Principles of Branding for a Post-Branding World

Mark Zuckerberg's hoodies and sweatjackets exemplify branding in the post-branding world. Photo via Wikipedia.

The following are notes from a teleseminar I gave for the Federal Communicator's Network, May 21, 2012. (I am currently the chair of FCN.) All opinions are of course my own.

Thanks to Melanie Solomon for providing notes and to Paul McKim and others who contributed questions, comments and feedback. Also thanks to Ellen Crown for “live-tweeting” the event.

I. Notes – Melanie Solomon

1.       What is "branding in a post-branding era?"Branding world = under control, no hair out of place. Post-branding world = inauthenticity challenged by social media. How to achieve balance between coordinating what you say while seeming authentic and accessible.

2.       Culture first. Put internal communication first and let that be the driver. Get your people on board—not just with a training manual, but rather the whole gamut of your “corporate” culture.

3.       Start at the top. In post-branded, the leader is the brand, not just endorsing the brand.

4.       Everyone builds it. The frontline employees who deal with the public every day own the brand—not just Public Affairs. Post-branding employee treats you like a human being; no “canned” statements such as “have we me all your needs today?” Live the brand as if it was your neighbor.

5.       "Say it plain." KISS! Avoid bad branded writing! Un-writing the over-communicated message. Keep it in everyday, normal English. It’s fine to say what you want to say, but say it plainly. Strip away the phony baloney, but you still have a sense of coordination and shared view of the world.

6.       Nobody likes a robot. Nothing more annoying than reading robot language. The skill is to say it in a way that people respect you, even if you have to say that you don’t know all the answers. It is not easy to do. And not everyone can do it well. Don’t publish BS!

7.       A time for outreach, a time for content. NEVER do propaganda. But there is a place for marketing campaigns where you need to do more than just give people a phone number. Play with the brand; you don’t have to just mirror it for a campaign. When are we doing outreach; when are we doing content?

8.       About those logos. It’s very hard to do well. A bad logo is distracting to the public. Pay a professional to do this! Needs to be coordinated: monolithic, endorsed, or standalone (DB). Brand architecture: think about on a business level what your objective is, and how your logo reflects that. Need a strategy. Trademark the brand if you need to to prevent fraud.

9.       Dealing with dissension. Key in a branding effort, there will normally be a lot of fighting and dissension. People feel like they’re being forced into a mold and dehumanized. So...don’t call it “branding.” Call it “renewal” or something else (“reputation” – DB). In post-branded world, let people express their dissent in an adult way, to vent. Builds buy-in. Doesn’t always work in a closed culture because of reprisals. Get the decision-makers on board and in touch.

10.    Social media and the web. Become fluent with social media. You have to recognize that the younger generation especially lives in the social media world. The way they interact with the government is the way they deal with each other. Let them be ambassadors without so much mediation, while holding them to a reasonable standard. Support the conversation. Begin by using internal communications tools. Start people talking in groups—a positive step.

II. Tweets (Short Takes) – Ellen Crown, FCN Board of Directors:

1.       Training and employee buy-in are critical to creating authentic voices within an organization.
2.       How do you keep your brand from burning out? You need to look at your organization from the outside and constantly evolve.
3.       There is nothing that will destroy your communication faster than a crappy logo strategy.
4.       Nobody likes a robot.
5.       In a post-branded organization, the leader is the brand. They don't just endorse it.
6.       Focus on internal communication. "Culture is the neglected step-child of communication." (via a colleague – DB)
7.       The key distinction between the branding world and the post-branding world is that people are looking for authenticity.
8.       History lesson: for government, this (branding) started because we wanted to keep the messages and language consistent. (Also – there was a perceived need for greater familiarity between the public and the agency in the aftermath of organizational change - DB.)

III. Additional Notes and Comments – Dannielle Blumenthal

1.       Initially branding was restricted to products, then it was expanded to services, companies, and people.
2.       A serious initial problem of branding for agencies was that people were saying different things in different places and not coordinating – leading to confusion among the public about how to perceive the agency. However, now things have swung the other way and the discourse seems overly controlled with “messaging.”
3.       Branding and propaganda are not the same thing, but they can be.
4.       Everybody talks the language of branding now, but due to the explosion of social media it seems phony and forced. The trick is to sound natural while still coordinating and thinking through in advance the things you say.
5.       Mark Zuckerberg’s “hoodie everywhere” strategy is the epitome of post-branding.
6.       In a post-branded world, culture and internal communication are more important than external communication because there is the assumption that employees will speak spontaneously about the organization and that it will not be possible to control that.
7.       When the culture is strong employees automatically know what to do.
8.       What happens inside the organization, will ultimately be seen on the outside.
9.       Most branding is done by employees, not public affairs specialists.
10.    You have to be passionate about good writing – it is a cause.
11.    “Have I provided good service today?” is the kind of annoying brand talk that turns people off.
12.    Outreach is necessary sometimes to explain new rules, laws, etc. to the public. Branding can be useful to make it clear which agency communications are authentic.
13.    Must divide between branding, marketing, and information strategy. These are not one and the same.
14.    Public affairs and IT should work together – not just as partners but in a fused office.
15.    Use fewer logos, more strategically. There is a tendency to generate new brands and new logos like trophies.
16.    Reduce acronyms as much as possible.
17.    Don’t pick a fight with people who are wedded to a logo or what they think of as “brand.” To influence leaders, form an alternative group with a common vision, then work to engage the dominant group with the alternative group – create a new conversation that incorporates both. Read Art Kleiner’s book, Who Really Matters.
18.    The longer the timeframe, the more collaborative you can be – but when time is short sometimes you have to go in and be a dictator about content.
19.    Keep social media as loose as possible, but enforce existing policy stringently. Treat people like adults, and that includes making them accountable for using good judgment.

IV. Responses To Questions From The Audience – Thanks to Paul Kim and All Those Who Contributed To This Section

1.       If there is one aspect of the agency that differs strongly from the rest in terms of stakeholder relationships and services offered, this should be reflected in the brand strategy (logo, colors, etc.)
2.       Finding and engaging your audience is a marketing issue – do the research to find out where they are (often it’s offline), and get to the influencers because they will reach out to the others you need.
3.       Take the time to engage with the people who represent your brand. It’s a matter of training but also buy-in. Buy-in is achieved through conversation, and through providing a context around what you want them to say. The longer the time horizon, the more collaborating you can do – but if time is short sometimes you have to jump in and dictate.
4.       Subject matter experts should not be treated as writers. People cannot necessarily write from templates – these are only guides to set expectations as to what will happen to an end product
5.       You achieve branded communication without formulas by emphasizing the culture. Think about Google, Apple, Facebook, Starbucks, Microsoft – you can recognize what kind of communication would come from each of these companies without thinking too much about it.
6.       When developing a brand strategy think about your business objective and work backward to communication.
7.       To engage the public, find out what they want and give it to them – don’t start with your predetermined message.
8.       Brands burn out when they don’t evolve. It is important to have at least one person on the team who refuses to “drink the Kool-Aid” and is allowed to tell it like it is.
9.       Branding is not a tool to create publicity – marketing and PR do that. Rather, branding is a long-term communication strategy that sets the foundation for marketing and PR to work, by establishing a desirable image. Read Positioningby Al Ries.
10.    Can you destroy a brand by putting it on everything? No. You have to put the brand on everything if you want people to remember and trust it. You can tell you’re doing a good job when you get absolutely sick of looking at the logo.
11.    Use “line extensions” sparingly. You have to know your stakeholders well and be sure you’re not diluting the original message. Every time you split the brand into different directions, you’re splitting your energy. Only do this when the stakeholder groups are so different that they can’t be included in the same conversation.
12.    Avoid the B-word if possible. People innately dislike being branded.
13.    Focus on success in terms of what executive want. Listen carefully to what they say, how they define the problem, the communication style they prefer.
14.    In defining brand objectives, talk to employees informally about what the pain points are. Strategies that incorporate pain points stand a much greater likelihood of success than “nice-to-haves.”
15.    Often communication experts focus on pie-in-the-sky ideals when basic factors are a problem (like people don’t know where to find the information they need)
16.    Fix problems one at a time; start with low-hanging fruit. Don’t wait for the big plan to hatch – there is none.
17.    Don’t be excessive about asking for permission. Find out what leadership wants to approve and focus on that; for the rest you will have to do the best you can, exercise good judgment, etc. If you are constantly asking for permission you are asking to be told “no.”
18.    It is not self-promotional to highlight success. That is what executives want.
19.    Don’t be the lone ranger. Form a network of people internally who are engaged in helping you to fix the problems that have been identified.
20.    Everybody thinks they’re a writer and that technical skills are the only “real” ones. You can’t fix that. All you can do is gain people’s trust by showing your expertise.

10 Reasons Why Good People Stay Silent

Suicide Monkey
Photo by Jason Rogers via Flickr

Recently somebody asked me why I spend so much time publicizing issues like workplace bullying,  abuse, human trafficking, feminism, abuses in organized religion, and the importance of outing and prosecuting child molesters.

I understood the subtext of the question: "You must have been a victim, right?" As if nobody in their right mind would care about this type of thing unless they had been personally tortured.

The truth is not that dramatic, and yet it is. I simply realized one day that G-d gave me a voice and I am supposed to use it to try and speak for those who can't. I love this video of Daughtry's song "What About Now" - it captures the idea completely:

It is true that people who take a stand can become victims themselves. Remember Judy Blume's classic young adult book, Blubber?
"Though the entire class ostracizes Linda ("Blubber"), Wendy and her best friend and sidekick Caroline are Linda's chief tormentors and bully her both physically...and psychologically.....

"(Until) Jill (another student in the class), frustrated with herself for so readily following Wendy's lead, finally stands up to Wendy....Wendy, furious that Jill has dared to question her authority, threatens to make Jill "sorry [she was] ever born".

"Jill comes to school the next morning to find that Wendy has made good on her threat and turned the entire class against her....Jill's tormentors include Linda, who is more than willing to bully one of her former harassers."
The older I get the more I see that there are two kinds of people in the world. Some are willing to take a stand - even if quietly and behind the scenes. Others are not.

Generally the reasons for silence fall into one of 10 categories:

1. "I don't want them coming after me." (Refer to above.)

2. "Not my problem."

3. "People will think that I was a victim."

4. "What can I possibly do to help?"

5. "Look around you - that stuff seems a little exaggerated."

6. "Can't you see those people are crazy?"

7. "It's sad, but I have bigger things to worry about."

8. "That's what therapists are for - it's not really something you demonstrate about."

9. "If it didn't happen to me, why should I care?"

10. "Honestly, it's just depressing."

If you are on the fence, think about it from the perspective of your death. How do you want to remember your life?

I think about it this way: How many years, months or days do I have left before G-d forbid something happens, and I have to spend so much time at the doctor's office that I can't do anything for anyone anymore?

I'm inspired by the folks who stood up for the victims at last week's Jewish protest (in New York) to protect children from child abuse.

If you have time, I highly recommend reading what they had to put up with, because it really stirred me up to stand up for the victims even more:
Overheard at the Asifa Protest: Quotes, Moments, & Vignettes - By Shulem Deen |

Rule #1: Stop Fooling Yourself

[Portrait of Cab Calloway, Columbia studio, New York, N.Y., ca. Mar. 1947] (LOC)
Photo of Cab Calloway by Library of Congress via Flickr

A college friend was a film student at Tisch School for the Arts at NYU.

I vividly remember her practicing her shots, spending hours positioning a rose on a stool with a white sheet draped behind it. Then taking picture after picture.

Went to Pennsylvania once, and spent the weekend with her family.

They had a beautiful, small wooden house.  I remember walking up the steps from the main floor to put my things down upstairs, looking up at the ceiling, and thinking that it was beautiful. (I grew up with popcorn ceilings.)

They had some kites, or flags, or something like that affixed to the ceilings as well. I stood there in joy and wonder, thinking of the heavy books and heavy framed pictures in my house in New Jersey.

Airy in her house, heavy in my own.

I never wanted to be religious like my parents were. But I couldn’t admit it then.

I returned to New York and confessed to my mother. Normally open-minded, she gasped. Driving…on Shabbos…and you are happy?

She hung up the phone and I decided that I hated myself for being such a bad person. Till decades later when I realized, I’m not bad – just not the same as her.

The point of all this is that work is much the same. We have a flash of realization, and quickly bury it in aisles of denial.

How often do we admit and take responsibility for the fact that—

--a project is failing

--a team member – frontline, manager or even a leader - just isn’t cutting it

--a process is broken

--a division is becoming unnecessary

--ongoing conflicts are getting out of hand?

Last night I was watching Piers Morgan interview Jack Welch on CNN. If I could vote for Welch to take over (at least the economy), I would. There was an honesty to his talk. He simply told it like he saw it. 

This is not necessarily the same thing as being right – but Welch struck me as the kind of person who has made a deliberate choice not to fool himself.

Clicking away from Jack Welch there was the Kardashian reality show.

Now before you all throw rotten tomatoes at me because of their trashy ways, and Kim’s immoral, ludicrous reality-show marriage – don’t.  I’m just trying to make a point here.

The mother, Kris Jenner, cheated on her first husband and the tabloids have made much of this. They say that daughter Khloe’s paternity is probably one of her cheat-ees.

Instead of hiding, Kris got a DNA test done on the kids.

In the end most things are not that bad. Cancer is bad. But not most things.

Denial is worse than most problems. Someone started “F*** Cancer” to promote preventive education and examination for cancer, because people get so freaked out about it they just ignore the simple steps that could save their lives.

Everyone has trouble confronting themselves. But sooner or later, you’ve just got to do it. Maybe not in a harsh way, but in a way that helps you take care of what needs to get done.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Do Your Employees Know Who You're Competing With? (Au Bon Pain vs. Chop't)

The other day I decided it was time to ingest something green again.

I have been eating largely white and brown foods for the past week and am starting to feel pale.

Normally I would love to go to Chop't and get a salad but there are two problems with that plan.

First, at lunchtime the line is out the door and second, the salads are usually too big and I wind up feeling sick afterward. (Holocaust families don't leave food over.)

So I went to Au Bon Pain and glanced over the soup. I don't know, that stuff they call "12-vegetable soup" - is it really as healthy as it sounds? Tastes good, but I was after fresh. And I don't count starchy vegetables as healthy.

The new salad bar at Au Bon Pain is not as appealing as Chop'ts is but it was empty.

I walk up to the counter and look at what's behind the glass.

Same kind of food as Chop't, I guess. Not as good.

Spinach is safe. So I say to the person who serves the food, "I'd like a salad please."

We go through what I want and the vegetables go in the bowl.

That's funny, it looks similar to Chopt's. Except they put the salad stuff there AFTER the chopping is finished.

The salad maker starts chopping the vegetables in front of me.

That's funny, the knife looks similar to Chop'ts. It's a mezzaluna I think. But it's smaller.

The leaves are still huge when he is finished.

"Can you chop it more?" I ask, puzzled. It's a salad; I am not a goat.


He looks equally puzzled.

Finally I say, "You know, chop it."

Still nothing.

Then I say, "You're competing with Chop't. That's why."

Suddenly the server starts laughing. He is chopping those spinach leaves like crazy.

I walked out with a damn good salad, I must say.

The moral of the story, for me, is that leaders do not usually communicate all that well with their employees. (Surprise, surprise.)

They are traveling in circles different from their staff.

They are having conversations with people at a more executive level.

And their spirit of competition is fierce, but it's not a conversation they are normally having in the break room.

Just like people like to watch sports together and root for the winning team, so too they want to compete against other groups and emerge victorious.

If you are a leader and you've got a competitor in mind, for G-d's sake tell your people about it.

Because otherwise you're competing with a ghost.

And it's up to the customer and your staff to try and figure out your business strategy.

Good luck!

"The Dictator" & Comedy As A Political Tool

Video: Trailer for the new political comedy "Veep" on HBO, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Seinfeld fame

You know how men tend to clap their hands over their ears when women start lecturing them about feminism?

It turns out that humor works a lot better, without the nasty side effects:
"The popular dismantling of entrenched feminist stereotypes began, perhaps, not with the feminist movement itself, but in comedy....on “The Daily Show”: 'What’s the difference between a fertilized egg, a corporation and a woman? One of them isn’t considered a person in Oklahoma.'"

- Rebecca Traister, "How the 'War On Women' Quashed Feminist Stereotypes," The Washington Post, May 11, 2012
A similar principle is at work in Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie The Dictator. It is not Borat - but you would be forgiven for confusing the two. Both are shocking, sometimes unwatchable, offensive and endlessly funny. (Warning: It's very graphic, NSFW or for the young or easily offended.)

The first one, artistically, was a better movie. But the new one is equally compelling. And considering that it's really a political argument in the guise of a comedy, on the whole it is probably better.
 In the space of 83 hilarious minutes, Cohen gets you thinking:
  • Is a democratic society dominated by a wealthy few, very different from a dictatorship?
  • Are dictators more effective at getting results? If they are, is democracy worth it?
  • Can a dictatorial person ever really be "reformed?"
  • How do you get people to pull their weight without torturing or forcing them?
  • Are talented underlings inherently undermining of leadership?
  • Is our obsession with social media taking away our capacity for real relationships?
As a side dish the viewer also gets a healthy dose of Cohen poking fun at racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, anti-Arab stereotypes, homophobia, the homeless, the anybody left out? (It's a very inclusive movie, in that way.)
 Once you get the joke you see...the movie is really about a vision of social justice. But it's conveyed nearly completely in the language of those who would totally resist change.

Some people think that making fun of serious social problems actually reduces their seriousness.

Maybe. To me it's a case of whatever works:
  • For example, Frum Satire makes fun of the distance between Jewish ideals, and what is sometimes reality. Failed Messiah hits out at those things, with extreme seriousness.
  • Jezebel often pokes fun at the anti-feminist. The National Organization for Women's website goes after the "bad guys" no-holds-barred.
  • The Soup makes fun of reality TV shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Others go the serious route, as did one individual who started an online petition in November 2011 to get the show off the air.
One thing that I like about social-commentary movies - whether fiction, mockumentary, documentary or what have you - is how capably they can blend humor with a serious social message. Morgan Spurlock's film The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (about the pervasiveness and ethics of product placement) is a great example as is Fahrenheit 911 by Michael Moore.

More than that, what's fascinating to me - if you think about people who immerse themselves in upsetting subject - is the human capacity to laugh despite all the troubles that exist out there.

Which is why my favorite filmmaker of all remains the neurotic, pessimistic, Jewish agnostic Woody Allen, who famously said:
Have a great weekend everyone - keep smiling - and good luck!

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