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.


The Monk from the Farthest Temple

I had a client who used to shake her head at the credibility given to consultants, and mutter about how “the monk from the farthest temple” was always received with the greatest respect. 

I think about that line often as I consult to clients, and I thought about it again reading The Troubling Flaws in How We Select Experts in the Washington Post.  

The piece wanders a bit, mixing up staff and consultants, and even takes a side trip through online dating, but he poses a fundamental question: “what’s the value of bringing folks in from outside when the answers are often already known by internal leaders who have a more intimate understanding of the business and its issues?”

A fair point.  Here are three rules I try to live by that answer his question.

1. Don’t Be Captain Obvious – In the discovery phase of most projects, there rapidly emerges the clear outlines of both the problem and the best solutions.   And we’ve all sat through presentations by consultants that go no further than that, where the collective responsive is “Well, duh!”  The challenge is to go deeper and get to the underlying issues.  If everyone is clear on the problem and the solution, then why haven’t they acted?  What are the organizational and cultural issues holding them back?  Here’s where a good outside consultant adds value, by identifying the barriers to progress and strategies to actually address them.  Helping a client overcome their own structural barriers will leave them equipped to prosper long after you’ve gone and your beautiful PowerPoint has faded from the screen.   

2. Speak Truth to Power – The Post article argues that it’s irrational to value the opinion of outsiders who aren’t known and trusted.  But too often being known and trusted makes it harder for internal leaders to raise the hard issues, challenge management, and identify problems.  An objective observer, accountable only for his or her own integrity can do something that no insider can, and that’s speak truth to power.  Recently I was facilitating a two day strategy session with a client and his Board.  At one point, as I pressed the client to make some hard choices between priorities he responded: “I really hate you right now.  I know you’re right, but I really hate you.”  I took that as one of my greatest professional compliments.  First, I’d created an environment where he felt comfortable saying that, and second I’d forced him to confront the conflict in his own strategy and make some very hard choices.  His own staff couldn’t have done that. 

3. Raise Up, Don’t Beat Down – Done right, a consulting project empowers internal leaders, and they come away with true ownership of the recommendations.  But too often it’s done wrong.  I had a client who referred to the team of external consultants as “Team Smarty” and I’d cringe every time I heard it, because of the implied put down to their own senior leadership.  Instead, remember those internal folks who had the intimate understanding of the problem and the solution?  Be sure they’re highlighted to senior management.  Put your own ego aside and give them all the credit they deserve.  And for the folks that aren’t quite so swift and aren’t quite up to the task?  Your silence speaks volumes. 

If you can be the monk with wisdom and humility, your visit will be welcomed and will bring value to your client. 

And as for online dating………………..I got nothing! 


Making the Pot Boil Over

A few weeks ago Peter Buffett, son of Warren Buffett, caused an uproar in the non-profit and philanthropic worlds with his New York Times piece: “The Charitable Industrial Complex.” His premise was that philanthropy is a carefully structured system whereby the 1% invests a small amount of money in socially attractive efforts that effectively keep the status quo in place:

“But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.”

I’ve been on the staff and boards of non-profits – we weren’t trying to sustain anyone’s oppression. I’ve given money (although not at the Buffett level, to be sure) and I wasn’t trying to protect my own privilege. At the micro, day to day level, Buffett’s charge doesn’t ring true.

At the larger, macro level I think he’s onto something, but I’d like to suggest a broader, and ultimately more difficult conclusion.

Buffett is asking what could drive true structural change in society. That’s not a particularly difficult question. Systems don’t change from within; they change only in response to pressure from without. Two examples from completely different arenas:

In the 1980’s, when empowered entitled white men began dying from AIDS, they were stunned to learn that being inside systems like Wall Street, government, science, etc didn’t make much difference. Those systems were unyielding to their pleas for change.

It wasn’t until those guys took off their suits and ties and took to the streets, blocked traffic with die-ins, shut down government offices, put a massive condom over Jesse Helm’s home that change began to happen.

Within a decade, massive infusions of government funding, and tremendous philanthropy from the pharmaceutical industry created hundreds of non-profit social service agencies focused on direct service and prevention education.

That funding also destroyed those organization’s ability to drive change. They were now part of, funded by, dependent on the very system they’d opposed. Its part of the self-protective behavior of massive systems to neutralize their invaders, often with money.  

A decade earlier, a chain smoking, coffee pounding investor named Bill McGowan, tried to bring competition to the long distance phone market, and found, not surprisingly, that the system wasn’t open to change. AT&T had a national monopoly, and the government wasn’t interested in challenging that.

Undaunted, McGowan sued, and only after he’d brought suit did the Justice Department follow and join with MCI to sue AT&T, leading to the breakup of AT&T which has made today’s competitive telecom market, and the explosive growth of the internet possible.

So that’s the difficult conclusion. The non-profit sector, dependent on government and philanthropic funding, is never going to be able to drive change. Sure, we’ll help lots of individuals. But true systemic change is impossible when you’re that embedded in the system.

If Peter Buffett wants real systemic change, then he needs to apply his money to making the pot boil over. He needs to find and fund the Bill McGowans and the Larry Kramers – those profoundly difficult, overbearing, egotistical disrupters who are willing to do whatever it takes to bring about change. He needs to experiment with ways to sustain the energy that was behind Occupy Wall Street.

And then he needs to retreat back to safety to weather the storm he will have unleashed.

Are you up for that Peter?