All posts filed under “Insights

comment 0

When your Brand is Superficial


The term superficial comes from the Latin word superficialis meaning,  “not deep, or without thorough understanding.” We use this term all the time – mainly to challenge ideas that aren’t fully formed, reasoning that isn’t complete, or people who put a premium on appearance over personality.

Typically, we reject superficiality in this context. The implied reason is that there has to be something deeper below the surface in order to drive connection and understanding. As a single example of this in practice, when we view works of art, we’ll appreciate the way it looks, but equally try to dig into the artist’s motivations, experiences, or history to round out our understanding of their piece.

A brand is no different. All too often, companies will put a premium on the visual development of their brand. Yes, a good “look” is important. And further, it’s fun to tangibly see things coming to life. It’s easy for that excitement to cause shift focus from strategic progress towards further visual development… things like decorating the office, making swag, and presentation templates. These all are outward statements about your brand.

But if the efforts stop at the visual – or worse, becomes hyper-focused there – the resulting customer experience will end up being highly superficial. Customers will see the product and perhaps think it looks cool, but it will fail to understand what it stands for. And worse, it risks driving customers away because once they start to dig below the surface, they’ll know you can’t back up the statement these visuals attempt to make.

Or, to simplify the above – you’re brand will ring hollow, and trust with the consumer is lost.

Complete brands need to be well-rounded both in every aspect of communication. The values you uphold. How you communicate them. The customer experience. The unique expertise you offer.  All of these and more are what ultimately is the soul behind your brand. Visualization is an important part. But at it’s best, the visualization is merely equal to these.

So, how to do this. Soon I’ll be publishing a follow up to my article About Authenticity…It’s Dead. We’ll dive into the subject matter about how to build a brand that stands for something. Yes, visuals are a part of this along the way. But by priority, they come after developing a mission; after establishing the values the company will uphold; after studying the market to understand what your brand’s unique position is within the landscape; and after determining exactly how to communicate all of this to the world. Visuals are simply one means of that communication. And if there’s nothing driving that communication, then all you’ve crafted is a shallow, disconnected visual. It’s art with no reason. It’s purely superficial.

So ask yourself…is your brand superficial? Have you placed too much emphasis on the visual aspects of your brand?

comment 1

The Masses Are the Media

It wasn’t so long ago that brands held dominant sway over the media. Television, movies, radio, print… all of them were things the masses engaged with primarily as a result of there not being anything else. Our stories were implanted through those mediums, sometimes as adverts, other times through the work of our public relations teams.

Then the internet came of age. And more specifically, then Social Media came of age.

Now, the masses are the media.

Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, et al have all re-written the act of what ‘media’ means. The masses are constantly connected, both with each other, and with media from everywhere. Everyone is now a content publisher. Every platform is accessible. And this has fundamentally changed the way we need to market our brands.

The adverts that used to work are passed by as distraction. Just look at the declining success of display ads. Commercials are neutralized in the on-demand culture that surrounds television. Conventional product placement has been replaced by the concept of influencers. And marketing teams have whole new divisions to create content.

This drastic shift is a byproduct of the masses choosing what’s worthy. If it’s great, they share it. If it’s not, it’s smothered. Now, more than ever, the emphasis behind our brands must fall not only on being authentic to the mission and vision, but how we can best tell the stories of success and impact the brand has.

Further, this increased dichotomy between risk and reward has leveled the playing field. Well-known brands are forced to compete on the same playing field with the lesser-knowns. Quality, not caliber is placed at a premium. Half-efforts, which maybe once were easy to mask, are now immediately called out and shunned. But when brands succeed at creating quality stories that resonate, the reward is the masses spread the content viral.

This control means the Masses have now taken over as the media. We must turn our stories over to them, and they will be the final judge.


comment 1

About Authenticity….It’s Dead.

With regard to branding, Authenticity is dead. And as the branders, marketers and creatives, we’re to blame.

Okay, maybe it didn’t die…but it’s at least on life support.

So what happened? We all strive to bring authenticity to our work and our brands. And further, we all know that being authentic is what fundamentally shapes the approach to our brands (or at least should). So again I ask, how did we get here?

One word: buzz. We stopped trying to do the hard work – or at least the honest work – of really figuring out what the heart of our brands are. And we allowed ourselves to say we’re being authentic without any effort to back the assertion up.

Think about it… how many times have we sat in rooms where a series of buzz words will be said in rapid succession, only for the summation being something along the lines of “this is what keeps us authentic to our brand”? If the best way to describe the unique, only-you offering of our brands is to use buzz words, then we’re merely talking in sales-speak. It’s not true. It’s not honest. It’s not authentic.

Make no mistake, figuring out how to be authentic is the hardest part of being a brander. Today’s world is so accessible that it’s easy to see something you like, and try to assimilate it. Or to skip the articulation of your brand, in favor of generic words that may resonate socially within the field.

We do this because we don’t want to make the effort to put things into our own voice. And because its easier to say it “feels” connected than come up with something truly original. But make no mistake, that is no better than theft. And worse, it dilutes the brand to being nothing more than a patchwork quilt of other, potentially though not always, more thought out brands. And worst of all, this could end up guiding important decisions our brands make.

Maybe you can fool your boss. Maybe you can fool your peers. Maybe you can get away with it on the short term. But your audience will always call you to the carpet. They know what your are or are not. And they are the final jury.

It’s time to stop buzzing about being authentic, and to start figuring out what that means uniquely to our brands. Looking in the mirror is terrifying…but only then will you truly elevate your brand beyond the crap.


comment 0

Strategize your Brand like a Power Lifter

You might assume that power lifters gain strength by lifting big. That they constantly challenge themselves to put more weight on the bar, and find results when it’s successfully pressed. But in fact, that’s not correct.

Yes, power lifting is the act of lifting enormous sums of weight. But any seasoned power lifter will tell you the strategy behind getting there involves constantly changing routine.  Placing extra focus on the small, support muscles. Only then will the primary muscle be able to achieve the goal of lifting more and more. No, it’s not glamorous. And, yes, it’s a lot of hard work. But it does get results.

So why not take a similar approach to brand strategy. Ludicrous? Not really. A one-focus brand can certainly have a loyal following. But it will fail to grow and attract new audiences.

Brands are strongest when they focus on the complete picture. It’s not just about the ‘big’ goal. Rather, it’s when they push grass roots efforts. Try new and innovative tactics. Success is found most when they seek to make the brand strong in all the areas that aren’t a main focus, so by the time they do push the main efforts, the brand is already synonymous.

It’s why Corona is a lifestyle brand. Why Virgin America is an experience brand. It’s what propelled Netflix to go from a DVD company to a major content distributor. And brought Amazon from books to, well, everything.

Take a step back… really analyze your whole brand. When was the last time you focused on the small parts? Are you diversifying your efforts enough? If not, maybe it’s time to craft a new strategy to push your brand.

comment 1

You Need To Fail

Let me briefly set the table up front – this is not a post about how a life failure can send you on a new, stronger path… at least not in the grand sense of that.

I read a book some years back that did a study on how creativity works. It’s contents were fascinating, and the results were even more so.

We’re all familiar with the concept of right vs left brain thinking; the left hemisphere generally dominates logical reason, while the right hemisphere dominates relative reason. But this study went deeper than just understanding biological differences like this. It looked at the electrical and chemical signals occurring in the brain when presented with a challenge, and attempted to understand what goes on when people begin to think creatively.

When respondents were initially presented with a challenge, it was clear that a specific region in the left hemisphere was activated. This was true regardless of background or personality. This makes sense – a problem was met with the attempt at a logical solution.. no different than knowing that 1 + 1 = 2. But the goal of this study was to push the respondents past the point of where they could logically arrive at a conclusion… to basically force the respondents to failure. And it’s when the respondents self-reported reaching a willingness to give-up on the problem that the interesting stuff started happening.

Remarkably, at that moment, the subjects’ brain activity would begin to shift. The left hemisphere would decrease its activity, and the right hemisphere would activate intensely and with immediacy. After a few moments, rather than conceding failure to the challenge, most respondents would end up solving (or at least finding a solution) to the problem. It wasn’t a logical response…rather it was a relative one — derived from things that previously had no connections, but were creatively related to one another for this specific need.

The study continues, and there’s a lot of fascinating science within it. But to me what will always stand out most is the seeming need to fail at solving a problem to enable a more creative solution. Failure evokes the ability for our minds to think beyond what’s rational — it forces us to succumb to the limitations of what our individual capacity for reason is. In turn, it activates the innate ability for our minds to associate things. To think beyond the single moment and/or problem. To bring a new, imagined solution that seems to fit to the table.

So why do we fear writers block? Why is the blank canvas so scary? Maybe if we embrace the just getting going no matter how ‘bad’ the work may be…. Maybe if we willingly embrace that the first idea may be destined to failure…. Maybe then we’ll end up triggering the inspiration we so sought.

Maybe we just need to fail in order to succeed.


comment 0

A Borrowed Thought on Time

From a conversation I had with a friend at a bar a long time ago:

You’re only given so much time on this earth, and are constantly in the process of losing it. It can make you money, hone your skills, and bring you love. Time is the most valuable resource on earth…how are you using yours?



comment 1

Let’s Clarify Creativity

Let’s talk about being creative, something near and dear to my heart. I could retire if I had a nickel from every person I spoke with who falsely assumed creativity was a gift from the gods….as though the lucky charms we ate as a child (or this morning) fueled our brain’s ability to imagine.

Yes, I will concede that there are people in this world who are more artistically inclined than others – be them painters, writers, filmmakers, etc. But notice what I said there: artistically inclined. I didn’t say creatively inclined. Candidly, I’m a person who has some artistry skills… some in graphic design, some in photography, some in word-smithing… I’ve now been a Creative Director now for longer in my career than I haven’t. Before that I was an art director, and before that a designer. But I have never once considered myself an artist. I’m too logical. Too practical. Too technical.

So how did I bridge the delta? Fundamentally, it’s because I never believed creativity and artistry were the same.

Now, that statement may be seen as controversial. I get it. And look, maybe that perspective isn’t 100% wrong. But lets get into the fundamentals about what creativity really is before we make a conclusive statement.

Creativity is invention. It’s the act of finding inspiration and applying it. It’s solely what fueled humanity to be what it is today. Not every form of creativity is artistic in the traditional sense. In fact, more have nothing to do with artistry than ones that do.

Put differently, creativity is the fundamental task of inventing a solution to any given problem.

In Plato’s ‘Republic’, this is discussed with rigor in the Theory of Forms. They use the metaphor of a chair maker. Is the true artist the chair maker? Or the one that formed the idea of a chair-like contraption? Further, isn’t every new chair created just another clone of its predecessor, modified to make it easier, stronger, more comfortable?

Or let’s put this idea even differently; isn’t the process of creating something new simply that of seeing a form, and attempting to improve upon it’s perceived weaknesses?

And thus we’ve arrived and what I find as the defining trait of being creative. Creativity is no less a function of the artist than it is the accountant. We’re all beings programmed to absorb stimulus, and make calculated responses. Creativity is simply the act of putting that to work to solve a problem.

Think about it. Have you ever jig-rigged something? Created a life-hack? Put together a cute outfit? Planned a perfect date?

Perhaps your problem could be solved by designing a logo. Or by writing music. It could be inventing the wheel. It could be sending humankind to mars.

So let’s stop praising creativity as being something unattainable. You may not be as artistically inclined in your creativity as some people you admire. But you already are creative in ways they no nothing about. Embrace it.