘personable personality’ – their people are super-nice, and they have collectively come to represent the WestJet brand advantage. In a service industry, the human touch is almost always the most relevant asset to customers – as long as it’s a positive asset.
With product marketing, most people understand that Coca Cola is the ‘Real Thing.’ Coke was the inventor and originator of cola, so positioning themselves as “The Real Thing” rings true because it is. Their first-mover advantage as the originator of a beverage segment is integral to the brand, and it still seems relevant well over a century after its creation. Apple Computers told us to “Think Different” in 1997, and suggested in doing so that they were thinking differently already. Their approach became a differentiator in a world of computer products that were not differentiated, and in the early days of the internet, this spoke to a very large segment of users who did not want to work with the status quo – they were riding the early days of a computing revolution, and revolutions are best-fostered by those who think differently. Apple understood the power of leveraging a key internal asset to resonate with external audiences.



Marketing agencies that are doing their job well will ensure that a “big idea” will always ladder back to core truths in the brand. They ensure that statements can always be backed up, if not by empirical facts, then at least by measured perceptions and expectations of the brand. “Think Different” worked because Apple computer users already saw themselves as rebels, and people who generally resisted the status quo wanted to join that club. 
Marketers sometimes reach for a big idea without doing their homework, and these are the folks that give marketing a bad name. A big idea may seem wonderful in the moment, but if it doesn’t stick in the real world, it isn’t going to work in the long-term – unsubstantiated ideas are just bad sales pitches. 


The other side of generating a “big idea” rests in doing your brand research. This homework takes time and it takes insight, but it is a process that doesn’t require a loft office space full of interns to do it for you. Understanding your brand assets and attributes will reveal all sorts of marketing ideas, advertising copy and sales pitches that you never considered, and they will be rooted in brand truth. The process requires a careful assessment and analysis of your brand assets, goals, and your target audience. Navigating this process is fundamentally what marketing agencies do (or should do) – and if the human resources they bring to bear to your project are within your budget, then I highly recommend hiring a professional team to do this work. However, as the owner and key representative of your brand, shouldn’t you be the one to fully understand it? Either way, professionals add significant value, but you may find that you can build this road yourself, and the path will be infinitely more comfortable and familiar as a result.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Tom Cruise and Arizona - Understanding your Personal Brand

‘Personal Brand’ doesn’t always mean that you, a person, are your brand – but it can. Many celebrities are a brand, and that brand is the primary source of value they provide. When Tom Cruise is hired for a movie, the producers understand that he will do a workmanlike, professional job on set (I understand that those are key assets to the “Tom Cruise brand”), but those aren’t the brand attributes they are employing. If a “brand” represents expectations that people bring to bear on that brand (and that is a textbook definition of what “brand” means in a modern sense), then the movie producers hire Tom Cruise because they understand which assets he brings to the film after it’s all done. People generally know what to expect from a Tom Cruise film – they have a set of expectations that they trust will be met by the film’s star. Those attributes reflect onto the film content too, because their expectations are high that Tom Cruise will only star in a movie that is made with a certain level of quality – he must choose associations with care that will further support and enhance his brand.

So, you’re not Tom Cruise. How does this apply to you?

You have a personal brand, right now. It may not be broadly understood by thousands – it may only be known by dozens – but there are at least a dozen people out there with clear expectations of what you can (and can’t) provide. They have a sense of the assets you bring with you – your experiences, your education, your personality, goals, and your values. There exists a sense of trust that is already established – even if their trust is in fact distrust. Either way, they have a preconceived sense of your value and ability. This is, in its essence, your personal brand – it’s how your unique collection of assets is understood and perceived by others, and how that understanding affects and motivates their expectations of you is what you need to grasp. It will affect the choices you make, and it will influence the success you have in achieving your chosen goals.

A personal brand can be influenced much like you’d influence a conventional brand. You can advertise, you can seed key messages, you can engage public relations outreach, you can carefully craft your social media messaging, and you can even hire a sales team to champion your virtues. The challenge arises when active marketing runs against the grain of who you really are. In other words, if you are a thoughtful introvert, and your personality works beneficially with your career goals (let’s say you are a children’s writer), then gregarious advertisements and cheesy marketing statements will ring false. If your audience doesn’t like what they are seeing, and if it doesn’t resonate with them as being authentic, then overt “marketing” probably won’t work. With personal branding, being true to yourself is everything – because if you’re selling something other than yourself, you’re going to hate the results.

They key element with personal branding is fundamental to understanding any brand – you have to understand who your target audience is first. If you think your target audience is “everyone” then you are wrong. Even religion doesn’t target everyone – some people simply aren’t going to buy what you’re selling. You need to consider geographical boundaries (if you aren’t planning to ever visit Arizona, don’t target an audience there). You need to consider demographics. Psychographics. Lots of graphics. And it’s not difficult to do – if you can’t choose who to target, at least make a long list of who you’re not targeting – like Arizona, for example. 

The point is – if your personality is big enough to reach effortlessly around the world, then world domination is a goal worth pursuing, and the goods that you are marketing (yourself) may be up for the task – but you still have to be true to yourself. If your personality is less enormous, but your goals are also more measured, then understanding your best self is your best advantage. If you are reaching for a targeted audience, then the world (if not your home town) is a big place – and with your best-self presented well, you will find your target. They are out there, and without knowing it, they already looking for you. 

Understand how to communicate the best “you” that you possibly can, and then do it.