Monday, January 28

Failing Forward: Debbie Millman At AIGA Las Vegas

Debbie Millman knows something about failure. Most people would never guess it nowadays.

Today, she is a writer, educator, artist, brand consultant, and radio show host. Specifically, she worked in design for over 25 years and currently serves as president of the design division at Sterling Brands, a leading brand consultancy formed in 1992 with offices in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati. She's held the position for 17 years. You know her work.

The consultancy’s client roster includes many international brands such as Procter & Gamble, NestlĂ©, Disney, Bayer, Google, and Visa. She has been personally responsible for working on the redesign of over 200 global brands.

While her position alone would be enough to scream success, she is also a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at, chair of the Masters In Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and hosts the award-winning weekly radio talk show “Design Matters With Debbie Millman.”

And yet, with all sincerity and despite the twinkle in her eye, Millman is among the first to say that her career never really took off until her 30s. Before that, she chalked up one failure after the next.

What does Millman think made all the difference? 

While Millman shared a top ten list of things she wish she knew before she started her career (a list that will be published on a transitionary AIGA Las Vegas site later this week), it took a question from the audience to pin it all down. When asked what was the catalyst for change, she settled on a single word after a long and thoughtful 30-second pause.


The single word answer almost fell flat on the 200 or so attendees at the Jan. 25 event hosted by AIGA Las Vegas, Las Vegas - Clark County Library District and Library Foundation. Enough so, that as a speaker and instructor, I wanted to jump in and provide a greater context for what she meant. I got it, even if not everyone did.

Millman didn't mean that everyone needed to find a psychologist or therapist to find success. But what most people need to do, especially students on the eve of graduating who can't see a clear vision into their future, is to change their thinking. The greatest road block for success begins with giving ourselves permission to succeed, something Millman had admitted that she never really did until later.

"I started to choose a path that was failure proof," Millman said. "If there is such a thing."

Over the next half-hour of her presentation, she outlined a career path that chronicled one failure after the next. The worst of it included becoming the object of ridicule on one of the first design blogs ever created. The blog, Speak Up, attracted dozens of comments from designers she admired in the field.

Her revision of the Burger King logo was met with considerable scorn. But it was the blog's comments that drove the discussion away from a single logo design and defining Millman as a talentless hack.

Millman might have been able to weather the criticism had she not just recently been more or less shackled by the leadership of AIGA as not being progressive enough as a designer to hold a position on their board. (This was also despite finally finding her dream position at Sterling Brands.) Basically, it meant to her that neither AIGA designers nor anti-AIGA designers would accept her or her work.

But that was a long time ago. What really changed it for Millman was her ability to stop avoiding failures and start embracing them. In fact, Millman says that if you don't make mistakes, you aren't taking enough risks. And taking risks — not avoiding failure — is a critical step toward finding success.

You can't be successful by trying to avoid failure.

Many of Millman's life lessons are much like that. While some people might chalk it up to common sense, the truth of it is that most people are afraid to take risks, find excuses not to make them, tend to quit too soon in order to prove success is elusive, and never give themselves permission to live the remarkable lives that they dream of, assuming they ever open themselves up to dream them. I couldn't agree more.

Therapy is the right answer, but it doesn't necessarily mean hiring a a therapist. It means accepting who you are and changing your outlook about what's possible, especially if you have built a lifetime of resistance. Most people need help to do it. And it just doesn't matter whether that help comes from a teacher, mentor, friend, colleague, ideology, faith, or whatever because it sounds simpler than it will be.

We have to be open to the possibilities, work hard in actively pursuing them, and never give up in the face of failure. As Millman eventually learned, it was her failures that often opened doors for success and not the other way around. Or, as she so eloquently put it, she failed her way to a successful life.

Friday, January 25

Storytelling: Where Communicators Get Miffed

Since scheduling pushed back one of my creative projects this month, I had this idea to recycle some fictional content as a holdover until I had time to finish up something freshly original. The initial thought seemed smart. The story hadn't appeared since it was part of a juried art exhibit years ago.

It took some time, but I found the story, polished it up, gave it another read, and then decided I hated it. But undeterred, I passed it over to an editor anyway. She wasn't keen on seeing it republished either, which was secretly the affirmation (or perhaps anti-affirmation) that I wanted. Weird, I know.

The story didn't fit with my most recent body of work, and I was very curious why that might be. She offered some suggestions, but none of them felt right until it hit me. The only feeling that lingered after the last sentence was somewhere between nothing and cynicism. Everything recent hits much harder.

Yeah, but what does this have to do with marketing and communication?

It has everything to do with it, which is why I'm starting to believe that everything most advertising, marketing, public relations, and communications teachers taught you was wrong. Almost all of them miss one of the most important ingredients in content, and it's the same one clients most often miss too.

It's not their fault. Rubrics have a stranglehold on education. In the communication field, one of the most popular is the ADIA model — Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action — or any of its variations (CAB, ADICA). It's a fine model, but it just isn't enough.

There is something else at work that writers have to pay attention to. It's the ability to move beyond the call to action and connect with an emotion, which is what creates the illusion that content is a fulfilling conversation. Think of it as an epilogue of sorts that creates an emotional connection (and I don't mean a like, follow, friend, or retweet) that people will later identify with the brand.

This is why tapping into people's imagination is so important. It's also why two perfectly structured advertisements that follow ADIA or some other format are not always equal. One might follow the structure, but it misses this mysterious ingredient. (Heineken's recent viral The Date spot misses it.)

The missing ingredient includes two parts. One is an emotion. The other is fulfillment. While the former can be anything, the latter needs to linger on a universal truth. Even if not everyone agrees, it feels right.

This feeling, that the author reinforced or opened our eyes to something new but patently obvious, is what makes some storytelling work so well. Mickey Gomez really gets it, even if she hasn't analyzed it. Geoff Livingston mostly gets it because it is innate in him. Jennifer Lawson gets it, even when her technical skill sometimes slips. I get it on good days. Most writers really don't get it.

Clients don't get it either, but for a different reason. Most of them are too focused on the experience they feel, and not the consumer. In other words, they look at the content and get excited because they think it represents them. But trust me on this: Consumers don't care how good an ad is supposed to make the brand look.

The one question you should always ask about your content. 

It's not always easy because, just like clients, writers sometimes become consumed by craft. They are either taken by the cleverness of it (as in advertising), the 'sales' pitch (as in public relations), or how pretty the prose is (as in authors). All of that might help, but none of it matters.

Storytellers and content creators have to look at this stuff objectively and then ask themselves what is the feeling a non-stakeholder will be left with at the end of the story. And then they have to consider whether or not that feeling aligns with the brand and creates a connection (ideally one associated with the brand). This is where content marketing and customer experience connect.

Ergo, content is an experience ... but only when it fits. It's the lingering emotion that really counts.

Wednesday, January 23

Researching Colleges: Future Students Prefer Digital Stealth

Forget interviews. Forget phone calls. Forget campus visits. College bound students are researching future colleges with the click of a mouse or tap on a mobile application. Like many organizations are learning, the next generation of college student is more inclined to shop a future college online.

Almost 55 percent of prospecting students are investigating colleges every day, using social media networks and search engines over print guidebooks and direct marketing products. Almost 25 percent applied stealth to their searches, making it more difficult for colleges to pin down prospect interest or profile them based on any discernible psychographics or demographics. You know what that means.

Don't blink because your customer is invisible.

According to a new study conducted by Lipman Hearne, a national marketing and communications firm, and, a college search website, future students are researching schools online as early as their sophomore year in high school. And they are looking for very specific information, along with passive analysis, to determine what institutions might be a good fit for their college years.

1. Scholarship and financial aid packages.
2. Reputation in a major field of interest.
3. Affordable tuition and fees.
4. Strong academic reputation.
5. Job assistance after graduation.

In addition to prioritizing preferences, the report focuses in on prospect communication preference, noting that nearly half had visited a college's website on a mobile device (45 percent) and one in ten had downloaded an app from a college on a mobile device. What students are less interested in are text messages, unless they have an expressed interest in the school.

Students also turn to social networks as part of their research (85 percent reported having at least one social network account). And although most say that social media does not influence their decision, students frequently look for status updates, offerings, and even invitations. But what most won't do is use this information to start a conversation, poll, or ask friends for opinions on their school choices.

There is also some indication that colleges are over-marketing to students via email. The average prospect reported receiving as many as five emails from colleges that they have reached out to for information. The communication is intrusive enough that many have set a dedicated email specifically for college information. About 71 percent check this separate email account daily.

Not surprisingly (although surprising to some), more than one in three graduating high school seniors indicated that advertising influenced their application decision or influenced their enrollment decision. Students also identified online banner ads as more effective and easier to recall than other forms of advertising. Both of these statistics represent a dramatic shift in online behavior, which has previously suggested that social media is more influential than advertising. This might not be true in the future.

The Lipman Hearne study is available for a free download, but requires the typical form fill. It included more than 11,000 students as part of its survey process. It should also be noted that the research was conducted online, which sometimes skews data toward the medium where the survey was taken.

Looking beyond college bound applications and learning about consumers. 

While the study was conducted to better understand stealth applicants — students who investigate schools before and after applying to the school — it suggests that the next generation of consumers is already shifting their mindset. Specifically, more customers watch and listen to organizations without identifying themselves as potential customers. In essence, they are passive in their research.

Passive online participants (voyeurs) still represent a majority of online participation, even if many social media experts skew toward the more talkative and visibly engaged customers. But there is one difference between the voyeurs of the past and the voyeurs of the future. The voyeurs of the past were quiet because they weren't comfortable with the new tools. The voyeurs of the future know the tools and purposefully remain unengaged to avoid intrusive marketing efforts like emails and phone calls.

This could be a significant find because it seems that while the next generation of customer may be more reliant on digital research, they are also interested in remaining invisible to big data by giving off the appearance of disengagement. Note to researchers: Focus groups still require different formats.

Monday, January 21

Avoiding Stereotypes: The Color Of Ideology

No one really knows what Martin Luther King, Jr. would have thought had he lived to see the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (Aug. 28, 1963). On one hand, Americans had not only elected but re-elected the first African-American President. On the other, it has created one of the most divisive socio-economic-political climates since President Abraham Lincoln.

I, for one, would like to think he would stand by the lines delivered in the I Have A Dream speech, holding firm to his conviction that people not be judged except by the content of their character. For although racism has largely been abolished in the hearts and minds of a majority, the propensity of humankind to divide has reached a crescendo on dozens of other fronts, ranging from the values people hold to the rights they are willing to defend as part of the definition of freedom.

Whereas in the era of Martin Luther King, Jr., people were unjustly and commonly segregated by the color of their skin, hate speech and stereotypes have found a new home that often ignores the color of our skin and ravishes us instead for religious views, political leanings, and urban-rural localities. While few people would defend hate speech aimed at racial heritage and cultural identity, it has somehow become accepted to characterize some religions as deserving censor, some political parties as callous, gun owners as redneck bigots, and even whether they take notes on a notepad or laptop. And today, rather than enacting segregation in schools, most of it takes place in news outlets and social networks.

So let's be clear. Stereotypes are ignorant, regardless of righteousness. 

A stereotype is a thought about a specific group of individuals that is used to forward the belief that a single commonality about that group can accurately define all characteristics about that group, usually intended to cause others to emotionally react to the naming of the group with good or bad prejudice.

In the past, it was most commonly associated with heritage. Today, it's most commonly associated with ideology and identity. But what hasn't changed is: they are almost always wrong, especially when they are used to dehumanize people; they are exceptionally damaging, especially if we accept derogatory stereotypes that other people assign us; and they are hardwired into our brains, which means we have to be ever vigilant in dismantling almost all of them.

Some people are surprised anytime it is suggested that we are hardwired to invent stereotypes; the truth to it is scientific. Our brains invent stereotypes in order to make our world less cognitively demanding. It's all tied to cognitive psychology, which was always my favorite sub-discipline of psychology (and one of the most useful for communicators and marketers).

Cognitive psychology delves into how people perceive, remember, think, speak, and solve problems. And one of the mental processes is how we categorize and compartmentalize information. For example, when we learn fire is hot, we categorize it as something that can burn us. Later, when we learn an oven or stovetop can be hot, we might put it into the same category. We need it to survive.

But then something happens sometime between junior high school and high school. Our cognitive processes begin to take on more abstract forms as we begin to define our world based on arduous notions not much better than The Breakfast Club, a film about five high school stereotypes — jock, geek, stoner, outcast, and socialite — who find temporary common ground around being detainees.

Unfortunately, few people ever really evolve from these baseless social roles. They simply trade them in for new ones, making the world easier to understand even if this understanding is flawed. Worse, we sometimes compound the problem by pursuing the characteristics of stereotypes that we want to belong too, making them seem all the more valid, and creating campaigns to prove they are true and desirable.

The evolution of cognitive thinking relies on individual character. 

There is one simple reason that I tend to attract diversity among friends and associates. Much like their heritage, their ideologies mean less to me than how they behave and treat others, especially those they seem ideologically opposed to across any number of socio-economic-political issues.

And for that, I grant them equal tolerance even as we disagree, especially if we can maintain a relationship without having to dress up in a costume and, most assuredly, if we can agree not to censor or subjugate other people's rights, property, and values. It's called respect. It's called refusing to drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred. It's called character, built on trust and understanding that all men and women are created equal without being forced to carry the loadstones of ancestry and stereotype.

That's my dream. And while I could be wrong, I would like to think it was Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream too — that the flaws of one character within a thinly connected group ought not be used as a weapon to vilify each and every perceived associate. This is, after all, America, a place where we are supposed to be uniquely accountable to our own behaviors and actions and deserve to be judged according to our character and not the behaviors or actions that people attempt to assign us.

That said, it is my dream that people think twice before embracing hate speech and stereotypes, carelessly sharing and spreading such messages across their social connections without any thought of the disparagement they might cause others because underneath it all, no matter how we divide people, we really are all brothers and sisters of the human race. And so, in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. day, good night and good luck.

Friday, January 18

Improving Press Releases: A Two-Part Social Test

People tend to give press releases plenty of flack. But in many cases, the problem isn't the tool but the practitioner who created it. If you want better release performance, start with the source — the author.

I'm not suggesting that public relations practitioners need to be canned. What I am suggesting is that public relations professionals test themselves by taking advantage of other in-house professionals and social media to see just how great (or not great) their press release (or social media release) crafting skills might be.

Pass a press release draft to a colleague, but not to edit. 

Rather than passing the press release to someone to edit, ask them to write a news story from the release as if they were a journalist working for whatever new niche the story is intended. The public relations professional might even be able to test themselves, assuming they're objective enough to do it.

This process will immediately reveal any flaws in the press release before it ever sees the newswire. It might even produce some new ideas for better leads, hooks, or angles that no one ever thought up.

1. Did the release pass the news test?
2. Did it offer enough hooks to inspire different angles?
3. Did the person acting as a journalist have to ask follow up questions?
4. Did the quotes stand out enough to be used or were they too canned and cut?
5. How hard did the person have to work to ferret out any story from the content?
6. Did the story turn out interesting enough to read or was it as dry as what was supplied?

Always keep in mind that the measure of a press release is not whether or not it will run as written. On the contrary, it needs to be written so that any journalist can immediately see the news value in it and feel confident that they can put their own spin on the story. Ideally, it contains the news they don't know.

Publish the story someplace like a blog; give it a social media test.

Make no mistake, journalists are under increasing pressure to prove their content is being read. And right or wrong (mostly wrong), more publishers are tracking how many hits, shares, and time on a story to determine whether or not people are interested in the content. (This data is then turned into ad sales.)

The only way to really know is to publish the potential content yourself. Publishing the story (not the release) on an intranet, website, or blog could provide some indication of its potential success. And in this case, the objective doesn't have to be viral as much as benchmarked for success.

1. Did the story attract more or less interest from intended readers?
2. How long did the average reader stay on the story page?
3. Was any of the content shared across social networks?
4. How did it compare to stories already published across the industry?
5. Was any of the content recycled or used for other story purposes?
6. Were there any patterns in terms of reader demographics or special interests?

The bottom line is that just like public relations pros ought to challenge themselves to find newsworthy content on the inside, journalists are challenging themselves to find newsworthy content on the outside. What they don't have is unlimited time. As newspapers and publications have scaled back on staff, the general function of a news release ought to make it easier, not harder, to get the job done.

Testing the potential of the news story that press release, internally and/or externally, can provide some insights to ensure you're on the right track. In fact, even if the stories are only tested internally (especially useful for larger companies), readership patterns will likely emerge. Some stories will sink, others will win interest. But more importantly, it will help improve the story catalyst — a press release that editors know has the potential to attract some interest and traffic to their publication and reporters know will make their jobs a little easier and, perhaps, more interesting.

Wednesday, January 16

Advertising Obesity: Coca-Cola Has The Skinny

Imagine how ridiculous it would have been for cigarette companies to run advertisements in the 1990s attempting to offset smoking with a few quick hits on an oxygen tank. And then consider the impenitence of the latest Coca-Cola advertisement that attempts to cure obesity by suggesting you can still have a Coke and smile, provided you take a few quick laps around the block.
The two-minute commercial created by Coca-Cola is a nightmare. At best, it's a two-minute segment that highlights how Coca-Cola has worked diligently to undo the damage that drove its profit margin.

The spot touts how the company has reduced the average calories per serving of its beverage by 22 percent (mostly by divesting into non-soft drinks like juice and water), shrunk serving sizes, placed calorie counts on the front of containers, reduced beverage calories in schools by 90 percent (mostly by dropping soft drinks from the offering), developed a strategic philanthropy plan that helps fund physical fitness programs for young people, and invested in innovative sciences to create new sweeteners.

The commercial wraps this all up by reminding everyone they get calories from other places beyond their favorite fizzy elixirs — which means that you should feel guilt about those extra inches around your waistline. Or, in other words, if overweight people would just work out, then companies like Coca-Cola wouldn't be thrown under the bus by New York nanny Bloomberg. Here it is...

This commercial is one of the biggest anti-brand statements ever put out by Coca-Cola. It literally strips away any ounce of happiness that once made its flagship product an undisputed brand champ and replaces it with a public relations spin that doesn't work. It admits guilt and attempts to share some of it.

The nine rules of advertising needs another rule. Be the real thing, only.

There is something seriously wrong with this country, and corporate marketers aren't making it better. Too many companies fall prey to the nation's escalating overindulgence in national guilt and actually feed it with apologetic advertising. Coca-Cola isn't the only one, but it does represent a trend.

If you have looked at messaging trends today, you will discover that people ought to feel guilty if they cannot sustain themselves OR become too successful. People ought to feel guilty if they are too skinny OR too heavy. People ought to feel guilty if they aren't willing to help people in need by raising taxes OR if they vote for spending that increases the national debt. People ought to feel guilty if they are too pious to pop a can of Coke OR if they drink more than a thumbnail of the bubbly caramel substance.

There is no win. This is a country that not only feels guilty about everything but makes demands that everyone who doesn't feel equally miserable receive punishments. This weird guilt sickness has become so prevalent in our society, people don't even feel guilty for what they do, they feel guilty about what other people do. National obesity is but one example, and it's a shame to see one of the few holdout companies fall for it.

The new two-minute spot marks the end of an era.

Coca-Cola doesn't have anything to apologize for. Its flagship product is a surgary fizzy drink that many people enjoy. Almost all of them received the memo that too much of a good thing is bad thing, which is why drinking a 12-pack isn't such a good idea. And yet, more and more people feel so incredibly guilty about those who are weak willed that they demand we legislate how much soft drink everyone can purchase and consume regardless of their own ability to moderate.

Coca-Cola isn't the problem. The lack of willpower of some and guilt of many is the problem. 

And apparently, this lack of willpower and inflated sense of guilt is beginning to rub off on advertisers too. They sell products of indulgence and then feel guilty about it when the public falls out of love with them because somebody overindulged. At the same time, they don't want to accept responsibility for it so the consumer has to share in it.

All of this misses the point. The real magic of Coca-Cola as a product is that for five to 30 seconds a swig, whomever is drinking it can forget about their troubles and briefly enjoy a taste bud tickle followed up by a caffeine buzz. What's wrong with that? Product promise. Product delivered.

This new spot, on the other hand, is nothing more than a buzz kill because it reminds the consumer that every 5- to 30-second swig carries consequences not only for them, but also for the nation. Worse, they cannot even save themselves or anybody else from this indulgence because anything else they enjoy with calories is evil too, along with a lifestyle that includes watching too much television news that is so depressing that they can't possibly motivate themselves off the couch. I dunno about you, but this realization kind of kills any warm and fuzzy feeling I might had about a brand and that's ironic.

It's ironic because I don't drink Coca-Cola unless it is mixed up in the occasional stiff drink, but I have always felt good about the brand. It's very American, representative of a small indulgence that is within easy reach of anyone. How dour life would be without it. How dour it's becoming with all this guilt.

Wing nut advocacy campaigns aren't the only communication programs that can shape the nation. Companies can help shape them too. Their primary responsibility is to deliver a brand promise and, assuming they do that well, then enjoy financial success and make contributions to communities in the form of taxes, employment, investment returns, and charitable contributions (maybe even to curb obesity) so that other people don't have to pay as much in taxes. Anything else could fall flat.

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