Posts Tagged ‘authenticity’

Branding Disorder

July 2, 2008

Thanks to John Moore at Brand Autopsy, my next summer book will be Obsessive Branding Disorder, by Lucas Conley. I always love to read stuff that validates my personal philosophies! Here are a couple of quotes from the Fast Company essay that spawned the book:

A brand is a result, not a tactic. One cannot go about branding an organization or a product or a service; the organization, product, or service is what creates the brand. (italics mine). In a brilliant twist, the experts have bottled an end and sold it as a means. (emphasis mine).

Lucas sees a connection between the decline in advertising and the rise of branding as a business religion. He points to a 14% drop in Madison Avenue employment from 2000 to 2005. I think it’s more likely that both are symptoms — there is correlation but not necessarily a causal connection.

In my view, the rise of branding with its focus on “being understood” and “knowing who you are” comes from the increasingly narcissistic mood of the culture. And that in turn might be flowing from the trends which have conspired to make “one” — the self — into the ultimate economic unit.

Whatever the cause, we agree on the results: the advertising world focuses on “what we say” and “how we say it”. But the reality is that true branding, minus the hype, is really just “what the business does.” Conley cites Jiffy mix, Disney, and Apple as his examples of strong brands that are strong because of their product, not their advertising. And my personal favorite, In-N-Out Burger:

The $310 million In-N-Out Burger chain, another iconic brand that rarely advertises or speaks to the press, has been putting the rest of the fast-food industry to shame for years. McDonald’s spent an estimated $1.5 billion on branding efforts last year, producing little more than one day’s worth of sales more per store than In-N-Out. Have you ever met anyone who’s had an In-N-Out Burger who doesn’t believe it’s one of the best burgers they’ve ever had? Meanwhile, just who, exactly, is really “lovin’ it”?

For colleges, the message is clear: focus on the delivery of a transformational education experience in keeping with the traditions and values of the school. And in the marketing area, focus on authentic portrayals of how real students are actually experiencing that transformative time in their lives. In that way the authentic brand for that college will emerge. And the branding techniques that are so faddishly au courant, can be left to the McDonalds’ of the world to obsess on.

Postscript on another great summer read:

Today it seems normative for members of a family, company, team, or band to find the current of success more rewarding when they wade into the deep waters alone. Fame and fortune are easier to manage solo, without the vulnerability and accountability of team participation. Using music as a metaphor, it’s easy to think of examples from my generation: the Beatles; Peter Cetera; Michael Jackson; Paul Simon; Enya. Of course, the ones whose sound was defined by the team brand, rather than individual stars, are also noteworthy: the Beach Boys; the Rolling Stones.

A great book about the difficulties yet rewards of team-building is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni.

Inspiration – III

February 11, 2008

Enjoying some personal recharge time in San Diego, I met a couple of committed walkers who taught me some great insights into authenticity as a personal and institutional lifestyle.

I was climbing Cowles Mountain, the highest spot in San Diego county. It’s a great spot to enjoy the sunrise — an hour up, 15 minutes down. While on the way, I stopped to rest and as Del (on the right) passed with his friend, we struck up a conversation. I asked him about walking as metaphor of life, and he hit me right between the eyes with, as Kenny Rogers put it, an ace that I could keep. Del’s formula?

“I have two feet. The first is rethinking/change. The second is confidence/assertiveness.” (I’m translating from more religious terminology – repentance and faith). Del went on (I’m paraphrasing): “When I start out, I have to listen and respond to my environment. I need to rethink, based on who I impact and where I don’t measure up. Then, I am free to confidently go forward, seize opportunities, be effective at what I can do and who I am. And then comes another step of listening, responding, rethinking.”

Del’s comments inspired me with a fresh insight into both personal and institutional authenticity. Being “me”, honestly projecting who I am, is not enough if I want to be perceived as authentic — if I want to be an organic and productive enterprise. I also have to respond to “you”. I must be committed to self-improvement, and work that out through a cycle of receiving and sending, give and take, listening and expressing.

The brand of an institution does not emerge from what it repeats about itself. As John Moore said in Brand Autopsy recently, it flows from being, not “branding”.

Being “me”, personally or institutionally, involves a recognition that if a “me” has value because of my story, my unique experiences and perspective, then every “you” has value, too. If one individual is golden, a diverse community brings infinite riches.

If there were only one university it would be a boring and provincial world of ideas. But Oxford has greater value because there is Cambridge. Harvard is interesting because it shares many qualities with the other Ivies, as well as because of the nuances which differentiate it.

Each “me” becomes actualized as an authentic brand because of its response to its environment. I can attempt to assert my independence from my peers, but when I do so it only cheapens my actual brand, the authentic “me” which is not what I think of myself, but what I actually am as an organic member of a community of interrelated, interdependent organisms. My ability to project a distinct perspective, a valuable set of values, tarnishes whenever I grow sluggish in my efforts to be accountable.

In fact, I would argue that if there is one foot more important than another in Del’s metaphor, it would be the rethinking foot. By rethinking and changing as rapidly as possible to changing conditions and needs, I earn the right to assert my identity as valuable, as useful, as worth consideration. I have a valid reason to hold forth my brand. And I have a decent chance, thus, of my brand being perceived as authentic.

Thanks, Del, for your helpful insight!

Archetypical Climbers

Inspiration – I

February 2, 2008

I used my days of travel to gather some inspiration.

An old photography textbook in our room at Haley’s Hotel offered a quaint perspective:

“The essence of art is only partially concerned with materials and processes … brush, paint, crayon… are merely media of art. They can give no guaranty of art success any more than T square and triangle can produce architectural excellence…. So it is with the camera…. No amount of technical knowledge, craftsmanship, and care can make the camera produce art when it is guided by a nonartist. The camera, then, is a sensitive tool that responds to the thinking of the person who operates it.” (italics theirs)

(from Photographic Composition by Ben Clements and David Rosenfeld)

“The thinking of the person who operates”… Yes, everything in the cinematic arts hinges on the thinking of the artist, or newsman, or journalist, who controls the camera. Which lens? Which angle? Whose reaction?

A good case in point for me recently came while watching The Truman Show. Near the end of the movie, when Truman hits the sky-wall, Peter Weir (who gave us Witness, Dead Poets Society, and Fearless) chose to show the moment of anguish as a medium shot, from behind. Without seeing his face, we are left with only his body language, his fruitless attempts to break out of his prison with fists and body slams. When Jim Carrey finally spins around to reveal the agony in his face, it is all the more moving and poignant. This is directorial thought at its best.

Another example is in the movie Sleepers. Jason Patric’s character finally reveals to the priest, Father Bobby (played by Robert De Niro), the dark secrets that the boys have been living with since their incarceration for a childish prank. Barry Levinson directs that instead of playing Patric’s face and hearing his actual dialogue, we lock on a closeup of De Niro. For something like 30 seconds (and it feels like minutes) the audio goes into “hyper-reality” — the sound of words without the intelligibility — and we read the pain in a sympathetic face, as De Niro comes to grips with the horror the boy experienced in jail. It’s a master stroke. Levinson, like Weir, is a director who thinks about the truth, about the complexities and nuances of human reality. In this case it’s about how it could be more “moral” for a priest to lie under oath than to put the murder of a soulless man higher than the murder of a boy’s soul.

The best of cinematic storytelling occurs when thought is paramount…. when the goal is not to scintillate (explosions, car chases, skin) but to ruminate. With excellent actors, the thinking occurs when they and the director invest time in the back-story, developing the inner motivation and character dynamics that make each moment of word and action “realistic”. In documentary-style story-telling, the thinking occurs during shooting and editing, when the cameraman senses what is relevant or transcendant in what is unfolding, and chooses to focus on the decisive moment. Like a miner panning for gold, he looks for the glittering nuggets, and then swirls them in the pan until the mud clears away. And then, in the editing process, he thinks carefully about how to sequence, juxtapose, and set the best moments into a story that breathes with life and authenticity.

We’ve all seen boring documentaries. We’ve all seen bad movies. And the term “college video” has earned its own category of disregard. It is in the thinking, not the production values, that the fault can be found. In fact, I think that people will forgive bad production values if the story is authentic and the thinking quality is evident.

“The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression… . In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

Which is why all the talk about cameras and formats among “video guys” is so meaningless and beside-the-point. What matters is the thinking of the cameraman and the editor. Period. To use Cartier-Bresson’s self-description, the successful communicator of an institutional ethos needs “the velvet hand, the hawk’s eye”. It’s not a skill as much as a state of mind that I aspire to … the mind of a painter of birds. Patient, observant, unobtrusive, in love with his subject. Those are the kinds of artistry that inspire me.

Authentic authenticity

December 31, 2007

Over the last few weeks I’ve kept coming back to the issue of authenticity, as discussed on YouTube and as advocated by Andy Beedle.

Authenticity is my mantra, my corporate compass, but YouTube’s shock-schlock and Beedle’s quest for viral humor seem to me to be cheap substitutes for the real thing. Here’s a year-end reflection on authentic authenticity.

I still subscribe to the “3 gates” view of communication I learned as a kid: “Is it true, necessary, and kind?”

YouTube as an Institutional Platform

It’s almost laughable to look at YouTube through that prism.

The authenticity question deals with “Is it true?” But is anyone on YouTube asking the other 2 questions? Some are; most, it seems to me, are not. It’s a commons, and the least common denominator now defines the YouTube brand.

Is it necessary to see most of the garbage on YouTube? Objectively, no.

Is it kind to folks like Miss Teen South Carolina or other YouTube laughingstocks at their worst, caught doing silly, foolish, or degrading things? Obviously not, but then again, there may be times when seeing a window into the darker parts of the soul of a football coach or politician may be a public service.

But if I’m charged with protecting an institutional brand, and I want to compete for attention in that marketplace with representatives of my college, my answer is “No.” No, I’m not going to put up 2nd rate hubris, which most college videos tend to be, and no, I’m not going to intentionally put my President wiping out on water skis or my dean of students in drag. Such a visual might be viral, but that kind of viral is a disease, not desirable publicity.

It’s a free country. Kids and faculty members are going to post stuff on YouTube. A lot of it will be embarrassing, and some of it will actually be a credit to the institution. But as a rule I’d say try to live in a way as an institution that avoids YouTube. Practice authenticity and transparency in both public and private … expect  your administrators and faculty to be the same people all the time … and then there won’t be much ugly, yukyuk junk to get skewered by on YouTube.
The YouTube phenomenon demonstrates, not the need for censorship, but the desirability of individual self-censorship.

While authenticity is a value I subscribe to, in my view it is not the highest value. Necessary and Kind are equally important values. Openness and authenticity are only a virtue when admirable, humane qualities are at the core of each person’s value system. Honor toward others, humility and kindness and other-centered nobility … these are the aspirational virtues that all institutional leaders should exemplify. Isn’t that one reason we call this biz “Higher Education”?

At its best, YouTube is a tribute to the human spirit; at its worst, it is a searchable, accessible latrine. You can’t stop people from reading about your school in a magazine they take into the bathroom. But you don’t have to paint your institutional tributes on the bathroom walls.
So my advice is to be cautious about relying on YouTube as a repository of your college’s reputation and messages.

Beedle-style Humor 

Humor — sarcastic, sophomoric humor as practiced by Andy Beedle and others, is not quite so easy to dislike. Wielded in an institutional setting, as part of an email campaign or website presence, this kind of humor can certainly distinguish your institution from the marketplace at the present time. Few colleges are willing to risk it, and the ones that do have perhaps enough to gain that they’re willing to take the risks that go with the territory.

Consider two examples from 2007 — the  Kettering Stickman series and the George Mason mascot series. Is that sort of humor “authentic”? Does breaking the mold, stepping out of the “dignified” and “moderate” speech patterns that colleges have always practiced, constitute a positive step toward honesty, authenticity, openness?  Obviously some folks think so, and there are some short term gains, it appears, at institutions that move in that direction.

Humor is fun, and I love humor. It’s a great way to get at truth in an accessible way. In fact, humor is essential to credibility, authenticity, accessibility.

I don’t think it’s possible to construct an effective fundraising or recruiting piece without authentic moments of self-effacing, natural humor.

Where I think humor can become dangerous is when it becomes sarcastic, caustic, or disrespectful. In my view this line may at times be difficult to recognize, but generally a cross-section of the institution’s members can see it if they give the matter a day or two to settle. For example, once I was working on a fundraising video and included a line from an interview that joked about how the college’s alumni are productive citizens, not landing in jail. It seemed innocent enough, and felt to me and most of the college’s review committee like an authentic moment of organic humor… and helped create a mood that turned warm and motivational just a few seconds later. But one member of the committee was unsure about it. She admitted it was funny, but it somehow didn’t feel right to her. The next day she called me and was able to verbalize why this wasn’t just a PC issue. Turns out the month before one of the college’s alums had been indicted and was awaiting trial in connection with the Enron scandal. So the joke would have gone sour in the minds of some alumni in the audience who knew and felt sorry for their discredited friend.

As a rule, humor that would burn someone should be thought of as acid humor. It should be avoided, or used with extreme care, because it is ultimately cut from the same cloth that produces disrespect, anarchism, nihilism, hate speech.

The kind of humor that works well is often confessional in nature. It doesn’t hurt anyone, and represents a refreshing candor on the part of the speaker, which many in the audience can relate to. For example in the current Cedarville admissions DVD, which won a Silver award in last year’s national Admissions Marketing Awards competition, after a series of short reasons as to why students chose Cedarville, I included a hesitant admission by one interviewee that she came there because her dad made her go there for a year. The whole comment is there; the double take, the moment of reflection, then the the smiling confession that she didn’t want to come there at all. When she was interviewed, she was still in the first year and had not yet decided whether to return. But I stuck it in the video because I knew it would be a chuckle moment for both students and parents, an acknowledgment that a lot of kids who want to gain the freedom of a college experience are pressured by their parents to attend a school with more structure and supervision.

In a fundraising video for the United Way, I included a humorous moment in which a guy said, “It don’t make a difference how much they take out of my pay… I mean, you know, as long as they don’t take too much…  Is that going to be on tape?”  It brought a sense of the reality that everyone struggles with finding a balance between their altruism and their personal and family goals.

Humor that works is refreshing, feels honest, doesn’t hurt anyone, and doesn’t cheapen or degrade either the people involved or the institution they represent. Humor that works may not be PC, but it also avoids throwing acid at other institutions or at the values and virtues that colleges and humanitarian organizations stand for. And that’s why I would urge colleges to be cautious before using some of the methods that seem to be proliferating right now.

Bottom line, humor that works well establishes an authentic brand of authenticity for the college. It remains true to the aspirational virtues and strengths of the college, while acknowledging the inconsistencies, diversity, and humanity that make that college as accessible and likable as it is strong and idealistic.

Humor as perpetual emotion

December 22, 2007

An open letter to Andy Beedle…

I’m an Andy Beedle fan. Love your sense of humor, admire your ability to assemble a creative staff and deliver a measurable marketing success to college clients.

I share your commitment to the college market, and share your perspectives on many issues related to marketing to Millennials, including the value of authenticity, self-deprecating humor, and the major wrong-headedness of the Appalachian State “HOT HOT HOT” video.

But I think you’ve gone a bit overboard in your latest email, Andy…

Every week, I get several calls from College and University enrollment folks wanting to talk about having us do a new and innovative project for their institution. I also get slightly fewer calls from other higher ed marketing firms that are intellectual property fishing trips disguised as “partnership explorations” where they ask questions about how we come up with our ideas for online campaigns and I say non-committal things like, “We work hard on a collaborative and generative process that is informed by the interests of the target demo.” I have no idea what that means, but it makes those calls mercifully brief.

[Andy then proceeds to advocate ways of achieving viral marketing clout through humor, humor, and more humor.]

First, Andy, I want to say that going viral via humor is a very dangerous branding strategy for a college. Yes, some of your efforts on your web site are laugh-out-load funny, including the Stickman animations for Kettering, and the George Mason mascot video. Brilliant. But Beedle, you’re a Boomer, and while Millennials crave immediacy, Gen Y literacy, individualism, and social interactivity (according to Forrester), they are not the irreverent rebels you and I are. They get along with their parents (80-90 percent), buy brands (90 percent), tolerate and even desire supervision and protection, build communities rather than protest injustices, respect branded institutions if they sense authenticity, and are in many ways much more conservative than we are from the inside out.

For that reason, while there’s no doubt they love to find goofy junk on YouTube to laugh at with their friends, they are not necessarily going to be dismissive of a credible, authentic presentation about a school. They seem to be much less hypocritical than we are about getting an education and a job. We cry “down with the establishment” while we build the most materialistic lifestyle in history; they are often turning away from lucrative positions in order to find meaning in volunteering or other lower-income pursuits.

Second, your attitude toward other marketing approaches feels like smugness. Ideas, freshness, have never been a challenge for me personally; speaking for myself along with you and your staff and many other marketers I know, there are plenty of folks who feel relentlessly creative and have no problem coming up with fresh, prescriptive ideas to suggest to clients. Those of us who choose to specialize in the college marketing arena do so, I would guess, out of a desire to focus on a demanding niche that requires a very refined and nuanced level of creative precision. As a class, college marketers from A-beedle to Ztories (my tiny company), and all the Lipman Hearnes and Stamats in between, have much more trouble getting their clients to take risks than they do finding fresh creative ideas to suggest to their clients. [Am I right on this, fellow marketers?!] So, Andy, my hunch is that lots of college marketing consultants have got to feel the same as I do, impressed with your creativity but not necessarily your artistry.

Third, and most important, humor can attract attention, but it can also cheapen the brand of anything that purports to be worth a $120,000 price tag. Does Michelin go for humor? Cuteness, friendliness, family values; but not funny. Do Lexus and Volvo attach humor to their brands? No, good quality is not funny. Safety is serious. A quality diploma is no laughing matter.

And so for getting unqualified, happy-go-lucky leads, your viral yuck-it-up stuff can fill an inbox. Maybe even bring in a bumper crop of applications. But if you want those Kettering applicants to matriculate, and stay for 4 years because it was a good fit, it seems to me there needs to be a serious and credible set of messages that address substantive issues with the kind of immediacy and Millennial literacy that other schools are able to do through more dignified marketing efforts.

When I scratch below the brilliant, viral Kettering search effort, I see media which fails to bolster its most basic claims vis-a-vis dynamic, engaged applied science. Nor does it authentically address the tough situations students who actually go there must face in an economically distressed community. Should colleges take a caveat emptor approach to their image, or should they attempt to be more transparent about their actual weaknesses as well as strengths?

And the chemical activity level of the humor I’m seeing here can produce unexpected results. It would be damaging to a school like Whitman to make fun of liberal arts as an aspiration. It would be destructive to a Hillsdale to get funny about its preoccupation with politics. These are critical dimensions, august ideals, which fill the very air at these institutions. For me, the essence of brand elucidation requires colleges to begin treating 17-year-olds as adults who are going to be making serious decisions based on reason and, yes, the western rational tradition rather than some funny but ultimately senseless zinger by the school’s mascot.

Has the bump in interest provided by Stickman been a benefit to Kettering? Short term, it seems positive, but how will it play long-term? Here’s my concern: the downside of associating Stickman to a college brand, is the junk which has now been attached to Stickman at the top of the search engines: Subservient Stickman.

No, I’m not advocating stuffy, predictable bureaucratese. Most college videos I’ve ever seen are unendurable. I’m advocating truthful and memorable storytelling. I have seen the benefits of credible, compelling, immediate, socially-interwoven rich media that builds brand equity.

“Authentic” and “sarcastic” are not synonyms. Making it authentic does not mean making it disrespectful, irreverent, or ironic. It means making the claims precisely and demonstrably true, without hubris or puffery. And communicating effectively with rich media requires an emphasis on appropriate emotion, not “facts”. It means story-telling with just the right mixture of humor, humanity, and gravitas.

Will these kinds of weighty communication efforts go viral? Not often. But they’re worth paying for because they have value.

Ultimately, aspiring to get the marketing equivalent of perpetual motion is not just fraught with risk; it could be downright foolish and create a perpetual emotion, a damaging double-entendre that sticks like glue and measurably hurts the most important thing a college has: its reputation.

PS — Andy, I hope to meet you some day and settle this little disagreement over humor methods with a friendly (and funny) contest… hot-dog eating? jousting? inflatable Sumo smackdowns? Or we could have a recite-off of our favorite aphoristic writers. I elect Alexander Pope, Francis Bacon, Mark Twain and Piet Hein… 🙂

Authenticity on YouTube: Q and A

December 18, 2007

Here’s another Becky Roth video, this one from her personal vlog:

Authenticity

Here are my “answers”:

1. If it’s produced can it be authentic? Yes, if the assembled moments are authentically “found moments” or else “realistic moments” which communicate a truth about some aspect of the human condition.

2. Can it be authentic if green screen or other devices are used? Yes, if the visuals convey a truth with a sense of perspective and appropriate emotion.

3. Can it be authentic if it’s rehearsed? Yes … Hollywood does this all the time. Here, you start with authentic dialog, true to the character, to the situation, to human nature. Then you rehearse it until the actor can deliver it in character, in the moment, as though it was authenticly caught by a candid camera.

4. Can it be unrehearsed, unmediated, unedited, and still be inauthentic? YES! It can be a come-on, a false or extremely partial view into a person, a misrepresentation of their feelings, a statement of what they think you want to hear.

5. If it’s authentic, does it have intrinsic value? No, because it can also be authentically banal, boring, derivative, destructive, shocking, titillating, or horrifying…. and thus other than perhaps being a form of art, pretty much worthless in spite of its authenticity.

Thanks, Becky, for raising these questions. I welcome comments on these perspectives.

Authenticity on YouTube

December 16, 2007

From one of Mike Wesch’s students, Becky Roth, comes this documentary:

Near the end a college-age student asks, “As long as you know it’s fake, what difference does it make?” He seems to be in the minority: most folks want to feel like what they are watching is authentic.