Branding, Consulting, Marketing

When everyone else zigs, you zag.

Today, as dozens of major cities are submitting their bids for Amazon’s second headquarters, Little Rock Arkansas took out full page “break up” ads in national newspapers, gentlyly letting Amazon down, in the time honored cliches of a break up letter.  (Let’s face it, we’ve all gotten this message at some point in our lives!)

Check out Little Rock’s Break Up Letter:

This is brilliant.   Stepping out of a race they probably couldn’t win, they’ve differentiated themselves from other locations by making their drawbacks into attributes.

When everyone in the pack is going one way, it takes courage and smarts to go the opposite.

Now how to apply this lesson to my own dating life………………….

Branding, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Seize the Day

Last Thursday night, in one of the most electrifying moments of the Democratic National Convention, Khzir Khan, father of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in combat, challenged Donald Trump by saying: “Have you even read the United States Constitution?” and then pulled his copy from his pocket, offering to send it to The Donald.

Less than 24 hours later, the ACLU launched a promotion giving away free pocket constitutions until election day in November – a very smart, low cost new member acquisition strategy.

Every non-profit should look at this move by the ACLU and ask themselves three questions:

  1. Do We Really Know Our Own Brand? The ACLU is so clear on their brand and what they stand for that they could see that moment during the convention and realize it was about them – their brand IS the constitution.   How many non-profits could do the same?   Sadly, not many.
  2. Are We Open to Good Ideas? I don’t know for certain, but I would bet that the idea to do the free pocket constitution promotion didn’t start at the top, but started somewhere in the middle of the organization, where most good ideas come from.   The ACLU’s culture apparently nurtures innovation, which also makes them rare.  Does yours?
  3. How Quickly Do We Make Decisions? Finally, to turn an idea around and be in the market in less than 24 hours requires very clear decision making authority dispersed throughout the organization.  Innovation often dies on the rocks of consensus.  But empowered decision makers can seize opportunities.   How quickly can your organization turn around a big idea?

On the back end, the ACLU had the infrastructure to take advantage of this.  Promote through social media, fulfill through an online store, and then seamlessly integrate acquired names into a communications program.  (I’ve already started receiving well-crafted emails.)

When your moment comes, and you’re suddenly thrust into the spotlight, will you be able to seize the opportunity?   If not, then get to work now.  Before it’s too late.

Branding, Marketing, Tourism, Uncategorized

Confused and Weak – When Bad Branding Happens to Good Places

cooler and warmer logo

Poor Rhode Island.

Buddy Cianci is no sooner in his grave, the state hoping to erase that embarrassment from collective memory, than the new Governor unveils one of the dumbest state branding campaigns imaginable.

And the bar is pretty low – imagine being Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan, spending millions of dollars on the “Pure Michigan” campaign just as you’re struggling to explain how you’ve poisoned the entire city of Flint with lead tainted water. Pure……………not so much. But I digress.

First the “brand” – Cooler and Warmer. Now a brand isn’t a tagline or a slogan, a brand is a strategy that distills what’s true and distinctive about a place or product, and frames it in terms that are meaningful to the target audience. The slogan or tagline is merely the quick shorthand expression of the brand. What’s most problematic here is that the strategy behind the tagline doesn’t ring true and isn’t distinguishing. Everywhere claims to be “cooler.” If you have to tell people you’re cool, you’re not. And having grown up swimming in the very cold waters of Rhode Island beaches…….. warmer? Not buying it for a minute.

Neither did Rhode Islanders, NPR, CNN or other national media outlets who exploded with protest. Within days, “Cooler and Warmer” was cold and dead.

Second, the brand video. Released with great fanfare by the Governor, it brought down a firestorm of criticism when clever viewers immediately recognized that it contained a scene NOT shot in Rhode Island, and in fact shot in Iceland.

But the bigger problem with the video isn’t just sloppy use of the wrong footage, the problem is the video is a compilation of generic scenes that don’t drive a coherent brand strategy and don’t evoke the distinctive features of Rhode Island. I grew up in Rhode Island, and am back three or four times a year, and I could only recognize a handful of scenes – the Bristol 4th of July Parade, the Providence skyline, the Newport Bridge, the Arcade, and Waterfire. No sign of the South County Beaches. Or the Newport Mansions. Or Slater’s Mill. Instead close up shots of generic people doing generic things in generic settings. #BrandingFail.

Finally, this exmplifies bad agency behavior because they didn’t protect their client. I have no idea about the inner political workings of the RI Commerce Corporation, which oversaw this botched project, but I do know that a good agency doesn’t let their client walk off a cliff. A good agency protects their client, warns them about how social media is likely to respond, and insulates them from any backlash. Instead, this colossal blunder cost the brand new CMO her job:

Rhode Island is a great state.   I’m proud to be from there.  They deserve a brand strategy, not a punchline.

Branding, Consulting, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Quality Control

“I worry whoever thought up the term “quality control” thought if we didn’t control it, it would get out of hand.” –from “The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In the Universe”, Jane Wagner


A very smart friend of mine likes to explain to clients that a strategic choice is the choice between turning left OR turning right.  “Both” is neither strategic, nor physically possible.  Yet that is so often the choice made in so called strategic planning sessions.  And it’s why so little “strategy” ends up being effective.

One of the classic strategic choices most organizations face is between quantity and quality —  of customers, donors, or constituents.  And most make the wrong choice, for quantity.  Sure, quantity is easier to measure than quality, but that’s the wrong reason for choosing it.

A year ago I surveyed the membership of the major environmental organizations on behalf of a client.  I asked about their strategic choices, and frankly was stunned by how many opted for quantity, telling me things like “Our internal staff goal is to grow gross revenue” or “our goal is to mobilize millions of people.”

Some admitted that after years of acquiring a high volume of low value donors, they were beginning to rethink their goals.

But none of them said they had identified the donors with the highest lifetime value to the organization and were focusing entirely on them.  None.  Some had chosen the illusion they could pursue both, but none had opted for acquiring and stewarding only high quality donors.

For an opposite, and much happier example, visit Montana.  Seriously.  Visit Montana – it’s spectacular!  But I digress.

Tourism is the number one economic driver of the economy of Montana, having pulled ahead of ranching and mining.  Several years ago the leadership of the tourism industry took a hard look at their strategy, and acknowledged that success defined in terms of quantity — bringing in hordes more tourists — would threaten what was fundamental about Montana, spectacular unspoiled nature surrounded by charming and vibrant small towns.

Working with National Geographic, Montana identified a high value segment of the travel market, called “GeoTourists”— people who want to be somewhat off the beaten path, who want unspoiled places, and want their visit to support the preservation of the place, by buying local, eating local, staying local, etc.  Then they put all their marketing against this segment.  An act of courage and leadership, particularly by a government entity answerable to a range of political stakeholders

The results?  After four years of disciplined implementation, they’ve seen only incremental growth in the total quantity of tourists – 6%, but major growth in overall revenue – close to 40%!  Pursuing quality over quantity pays off, generating more revenue with existing capacity and preserving the fundamental Montana way of life.

So the next time you’re in a strategic planning meeting, as the group struggles to choose between quality and quantity, and someone argues for both, tell them to go to………………..Montana!

Branding, Marketing

“And I’d like the line in the shape of a kitten…………….”

I’m sharing a great post today from The Agitator, one of the blogs that I read regularly.

The centerpiece of the post is a painfully funny video skewering the worst of client/agency meetings.

Too often we’re order takers instead of strategic counselors.   Not often enough do we push back on clients and partner with them to get to a better place.

A couple of weeks ago, during a strategic planning session with a room full of senior level folks, my client said to me: “I hate you right now.  I know you’re right, but I really hate you.”   He came up to me at the break to apologize, but I told him I considered it one of the best professional complements I’d received.

Please share your horror stories and success stories.  Oh, and subscribe to The Agitator. It’s good stuff.



Branding, Culture, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Failure to Launch: Innovation in the Non Profit Sector

Recent airplane time gave me a chance to catch up on some back New Yorker articles, and one in particular really grabbed me.  It’s a very fascinating article about Google, their approach to innovation, and the search for a self-driving car.

Several points jumped out at me as relevant for the non-profit sector.

First, all the tech companies and almost all manufacturing companies have a significant R&D function – well staffed and well resourced.  Non-profits don’t have R&D – everyone works 110% on operation of the current program, with incremental improvement a vague goal, but no serious R&D.  That seems to me a systematic barrier to innovation coming from within.  It may also be a cultural barrier against adopting innovation from outside.   Most organizations are like organisms – they have finely developed cultures that function as “immune systems” – resistant to outside ideas.

Second, all the innovators have an idea of the “moon shot” they’re pursuing, whether its self-driving cars, Google Glass, Amazon’s delivery drones, etc.  The non-profit sector doesn’t even have a vision of what the “moon shot” would look like.  So of course there’s no serious pursuit of it.  The sector is left idling on the launch pad because it hasn’t identified a destination.

And third, innovation is often produced by unorthodox methods.  DARPA’s use of the Grand Challenge is a great example of how they did something fairly out-of-the-box, particularly for a government agency, and by so doing, spurred tremendous innovation by a significant number of contestants.  All for not very much money, in the scheme of things.  The line that jumped out at me was that “in one year, they’d made more progress than their contractors had in twenty!”   The non-profit sector is fairly risk averse – reluctant to change vendors, reluctant to adopt strategies from outside the sector, etc.

It all starts with the vision of the moon shot. 

Imagine convening a dozen major non-profits from different sectors – innovative legacy organizations like Audubon, Habitat, ACLU, etc., along with a few disruptors like Charity Water and Do Something – for a private summit to envision what the moon shot could be.  And then add in some genuine innovators from outside the sector – people accustomed to breaking through conventional structures and systems.

That could be a powerful start.

Or we could continue to languish on the launch pad.

Idling our engines,,, burning fuel,,, wasting time.