Sage Thoughts

“Zelig” is a treasure of a movie.  Woody Allen directed and starred in this 1980 masterpiece mockumentary that told the story of Leonard Zelig, a man whose body, voice and personality would change in the presence of the people surrounding him.  Leonard Zelig was a chameleon, a  total conformist – everything to everybody with no individuality of his own.  Zelig was everything and nothing at the same time.

Zelig Fat
Companies can fall into a Zelig trap with their brand strategies.  The National Coffee Association once ran a campaign with the message “coffee lets you calm yourself down AND picks you up.”  It’s work that looks like an old “Saturday Night Live” bit:   

Seriously, Coffee, do you pick me up or calm me down?  Pick one. Good brand strategies don’t have an “AND” in them.

“That’s not a strategy.  That’s TWO strategies separated by the word ‘AND’.” – Don Draper, “Mad Men

A good brand is a single idea, a main message, one well-honed proposition formed by sacrificing other good-but-not-great options.  A good brand is not “a little pregnant” or a “both-and” arrangement.  It’s not a Zelig.

Zelig French

Zelig Black

After perpetually rebranding himself into every possible variation of human, Leonard Zelig finally stopped changing. He learned to be himself, to be constant, to be true. Zelig buried everything he was not and became his own brand.  And he was a much happier man.

Zelig himself

It’s college-shopping season.  For high school seniors the clock is ticking.  Juniors are starting to realize this party’s not going on forever.  And so we parents of overscheduled teens must encourage our young scholars to visit colleges, to narrow down the field, to ask themselves “Where would I fit in?”

College MailAnd we must empty our mailboxes.  Because colleges like to mail stuff to high school students.

I don’t believe direct mail is dead, but I’m questioning it for the purposes of college recruiting. I wonder how much real direct marketing discipline is going on here:  the testing and measurement of multiple variables.  Customized messages.  Special offers.  Because it seems to me that we’re just getting “ads in the mail” at our house.  That’s not direct marketing.  That’s a waste of paper.  Especially when it’s mailed to teenagers, a group that loves to open and read paper mail about as much as they like to use their phones for talking.  They don’t.  And they don’t.

Smart marketing to this group is not easy.  The college prospect is a moving target:  A 17 year-old who rolls through the pipeline from junior to senior year in high school, visiting a few college campuses, listening to clueless peers, feeling nudged by parents and being forced to make a decision from hundreds of options with more propaganda than data, more emotion than logic, and a thousand distractions from the ACT to homecoming games to band practice.

Most universities have two marketing departments:  One in the business school full of Ph.Ds who teach marketing and publish heady research papers full of econometric models, and another that markets the school’s brand to prospective students.  You’d think an institution with two marketing departments and a big marketing budget could get marketing right.

I’ve spent time over the past three days reading Carnival’s official Facebook page:

When all hell was breaking loose on Thursday night, I thought Carnival had an organized team of posers.  But the more I read this dialogue — a debate that’s not slowing down — I realize a LOT of people love Carnival and will continue to stand up for Carnival in a way I thought was reserved for religious and political beliefs, with the passion some of us have for our favorite football team.

I realize Carnival has managed the postings to keep some of the naysayers at bay — but it’s not all sugar-coated.  There’s a real fact-based (and perception-based) argument going on here, with hundreds of participants.

And the ones who love Carnival are shouting the loudest.

It’s a good match to watch in this off-season for American football.

This has been a fascinating evening.  I’ve been watching CNN and following the Twitter feed and Facebook page of Carnival Cruise Lines:

It reminds me of that line that Hal Holbrook’s character says to Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen):

Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.

I’m watching a brand react in real time in a way that could never happen in a pre-social-media world. The Carnival Facebook page is a jousting match tonight.  Thousands are commenting. Some are eloquently applauding Carnival.  Some are accusing Carnival of deleting negative posts (I tested it — it’s true).

Carnival Bathrobes

Look at the bright side, passenger.  You got a free bathrobe out of this deal.

Carnival is looking into the abyss tonight.  What’s staring back is a mix of condemnation and praise. More praise than I expected.  I’ve been on a Carnival cruise — one that didn’t have any special problems — and I was not impressed.  But clearly there are some die-hard Carnival brand advocates.  Just what a brand needs on a dark night like this.

Podcasts are to media what Trefoils are to Girl Scout Cookies.  Most of us know they’re there, and most of us never order them.  Unless you’re like me.  I love podcasts.

It all started back in twenty-aught-six when I got my first iPod – a 1-gigabyte Nano.  I thought I was a hepcat.  I got on iTunes and quickly learned there’s more than music to play on a music player.  I discovered a whole world of podcasts.  And they were free.  Free is good.

Podcasts are advertiser-supported but not advertiser-heavy.  Advertising on podcasts could work for your brand.  Your ad runs in an uncluttered environment to an opted-in audience. Toyota advertises on “Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know,” a video podcast that delves into pop conspiracy theories.  Shari’s Berries is a regular on the hilarious “This Week with Larry Miller.”

I highly recommend “Manager Tools” and its companion “Career Tools,” two energetic weekly podcasts that provide detailed direction on how to work effectively inside a corporation.  “Manager Tools” host Mark Horstman is brilliant and full of tough-love advice, such as “You’re not paid to be you, you’re paid to be effective,” “You’re not that smart; they’re not that dumb,” and “It’s all about behavior.”


Check it out for yourself.  Next time you’re on the iTunes Store search for whatever topic, title or person that interests you.  We all know “there’s an app for that.”  There’s also a podcast for that.

I feel like it’s December 23rd and the Christmas presents have already been opened. So much for anticipating what advertisers have in store for us during Sunday’s Super Bowl. Most, if not all, released their spots online this week. Coca-Cola and Volkswagen are already defending their work, which some say is defamatory.

Even if an ad is brilliant and stands up to initial scrutiny, do you think its impact is lessened by a Wednesday afternoon preview on your laptop instead of a Super Bowl Sunday debut on your big screen?

Advertisers clearly want to generate early buzz instead of waiting for the Monday morning recap. But as Kenny Rogers sang, “There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”


Christmas gifts and Super Bowl ads should stay wrapped until their day has arrived.  And cats should never be put in bags to begin with.


Sometimes branding is just being the master of the obvious.

Yesterday a company called Research in Motion changed its name to what it should have been all along:  BlackBerry.   No longer will we have to listen to “Marketplace from American Public Media” refer to the company that makes BlackBerry as  “Research in Motion, the company that makes BlackBerry.”

Now the company that makes BlackBerry just is what it is.  Research in Motion’s CEO Thorsten Heins announced that “Research in Motion” would become “one consistent brand that is recognized around the world.”

Well it’s about time, y’ think?

Blackberry png

RIM/BlackBerry is not the first company to rebrand itself with a more intuitive name.  Twelve years ago Dayton Hudson Corporation took on the name Target Corporation, as Target stores had become the biggest horse in the Dayton Hudson stable.

If your company is built behind a single, successful brand, go with it as your company name.  Keep it simple with a unified corporate brand name that people don’t have to unravel.

??????????Which brings us to Comcast.  In 2010 the cable/internet/phone provider that adopted “Xfinity” as the umbrella name of all its digital products.  Virtually everything from Comcast is Xfinity.  So, what’s from Comcast that’s NOT Xfinity?  The stuff in the hinterlands that’s not digital yet.  Seems like they’re splitting hairs.

“Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.”
“But I don’t think of you.”

— The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Consumers don’t need a puzzle to solve – they need a brand that’s easy to understand, a simple story that resonates.  Marketing managers who spend all day thinking about their product and brand need to remember that the rest of the world doesn’t.

Your “Most Endorsed For”scoreboard may not exactly say who YOU think you are, but it says who THEY think you are.

linkedin-logo2Four months ago LinkedIn added a one-click endorsement system that allows your contacts to say what they think you know without writing a single word.

It goes like this:   In your LinkedIn profile you list a set of skills and areas of expertise.  LinkedIn polls your contacts with questions like “Does Yourname Here know Project Management?” or “Does Yourname Here know Quantitative Research?”  Every time a contact answers YES to one of these questions, you get a point on your profile next to that skill.  Before you know it you’ve been codified with a number for each skill.

So who do they say you are?  Does it match your own opinion of yourself?   If not, what are you going to do about it?  My top four “Most Endorsed For” skills are Marketing Communications, Direct Marketing, Advertising and Marketing Strategy.  That’s about right.

“Personal branding” is a hot topic in career development.  Defining any brand – including the brand you call “Me” — begins with knowing what people already think about that brand.  The “Most Endorsed For” scoreboard is a good place to start.


With the college national championship behind us and only eight teams remaining in the NFL playoffs, followers of American football are now fixing their eyes on February 3rd, Super Bowl Sunday. 

CBS has already sold out its inventory at an average price of around $3.7 million per 30-second spot (is that net or gross, might I ask?).   That’s right – over $7 million a minute.

Is it worth it?  In an era of retweeting, rehashing and reality imitating art ad nauseam, perhaps it is worth it now more than ever.  As long as the advertiser gives us something to tweet or Facebook or LinkIn about.  When done right, a Super Bowl ad can generate endless “free” repetition, replay on cable news, podcast chatter and social media buzz.

Remember the irreverent, unleashed wildness of the 2000 Super Bowl ads at the height of the dot-com boom, when E-Trade’s spot with a cha-cha-ing chimp boasted “We just wasted two million dollars.  What are you doing with your money?”

E-Trade chimp

Thirteen years later the price of a Super Bowl spot has nearly doubled and the opportunities for exposure through social media have gone from zero to everybody.   I’m expecting some killer work from big brands on February 3rd.  If you’re like me, you’ll get up to get your favorite food and beverage only at certain moments of the game – when they’re actually playing football.

Class of '13

Can anybody get excited about 2013?  It’s just not a pretty number.  Odd-numbered years roll in with a yawn – no Olympics, presidential elections or World Cups.  Odd years are the mortar between the even-numbered bricks.

I’m surprised I haven’t seen more chatter about fear of 13, aka triskaidekaphobia .  Maybe we’re just avoiding the discussion.

“Naturally, it’s 13. Why 13?”

“It comes after 12, hon.”

           – Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan) and Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) in “Apollo 13.”

Every year has a brand.  Some years arrive amid great expectations: 1976, 1984, 2000.   Others just sit there like the quiet kid in class (name one big thing that happened in 1993).  .

What’ll we see in 2013?  A better economy?  Less red-blue divisiveness?  More time spent thinking about today’s opportunities instead of tomorrow’s problems?  I’m hopeful for all of that and more.  Even Apollo 13 was, in the words of Tom Hanks/Jim Lovell, “a successful failure.”  Unlucky Apollo 13 was very lucky.  

Let’s all make something special out of 13.