Branding, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Rebranding – Usually the Wrong Strategy

“Sometimes you have a PR problem, and sometimes, you just have a problem!”

I can’t count the number of time my mentor, Marcia Silverman, said that to clients.   And it always brought them up short.  After all, they were asking us to sprinkle some magic PR fairy dust on their very real problems in order to make them magically all go away.   Lots of firms would have taken the money and sprinkled vigorously.  Marcia always had us take the harder path, the one with integrity, and tell the client what they didn’t want to hear.

I’ve been reminded of that recently when major brands opted for the fairy dust of rebranding hoping it would cover up the stink of serious problems.

First, Wells Fargo, who’ve recently endured more than two years of devastating scandals, record setting fines from a series of Federal regulators, CEO and top executives fired and stripped of benefits, Congressional hearings………….it just goes on and on.   In April of 2017 they launched a campaign to restore consumer confidence, with the rather tentative slogan: “Building Better Every Day.”  Which translates to: “We don’t suck as much as we used to.”   A real rallying cry.

Then when that didn’t work (go figure!) they decided that what they REALLY needed was an entirely new brand…….. one that looked exactly like the old brand.  What?

Here’s the rebranding spot:

And the tag line is: “Wells Fargo.  Established 1852.  Reestablished 2018.”  Accompanied by promises to stop doing all the bad stuff they got caught doing.

Stay tuned for next year’s rebranding.

Closer to home is the rebranding of the giant Ogilvy & Mather, the company where I got my start and where I was lucky enough to work for Marcia Silverman.   They’re in a world of hurt – digital disruption of the advertising industry itself; an antiquated agency model; stalled growth; and tremendous instability at the parent company, WPP.   The Ad Week headline was unintentionally revealing:

“Ogilvy Rebrands Itself after 70 Years with New Visual Identity, Logo and Organizational Design

Agency also plans to promote more women to partner.”

Nothing fixes serious institutional problems like a new logo and corporate font.  Oh, and by the way, we’ll take some token steps towards a 20th century talent strategy.  Never mind 21st century, we’re content to take tentative steps away from an agency run by old white guys.

If anyone should know better its Ogilvy.   I can’t think of a clearer signal to the marketplace that they’ve lost their way.

Rebranding for the sake of rebranding is always a mistake because it’s using PR flim-flam instead of authentic communication to try to address previous failures.  And that’s true for corporations and non-profits.

Marketing consultants who do branding work should have the integrity to tell that to our clients and guide them to a better solution.  Or we should walk away.

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………………….

Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Gaffe: When You Accidentally Tell the Truth

Journalist Michael Kinsley famously described a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”

The same thing happens in the non-profit world.

Exhibit A is this video from Mission Health, a large healthcare system in Asheville, North Carolina, where the CEO attempts to make the case for philanthropy.

(scroll to the bottom to see the video)

This is what you hear from the CEO:

  • “Financial analysts consider us too small to survive in the long run.”
  • “Our margin is very thin.”
  • “Philanthropy has a 50 to 1 leveraging ratio compared to additional net revenue.”
  • “We lose money on more than 70% of the patients we serve.”
  • “It costs $4 million per day just to keep the doors open.”
  • “For us to raise $1 million in income, we would have to bill probably north of $100 million, and actually collect $50 million, just to net out that same $1 million.”

This is what you don’t hear: a single example of a patient helped by philanthropy.





The truth that he was inadvertently sharing is this: “Our business model is failing, and we don’t have a clue how to fix it.  The healthcare system is broken and we don’t have the courage to challenge it.  Could you send us a few dollars so that we can postpone our inevitable collapse?”  

My mentor in communications, Marcia Silverman, famously used to say to clients “Sometimes you have a PR problem, and sometimes, you just have a problem.”

Mission Health – you have a problem!

And while we’re at it, Exhibit B, also from Mission Health.   Another video staring the CEO.  And only the CEO.  (Someone enjoys seeing himself on video!)

The first ¾ of the video is a recitation of bricks and mortar projects, followed by his assertion that their new initiative is about “far more than just bricks and mortar.”


Again, we never see, much less meet a patient or caregiver.  We do see construction sites and architects renderings of new facilities, which apparently is the sum of their “vision for the future.”  Another gaffe.

To be clear – I’m not suggesting Mission Health needs to fix its communications.

Mission Health needs to fix itself.

Anyone have any other cringe-worthy videos they want to share, where the truth is accidentally exposed?

Please send them to me and I’ll post.

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!

Consulting, Culture, Marketing

Special Sauce

Those of us who grew up in the 70’s can recite it by heart: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions – on a sesame seed bun.”

That was how McDonald’s sold the Big Mac, how they differentiated their hamburger from everyone else’s almost identical hamburger.  Everyone had beef patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions.  But only the Big Mac had the “special sauce.”

I was thinking about “special sauce” a few weeks ago as I sat listening to a consulting firm deliver the most jargon laden pitch I’d ever heard,  finishing 90 minutes later having left a room full of very smart potential clients drenched in special sauce.

First off all, be warned when someone is introduced as a “futurist.”  Pull on your boots because the bullshit is about to flow! Second, when every process, program, product and workshop has its own painfully clever name ask yourself whether the intellectual energy has been focused on the packaging, or the product itself?

I’m critical of the special sauce approach to consulting for two reasons:  because I don’t believe in it and because I can’t manage to pull it off.  If I was spouting that much crap in a meeting, I’d hear myself, and dissolve in a fit of giggles.  Never a good scene.

But the problem here is two-fold.  First, consultants use special sauce — the jargon, the proprietary names, etc. — to differentiate themselves.  To make themselves seem intelligent and innovative.  To get new clients.

And too often clients are seeking that special sauce to help them differentiate between consultants.  Rather than really examining the quality of the beef, the freshness of the lettuce and tomato, the crunch of the onions, and the quality control of the cooking process, it’s easier and quicker to reach for the one with the special sauce.

Analysis. Experience.  Reflection.  Clarity.  Results.

Those don’t need new names.  Those don’t need repackaging.  It’s what we owe our clients.

Hold the sauce.

Oh and by the way?  In 2012, McDonald’s admitted that the special sauce ingredients were “not really a secret” because the recipe had been available online “for years” – store-bought mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish and yellow mustard whisked together with vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder and paprika.

So let’s have some fun – post the most egregious example of “consultant-speak” you’ve heard recently.

I can’t wait!