Trump, Morality, and Business Taking the High Road

Who would have thought that taking a stand against neo-nazis would spark an outcry in 2017 America? But it did. After repeated refusal from Donald Trump to outright condemn the beliefs of the White Nationalists (aka Nazis) who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, numerous CEOs who belonged to Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum decided to disband the group.

In a statement from Jamie Dimon, Chase Chairman and CEO, he explained how Trump’s reaction to events do not fit with his values or the values of his company. As he stated, “There is no room for equivocation here: the evil on display by these perpetrators of hate should be condemned and has no place in a country that draws strength from our diversity and humanity.”

As someone working for an organization that has worked closely with Chase for more than a decade, I say, “Hell yes.” But it begs the question, why did so many companies and CEOs respond to Trumps call in the first place? CEOs like Elon Musk (who would eventually decide to stop advising the President after Trump backed out of the Paris Climate Accord) said he joined the Presidential Advisory Forum “…to provide feedback on issues that I think are important for our country and the world.” Being the voice of reason became a driving force for many of those who joined the effort.

The cynic might say it was just “good business?” After all, Trump won half the country’s vote. You don’t want to turn your back on half of America if you own a business. But it would seem now that “good business” is taking a backseat to “good.”

Only time will tell if this will affect their businesses. However, if one were to listen to the “loud” voices on social media, you would think it would be the latter. After 30 minutes of Chase posting Jamie Dimon’s statement on Facebook, 80% of comments were negative against Jamie Dimon and Chase.  That’s right, 80%. But the “like” response tells a different story from the comments. 95% of the clicks were likes and loves. Only 5% hate.

This is the world that CEOs are facing today. Ambiguity is the norm. And what should be a simple decision has become more complicated for business owners. Some businesses, like Nordstrom, who took hardline stances against the Alt Right from the beginning, saw increases in sales. However, sites like grabyourwallet.org who list companies who they believe you should boycott due to their anti-trump views are surprisingly popular. In February of 2017, this site had more than one million visitors.

So, you would think what Jamie Dimon and other business leaders did today would be easy. It was not. It was brave. It was just. And it could very well affect their business in the near future. The great thing is that ultimately they didn’t care. The hope is that, in the long run, choosing to support all people will lead to more customers choosing to do business with you.

 

 

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Myths, Symbols, and Advertising

Mythology is perhaps the most archaic and profound record we have of our collective spirit. It creates and defines our experiences. From the inception of cave art, and presumably long before that, we find myth and myth-making as a fundamental element in relating to the mysteries of life, the cosmos and the world around us. It goes beyond recounting the day’s events and the mundane, giving life to the essence of what it means to be human. Myth is the symbolic revelation of eternal “truths”, an expression of our collective psyche and our role in the unfolding of the universe. As it relates to brands and marketing, it reminds us, or should remind us, that while features are central to a product, they are only a portion of what drives us to select one thing over another. If we think about brands as myth, as stories conveying something grand and extraordinary, we generate more than a passing interest in the consumer, we establish a connection to something transcendent, something that speaks to the underlying need to find meaning in the world.

In this case, I return to the idea of the universal hero in myth. Why? Because beyond buying a product to fulfill a functional need, we frequently seek out products and brands that allow us to step into a role that is greater than ourselves.  There are certain patterns which recur across cultures regardless of time and distance. Jung called these patterns and Joseph Campbell immortalized them for the non-scholar. And while there undoubtedly flaws in the possibly essentializing nature of their analyses, the fact remains that the underlying currents of these archetypes hold true, regardless of the minutia.  Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human drama. The trickster, the hero, etc. manifest themselves across space and time. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning. As an example, consider the archetype of the universal hero.

As it relates to marketing and advertising, we pay attention to stories that have conflict, resolution and challenges that allow us to project ourselves into the role of the protagonist.  A problem (i.e. monsters/struggles) is overcome by brands (i.e. hero/ heroine) reestablishing order in the universe.  The hero myth tells us that the character’s courage to suffer the burdens of fear and the conflicts within his personality set him apart. In myth, the ego is banished to a world full of opposites which war with each other within the personality. Out of the conflict something new and marvelous emerges. The journey of the hero typically includes most of the following stages:

  • The Call: the character leaves his ordinary life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world.
  • The Trial: there she/he encounters one or a number of challenges.
  • The Reward: a boon the hero receives as a result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self and the cosmos.
  • The Return: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, sharing the new-found knowledge. Here the hero applies her/his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place.

The advertising for Dodge Ram trucks often follows this motif, tying the truck (and the driver) to overcoming a series of challenges that only this brand can cope with. The driver is able to step in where other brands fail and vanquish the problem. He emerges stronger, wiser and more powerful than his counterparts. Similarly, cleaning products frequently do this.  The would be heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she not only vanquishes the problem (the monster), but is able to demonstrate both her prowess and knowledge to other members of the family, sharing the product/hidden knowledge with other members of the group.

Another mythological archetype that appears frequently in advertising is the Trickster. The trickster is a figure who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.  The trickster figure, whether as a deity, folk hero or literary figure breaks the rules of the society, the gods or nature, usually, albeit unintentionally, with ultimately positive effects.  With the help of his wits and cleverness, he evades or fools monsters and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. The character of Mayhem as a representation of the Allstate brand or the Trix Rabbit represent the archetypal motif of the trickster. And they work because, like the hero, they conform to an underlying, universal storyline that entertains, teaches, and makes sense of the world.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because advertising and marketing far too often engage at the superficial level of the mind. They sell features and, occasionally, benefits. While that may be good for point of purchase or short-term gains, it does nothing for establishing a brand as something enduring. If you think in terms of designing a message or a campaign from the standpoint of mythical archetypes, you create something powerful, moving and universal. You create devotion. It certainly does nothing to turn a brand and its story into something iconic, something we share. And without that, a brand isn’t a brand at all, it is a commodity.

 

Fads, Trends, and Being Relevant Over the Long Haul

Staying on top of social and cultural change is difficult. It requires thoughtful observation, reflection, and the ability to connect dots that may go unnoticed in many cases. Similarly, being able to distinguish a trend from a short-lived fit of social interest can make the difference between a meaningful campaign or marketing platform, and a one-hit wonder. Understanding the difference between fads and trends is critical for all organizations. Unfortunately, many decision makers seem to be unaware of their important differences.

Both fads and trends play an important role in a marketing effort’s success, but they aren’t the same thing and they need to be treated differently. If they are not, leaders risk burning out adapting to every fad, and critical trends required for a brand’s long-term survival may be missed. So, what are the key differences?

A fad, in simple terms, is any form of behavior that is intensely followed by a population for a short period of time. It tends to generate a lot of buzz and social capital, but quickly becomes the butt of jokes, abandonment for the newest shiny object, etc. Once the novelty is gone, interest plummets. This isn’t to say that a fad is without value, only that it isn’t sustainable.  Collecting beanie babies was a fad, so were Thomas Kincade paintings, was Pokémon Go. Needless to say, these fads, though short-lived, were hugely successful and organization able to respond to them in their marketing efforts reaped the benefits. Utilizing fads in marketing and advertising can increase top-of-mind awareness, demonstrate the timeliness of your organization, and serve as a gateway for new audiences, all of which are important. The catch is, fads don’t stick around.

Now, compare that with a trend. A trend gets stronger over time and sticks around. It becomes part of the conversation rather than a bit of social punctuation. It has a sense of permanence and place. Trends point to the future as much as they do the present. Trends have identifiable and explainable rises that are driven by audience needs and demonstrated in cultural shifts. They create meaning for people. A trend gains power over time, because it’s not merely part of a moment, it IS the movement. A trend isn’t just relevant to an individual, it is a connector that will become more valuable as other people commit to it.

The interest in renewable energy is a trend. The increased use of virtual reality is a trend. So are evidence-based medicine, the desire for pay equality, and the use of mobile devices. These are things that have grown, redefined how people find meaning in their world, and interact with each other. They solve problems. They represent new ways of life.

So why does it matter? It matters because organizations ignoring the distinction between fads and trends do so at their own risk. If you want to become an iconic brand, then you need to have longevity and provide meaning for people that isn’t fleeting, but rather sustained. Fads are tools good marketers can use for a specific job, trends are the tools he or she uses for a lifetime.

 

84 Lumber and the Power of Brands

By now, everyone is discussing the 84 Lumber ad that ran during last night’s Big Game. For the few unfamiliar with the ad, a Mexican mother and daughter, who appear to be on their way to the United States, survive the perils of migrating from their home and ultimately come across a depiction of an imposing border wall, reminiscent of the one Trump has discussed since he burst, again, into the limelight so many months ago.

Fox rejected the spot not because of violence or nudity, but because it depicted a fairly accurate visual of what Trump’s wall would look like (if anything, it actually sanitizes the process). Not surprisingly, Fox appears to support the concept of the wall but censors any visual portrayal of it.

According to Rob Shapiro, the chief client officer at Brunner, the agency that worked with 84 Lumber to come up with the ad, “If everyone else is trying to avoid controversy, isn’t that the time when brands should take a stand for what they believe in?” I couldn’t agree more.

The reality is that brands have become political, perhaps they always were. That’s true because brands carry meaning. They are symbols that reflect not only a company’s vision, but the shared beliefs, practices, and values of the people who engage with them. Granted, some brands are innocuous, but those brand that really resonate take a position on more than their products, they take a position on their role in the world. They tell a story about who they are and where they fit into the world. And this is exactly what 84 Lumber, and indeed Brunner, chose to do. They chose to take a stand against the vagaries of The Wall and show in the cold, hard reality of what it implies. And in doing so they chose to articulate the simple truth that they will not willing be part of it.

Which, in turn, brings us back to what it was Fox took issue with. Was it the message of compassion at the end they were rejecting? Was it the entire spot and its portrayal of the journey? Was it the little girl with a flag she’d made along the way? Was it simply the door? My suspicion is that we’ll never know. Or, if is likely, Fox does provide an explanation, it will be a convoluted mix of half-truths and baseless accusations.

Regardless, this ad reflects precisely what good branding does. It brings a story to life, it drives interest, it provokes, and draws us in. And for that, both 84 Lumber and the agency should be extremely proud.

 

Poetry, Semiotics and Brand Building

Though the custom of memorizing poetry in public school is largely long gone, I was part of perhaps a last generation to have to go through the process.  And I will no doubt remember the following lines until my last breath:

‘TWAS a death-bed summons, and forth I went

By the way of the Western Wall, so drear

On that winter night, and sought a gate–

The home, by Fate,

Of one I had long held dear.

At the time, I failed to realize the significance of poetry, but with age comes some degree of wisdom and I have come to the conclusion that what we do today, be it as a researcher, a copy writer or a designer, can indeed learn a great deal from poetry. It is, sadly, a forgotten but powerful medium. A poem does not convey a message is the same way as prose, it does not signify in the same manner. When poetry is consumed, so to speak, words are judged in relation to things, and the text is judged in comparison to reality. A poem establishes a system of significance, generated by processes such as accumulation and the use of descriptive systems.

Prose is generally interpreted along a vertical axis, known as the paradigmatic axis or the axis of selection. On this axis, we look for the meaning of the text based on selected referents and terms, following the metaphors and metonymies, or by trying to attribute a coherent meaning to the passages. The message is typically fairly straight forward and the associations with other words clear. But unlike prose, in the semantics of the poem the axis of significations is horizontal. The poem doesn’t attempt to refer to reality, but to establish a coherent system of significance. As such, a poetic text must be interpreted and analyzed in terms of the relationships that develop amongst the words along the horizontal axis (the syntagmatic axis or the axis of combination).

There are four structures that make up the horizontal axis of significations:

  • Linguistic
  • Stylistic
  • Thematic
  • Lexical.

This structure  involves similarities in form and position among certain words in the text, similarities that are rationalized and interpreted in terms of meaning. Each word is made up of one or more semes (minimal units of meaning, or semantic features). For example, the word “monster” contains the semes: living being, big, ugly, frightening, inhuman, etc. These are the semes in the poem that are used in the process of accumulation.

This process occurs when the reader encounters a series of words that are related through an element of meaning that links them together, that is, a shared seme. As the reader progresses, accumulation filters through the semantic features of its words, thereby overdetermining the occurrence of the most widely represented seme and cancelling out the semes that appear less frequently.  For example, if we encounter the words “rose”, “tulip” and “sunflower”, then we might think that the shared seme is /flower/; if to this list we add the words “grandiose”, “woman” and “art”, then the overdetermined seme will be /beauty/. In this way, the semes take the place of the words, and by substituting in this manner, the reader will come within reach of the poem’s significance.

In other words, a descriptive system that emerges in poetry is a group of words, expressions and ideas that are used in the text to designate the parts of the whole that the author wants to represent.

The system is usually a set of stereotypes and conventional ideas about the word with which it is associated; this is how the reader realizes, when we make mention of nothing more than dancing, for example, that we are talking about an youth.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because at the heart of any brand or design lies the poetic expression of what we want the brand to mean. Whether we are crafting a series of words in an add campaign or developing a stylistic “language” for a group of objects to be associated with the brand, we are attempting to develop a system of meaning that overdetermines and allows the customer to interpret a range of finite meanings at a glance. The Nike swoosh, the phrase “Ram Tough”, the “story” conveyed in a billboard for Schlitz, they are all extensions of poetic discourse. And like the poem from Thomas Hardy that I learned so long ago, a poem lasts, tying meaning to the things the things we value in our lives, including brands.

More Truth in Advertising

There is a strong belief out there that the interruption-disruption model in advertising is dying out, thanks to shifting consumer trends in behavior and technology. Because shoppers and consumers are increasingly in control of their media content they can and do simply skip those ads they don’t want to see. Social media has further altered the landscape – people are now creating their own content be it in the form of a testimonial, a simple tweet or a video homage. But it’s important to remember that the interruption-disruption model is not a product of a post-industrial world.  It dates to the earliest civilizations, with merchants calling out to passersby the quality of their goods. Something to keep in mind.

Thus the story goes that marketers and advertisers who want to maintain a meaningful level of engage will need to completely rethink what it is they do. They will need to turn advertising into content.  Not only products and brands need to be sold, so will the means by which we promote them. Advertising will need to be so compelling that people seek it out, promote it and help create it. The new ad model is about creating great content and finding ways to make it part of the larger social and cultural dialogs.

But how true is this model? Is there a fundamental shift that is so dramatic that the old way of doing things no longer has a place? Forgive me, but I’ve heard similar things before – the TV would cease to exist by the year 2000; the invention of Internet would democratize the world and open-source would change the nature of capitalism. When CP+B declared that the model had changed by saying that the “big idea is boss,” they were simply repackaging the big idea. Yes, consumers have gained more control through social media, DVRs, Hulu, etc. They will no doubt continue to change the landscape. But only to a point.

The truth be told, I don’t believe the notion that consumers are or ever will be totally in control of the ads they are exposed to any more than I believe that war will cease to exist because of Twitter. Magazines, online and off, will not stop printing ads.  TV advertisers will not do away with the 30-sceond spot for product placement exclusively.  Not every campaign will need to be guerilla marketing. Yes, the technology changes and the techniques we use to promote on brand over another, but there is no reason to assume the old model will simply vanish.

Again, the interruption-disruption model is not new and though it will change, it isn’t going to vanish.  Advertising is about capturing attention.  It is and always has been about telling a story and getting people to stop, look and listen. Add to that a simple fact that the technology wonks out there seem to overlook: people simply don’t care. They don’t want to exert much energy or time learning about the range of products available to them or the hundreds of outlets in which to buy them.  People are lazy about most things.  They have better things to do with their time than spend 4 hours on CNET.  Yes, there are those that do, but they simple do not make up the majority.

In addition to basic disinterest, people love (and respond to) advertising far more than they’ll ever admit. We are trained to say we dislike advertising, but is it true?  It’s a sociolinguistic construct, just as asking a person how they are doing (something that in truth we don’t much really care about). The fact is that the old model will be modified, but it certainly won’t die.

It’s Not Just the Products

Shopping habits can be observed in multiple ways: how people react during social interaction, how they present and see themselves, and how they define situations with others. In other words, people need emotional connections to what you sell and how you sell it as much as they need to know about the products in your store. They need to feel a sense of increased social and psychic capital when they enter your store and when they leave it. Apple, after all, sells computers just like everyone else, but they have successfully bridged the gap between customer emotion and product knowledge. Steve Jobs challenged Apple with “changing the world” rather than simply fulfilling a function. It’s hard to deny that Apple has changed the world of how people see computers, tablets and MP3 players, and Apple’s growing market share is a testament to the strategy.

In terms of marketing materials and communication with your customers, creating an emotional connection does not mean using clichés and gimmicky messaging. It means conveying the things your products enable. By the time many customers actually consider locating a retailer, they have spent significant time researching specs, consumer reviews and feature lists. Therefore, it’s important to interact with your customers and ask key questions accordingly – giving them the information they need based on what they already know about the product. Marketing materials that convey how a product or service will fit into their daily lives in a realistic way are far more likely to capture their attention than price listings and technical information.

Keep in mind when creating ads and promotional materials:

  • Incorporate references to how non-tech-savvy people might actually use the phone.
  • Explain benefits in a realistic way.
  • In addition to listing performance and feature information, list at least one direct connection between these things and an activity a consumer might engage in.