Sunday, December 12, 2010

A new marketing ecosystem: Sustainability, authenticity, and marketing

Listening this morning to Chef Dan Barber being interviewed on NPR's "OnBeing," I felt that my earlier blog about marketing and authenticity was being echoed by a truly unexpected source.

Barber runs a restaurant and farm in upstate New York and has written extensively about sustainability from a chef's perspective. In speaking with the "OnBeing" host, Krista Tippett, he pointed out a compelling symbiosis between sound growing practices and pure, unadulterated eating pleasure.

"Great flavor," Barber observed, is "attached to great ecology by definition. ... You can’t have an unethically raised lamb, an unthoughtfully raised carrot, and have a delicious lamb and carrot. It’s impossible. Even the greatest chefs couldn’t do that.”

Barber later added: "When you are greedy for the best food, you are by definition being greedy for ... the kind of world that you want used in the proper way. That’s the true definition of sustainability."

To me, this represents a direct parallel to the idea of "good behavior" as "good marketing." People come back to a product that treats them well, that they relate to as humans rather than "consumers."

Treating people with respect is good marketing ... Yes, it's a very big "duh" -- but how often do we forget to act on this knowledge?

Similarly, Barber observes that treating the earth with respect is also the best way to create delicious food. All of those "cut corners" are not about great taste -- they are about producing more while spending less.

Call it a better marketing ecosystem ... Sustainable messaging ... Ethical engagement.

Or, just call it good business.

You can listen to the Dan Barber interview here:

Friday, December 10, 2010

"Do no harm": Marketing fails are no laughing matter

With my most recent Ad Age, I received an advert-newspaper from Daily Candy -- an online brand with some cachet. At first, I admired the effort and intent ... going against the tide, setting yourself apart.

I am familiar with the approach; a few years ago, my company launched a print magazine that I happily edited. This magazine is still referenced by clients today. Even then, "going print" was decidedly cutting against the current; and, despite the costs, it worked. (In other words, it made a positive impression; whether it earned its keep is harder to discern.)

But the more I leafed through this circular from The Daily Candy -- inserted, one must assume, at major expense -- the more I felt that the cool factor had evaporated at page 3 or 4.

In fact, I came to feel that Daily Candy was aligning itself with a dying medium -- print on news paper -- without abrogating the things that made it worthwhile to get black ink on my nice white pants. The medium was the only message; Daily Candy had failed to materialize or make sense of its allegiance to newspapers.

I was reminded then that marketing can be a dangerous activity. We often assume that there is "mediocre" marketing and "excellent" marketing. But what about "unsound" marketing? "Deficient and deleterious" marketing?

What about marketing that is radioactive to your brand?

Marketers in particular may feel that, no matter what we do, at least we have done something. I mean, something is better than nothing -- right?

That is a truism we need to question. Particularly among those with little knowledge of our brands, a half-hearted, inept, inappropriate effort can do real damage. And the first rule of marketing should be: "Do no harm."

Think about this the next time you are pushing something out the door -- your eyes almost closed to issues you know need to be addressed. Think about this when you acquiesce to committee-generated creatives that embarrass you to even read in private.

A brand is a higher calling ... and failing to meet the challenge of doing it justice should give us pause. Do good, not harm. We are our brands' only protectors, only advocates.

Give them their due.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Authenticity and marketing: It's about being human

People often assume that marketing is a mask that we put on -- a very polished show intended to convince an observer/potential customer/client. We are very aware of what we don't want to do in marketing, and advertising; and the limitations around what we CAN do sometimes seem oppressive.

* We don't want to mention competitors by name (no free publicity, please) -- but we do want to set ourselves clearly apart from them ...

* We don't want to stray into territory where we may be a bit weak -- but we also don't want to boast and preen to extreme ...

* We don't want to give away too much of our "secret sauce," whatever the ingredients -- but we also need to tell enough about our differentiators to make them real and appealing (if not damned irresistible) ...

With all of this cogitation going on behind the scenes, the notion of "authenticity" may seem laughable. In fact, some talk about authenticity as if it were a commodity, a semblance that can be practiced and turned on at will.

In fact, if we are striving to be authentic, we have probably already failed. The notion of authenticity as a good thing is founded on the belief that people can smell out fakery. In business and life, we usually accept that fakery is part of the package -- that everyone is covering up something; the question is, How many things?

It occurred to me the other day that, in fact, being sensitive is the essence of good marketing. A humane approach to someone is both the right thing to do and the smart one.

Think about the last time you walked into a shop and were immediately approached by a salesperson. "What are you looking for today?" Perhaps it's the economy, but I feel that salespeople are less and less willing to give space to customers. To me, the rule of thumb should be, "Count to 60 before making any move"; but it rarely happens. I make a point of never buying at stores or from people that make me feel rushed.

Similarly, how often we ought to send emails to customers should not be rocket science. How we treat clients calling in for help ... How much time we spend selling versus listening in a meeting ...

We have all been in these situations; we know what it feels like when the shoe is on the other foot. We know when we feel like we are treated like targets -- and when we are treated like humans.

So, to be a good marketer, it's important to your own instincts, to be sensitive even as you try to make a sale. That, to me, is the essence of authenticity.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

It's All About "Me"

Who knew that Windows XP could teach me a little lesson about identity?

The lesson was abetted by my 15-year-old son, who has more than a little of the archetypal Trickster in him -- subverter of the conventional, mocker of pretensions. Sometimes I will find, after I have been wandering around the house for a few minutes looking for him, that he has been shadowing me the whole time -- and having a good laugh, in the process.

Those of you familiar with XP know that it allows -- or is that "forces"? -- each user to create a separate identity or "login" name. In rather metaphorical fashion, some of the programs and documents from one person's "home" can leak over into everyone else's domains -- but what bleeds and what doesn't seems wholly arbitrary.

And, for those who want to put themselves under lock and key, a password can be added to each ID, to keep out intruders -- the kind who happen to be sharing the same household as you. (Could there be a worse sort?)

A few months back, my son added a typically sly twist to the family computer when he changed his ID from "Chris" to "Me." Of course, he is the most frequent user of the machine, so there is logic in it. But it would have been hard to predict its outcome.

Now, everyone who sits down at the computer automatically clicks on Chris's ID -- the one called "Me." We do not even look at the selections long enough to realize that our names are also there -- Dave, Mom, and so on. Instead, we see the word "Me" and pounce on it.

I mean, "Me" has to be me ... right?

My meditation teacher and friend, the inimitable Dean Sluyter, has a host of anecdotes that expertly bring the Buddhist perspective to everyday life. He is fond of saying that, in the movie of life, each of us assumes he or she is the protagonist. We identify with the hero, and the hero is us; how could it be otherwise?

When we are stuck at a red light, Dean often says, we somehow forget that there are a lot of other people who are feeling good about things because they have a green light. We sit in impatience, seeing only our view of the traffic.

Chris's shorthand XP trick makes this most basic -- and dangerous -- of assumptions clearer than I might like it to be, because it shows how instinctual my assumptions are about "Me." How many actions, on an average day, do I base on the automatic viewpoint that the world -- like the computer -- is oriented to my perspective, my ups and downs, and no one else's?

So I have gotten used to thinking twice about who is using the computer when I am sitting in front of it. Of course, the other day I discovered that my son had added another wrinkle to the fabric -- a new ID called "Me2."

The joke must be on me.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

An Encomium to Corwin, Bard of the Airwaves

In the 1940s, the name “Corwin” could stand on its own – a bit like “Obama” or “Springsteen” today. Americans from every walk of life knew the toussle-haired Poet Laureate of Radio, whose elegiac dramas – turned out at an almost inhuman clip – acted as a kind of benediction on the country’s fears, dreams and convictions during The Great War.

Today, May 3rd, Norman Corwin turns 100. It is another remarkable feat in a life full of them; and yet, Corwin’s longevity is not a complete surprise. His dear father, Sam, lived to be 110, passing away when Norman was in his 70s. And the younger Corwin has not been hiding out; until recently, he taught at the University of Southern California’s School of Journalism, and he has done public appearances to promote his new book (yes, he has a new book!) – an edition of his journal from a remarkable round-the-world journey he made soon after the end of World War II.

How to make clear the impact of Corwin’s radio plays to today’s readers, whose attention is fragmented among laptop, cellphone, TV set, and a half dozen other devices? When Corwin held sway, radio was the only electronic medium in the house (unless you maybe count the telegraph). Moving pictures could only be found in movie houses, and books were still … well, books!

The voices and music coming through those giant tube radios held a mystic power that I am not sure is equaled by anything in our day and age; folks were still amazed that those incredibly vibrant sounds could travel through the air and land in their living rooms. And the people they heard were celebrities of awesome magnitude; an estimated 40 million listeners a week tuned in to hear Arthur Godfrey, a ukulele-strumming showman who had a kind of cultural clout that is hard to envision these days.

The 1930s and ‘40s were also a time when the idea of poetry as a popular art still made sense – even had a kind of “cool” factor – to mainstream Americans. Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg were living cultural heroes (you do know who they are, right?). Corwin’s plays were often written in verse (which makes his output even more mind boggling), and his aesthetic is much more of the artist than the journalist, or at least it was in those days.

Corwin was not even 30 when CBS gave him a show with his name in the title: Norman Corwin’s Words without Music, which saw the debut of one of my favorites, “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas.” In it, Satan, Nero and Caligula conspire to make Christmas more crass and less warm-and-fuzzy by ordering a “hit” on Santa himself.

For 26 by Corwin, he wrote a new play every week for half a year. But perhaps his most important work came in 1945, separate from any series – On a Note of Triumph, in which he paid emotional tribute to American courage and integrity on the eve of World War II’s end. Created at the request of President Roosevelt himself, the program had some 70 million listeners and was rebroadcast on several major networks after first airing on CBS.

“Lord God of test-tube and blueprint

Who joined molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,

Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,

Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors and give instruction to their schemes,

Measure out new liberties so that none shall suffer for his father’s color or the credo of his choice.”

Corwin has also had an incredibly prolific career in his post-CBS decades. He has written over 10 books, won an Emmy and a Golden Globe, inspired an Academy Award-winning documentary – and those are just the highlights.

I met Norman in the 1980s, while studying journalism at U.S.C.; he acted as advisor on an independent radio documentary I was producing about the then-little-heard-of Kronos Quartet. Norman was not a full-on fan of my new-fangled “contrapuntal” approach to documentaries (an idea I stole from Glenn Gould), or of Kronos’s all-modern repertoire. Norman reminded me that he had worked with the great film composer Bernard Herrmann, and that he had high standards – but he still took me on.

I still recall our phone conversation after I had turned in my finished product; I was sitting at a desk at the LA Times (where I had an internship), and Norman gave me a very long, friendly lecture about why my project was quite good and how it could have been even better.

What better thing could happen to any journalism student that to have a coaching session from Corwin?

So, Norman, this is a “thank you” from your grateful public, which you have always thrilled “with the greatest of ease” – and from one now-middle-aged student whose life you enriched and ennobled with your attention.

Happy Birthday, and here’s to the next 100 years!

The Reader's Muse

It's a peculiar combination of factors that makes me want to read a book -- different for every one, it seems. Since my time and energy for reading are more limited than ever, I'm selective.

One factor, for sure, is length; it is sad to admit, but I really have given up the idea that I am going to get through anything over 350 pages at this point in my life. If the book is too fat, I can get depressed just picking it up.

My last attempt at a long book was "The Cider House Rules," which I read and loved many years back; but, trying to recreate that feeling recently, I was forced to give up. After not picking the novel up for a couple days, I would return to find that I had forgotten who most of the characters were. (No, I did not forget Melony ... )

More than anything, though, inspiration plays a part in my choices -- the right book at the right moment. It is not unlike the feeling one gets when one wants to write about a certain topic ... the feeling I had when I started composing this first blog entry.

I like to know, for example, that a book is new; I like the idea of being an early consumer of fresh words and ideas. I also can get inspired if I know or have met and like the author of a book; so earlier this year I read four books in a row by friends and colleagues from different parts of my life. (They were all excellent, by the way.)

But, if I can be inspired by a book quickly and for seemingly fickle reasons, I can also get turned off in a flash. In Borders the other day, I had come upon one that caught my interest -- "Shop Class as Soulcraft," a meditation about finding meaning in work.

Getting into a different head space about work has been on my mind of late; and, in retrospect, I realize that part of the book's appeal came from my impression that it was somewhat obscure -- a bit of a discovery on my part. (It had not been prominently displayed, just sitting on a shelf.) I resolved to buy the book on my next visit.

Then, upon visiting The New York Times Web site this morning, what did I see screaming at me from the homepage but an ad for my "little discovery" -- with the title in giant letters and rave reviews on prominent display. I clicked to another page, and the ad followed me. Suddenly, my interest in the book vanished ...

It is not that I won't read a popular book; I piled through Chris Buckley's "Losing Mum and Pup," for example -- but I never imagined that was a "discovery." I had grown up in a Conservative household where William F. Buckley was an icon; and I had recently lost my own mother -- so the memoir hit me at just the right moment.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that readers need to be inspired in the same way that writers do. The connections they feel to book can be profound, and the ways that they become connected to the things they decide to read can be as mysterious as the Muse. (Can we say, indeed, that it is something other than the Muse?)

Of course, marketing (which I do in my daylight hours) attempts to push us in this or that direction -- to tell us (as the "Soulcraft" ad did) that THIS IS THE BOOK YOU WILL LOVE MORE THAN ANY OTHER.

But even if marketing may point us to a particular book, like some kind of dating service, it cannot create the spark that gets us beyond the cover, beyond the first few pages, and deep into the joy of reading.

And maybe, just maybe, that joy can surpass the writer's own joy in writing the book.