The world will never be less chaotic than it is right now. That is so say, the complexity of life will continue to challenge us. In the presence of ever-expanding complexity, how do we get our story through the noise? How best to communicate our ideas?

A singularity of vision with a concise understanding of the problem solved is essential. The story must be equally comprehensible and told with economy.

The creativity is then free to become inventive. Creativity is the liberator of strategy.

Creativity has an obligation to deliver the idea fully rendered in the heart and mind of the audience. Clarity is actionable.

Complexity defeats clarity in the execution. The best creative talents understand this and labor to create clarity in their ideas and executions.

Visual clarity and written clarity combined to create conceptual clarity. The dual compliment.

Over written, over directed, over acted, over designed executions are warning signs. Perhaps the idea is weak and there is an attempt to prop it up. Or the creative team is letting their egos get in the way.

Maybe they lack the experience to know better.

Simplicity is recompense for years of effort.

Saratoga Springs NY; A vibrant cultural scene and a main street so nice that it was emulated by Disney as one of its resorts; Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa.

Disney avoided one part that’s impossible to miss. They left out the trucks. They skipped over the volcanic 18 wheelers that rattle Broadway.

The sound of trucks on Broadway becomes so deafening that it’s impossible to hear a person sitting directly across from you while alfresco dining. It’s a steady and reliable disruption often punctuated by other loud machines. Early in the season, I witnessed a concrete saw being fired up just a few feet from diners on Broadway.

As a popular destination for summer guests the world over, Saratoga Springs is a wonderful destination brand. A tourism-based economy, the envy of many.

Broadway or Route 9, as it’s also known, is a NYS truck route, so if you’re a trucker, you’re simply doing your job. My grandfather drove a truck and I harbor no ill will. We need our trucks and our truckers. That said, the disruption is a problem. Just ask anyone on Broadway, if they can hear you.

The noise pollution caused by loud machines, is at odds with the image Saratoga Springs projects to the world. It’s no fun for guests to be sitting outside trying to enjoy this beautiful town with the deafening roar. Disney skipped this part for a reason.

As a community, we go to great lengths to welcome our guests. Sports, art and music on the streets, flowers, museums, the wonders of SPAC, shuttle service…you name it. We spare no expense to curate the Saratoga brand experience. We stopped short of dealing with trucks. The noise does not support a positive brand experience for our guests.

According to the National Academies, the average decibel of a tractor trailer is 88 dBA at speeds less than 35 MPH, higher at highway speeds. Not surprisingly, the EPA, suggests this is an acceptable level. Now, exactly how loud is the noise on Broadway? How loud is a concrete saw? A leaf blower? A barely muffled motorcycle? A truck? How about all at once?

The increase in trucking is being felt all over the country and Saratoga Springs is not alone. A solution being considered in other locales is to limit center city access to smaller, quieter, more nimble box trucks. How about a fleet of electric box trucks? More jobs for more truckers. As for the 18 wheelers that are simply passing through; the Northway is also a truck route.

Managing any brand is hard work. Experience brands, such as Saratoga Springs, are different from other brands. Experience brands thrive through word of mouth and the positive shared experience of users. We must stop turning a deaf ear to the challenge. As a community of brand stewards, we should not take the noise tolerance of our guests for granted. Saratoga can do better in the curation of the downtown experience.

The sustainability of Saratoga Springs as a popular destination brand is not a guarantee, it’s an obligation.

When I put the camera on my shoulder and the brief is in my head, I’m looking for the truth. The deeper story, the stuff beyond mere words and pictures, the stuff that reaches the heart. Truth in performance; the essence of the idea to be communicated. The process starts again in editing, to polish the delivery of the idea, the emotion.

The brief is the framework, it establishes the context of creation. It impacts everything downstream; concept development, script, directing, photography, casting, location, tonality, mood, lighting, the entire production design…the works.

The brief is the springboard for ideas to take flight. A great brief is also anchored in the truth of the brand. The brief is a contract with the creative. The brief is also a contract with the truth. Not “truthiness.” The truth.

Occasionally, attempts are made to exploit “truthiness.” Savvy marketers know that great ideas communicate beyond the execution. They know the right ideas generate emotions that cannot be measured through any single ingredient that goes into execution. Truthiness can be tempting.

You can imagine the dismay when the client says, “The idea will not work because we cannot actually communicate that.” Discussion ensues.

It’s a mistake for anyone to use the brief as an opportunity to manipulate the creative work to communicate something that’s not entirely true. Creativity is a powerful tool and can certainly be made to imply things that are not the truth. Clever creative work, not anchored in truth, may achieve a temporary spike in sales but it’s a short money game. Disappointed customers, misled by “truthiness” will flee. Nothing sticks to a brand like the voices of unhappy customers. Truthiness does not build better brands.

Try making a better product.

Brands such as Spectrum are, for all intents and purposes, monopolies. Their monopolistic stature affords them the illusion that they do not need to be the best in total quality.

I finally cut the cable cord and will just go forward with Spectrum internet service. The value proposition of cable TV evaporated long ago. I’m old enough to remember the promise that cable TV would be ad free with great quality programming, and it was… for a brief time. Advertising on Netflix? Stay tuned.

Dealing with Spectrum requires dogged determination. I called and spoke to an account representative and reduced my service to internet only. I could have likely completed this on the website, but it was not entirely clear to me how to accomplish the task. The phone seemed the only option. Now I know why. The call involved nearly 40 minutes in various stages of hold patterns and over 30 minutes of actual conversation. Finally, my cable service was gone, leaving internet only and netting me nearly $100 a month in my pocket. The agent instructed me to simply unplug the DVR and return it to a Spectrum store. There’s one nearby and I could just drop it off.

So, I went to “just drop it off.” I was not advised that I should call the store and make an appointment. I was number 12 in line and most people did not have an appointment. Twenty minutes later I was still number 12. At approximately 40 minutes, somehow, I had dropped down to number 13. I was listening to a podcast and the episode, at 43 minutes in length, seemed like it should get me to the service desk. No so.

The staff are exceedingly nice. Well trained to keep smiling, try to solve problems and sell, sell, sell. Most of my conversation on the phone was about various ways to lower my bill and keep me as a cable customer. When I finally reached the bottom of the sales ladder and I remained uninterested, the agent jumped to offering mobile service. At the Spectrum store, I was not getting out of there without the same mobile pitch.

As nice as the people truly are, the user experience stinks. I’m certain I would have been at the store much longer than 1 hour and 45 minutes were it not for the fact that a great number of the people (appointments or not) simply gave up and left. Customer retention through attrition.

Customer experience design is brand engagement. All the shiny, happy service agents in the world will not make up for a poorly designed brand experience. Why would I buy mobile service from a brand that demonstrates such little regard for my time?

A brand is more than a name or logo, a brand is an exchange in value.

Constraint was a formidable ingredient in the creation of a film I made in college. The film was a visually driven story of my childhood haunts on Long Island including the beaches, boats, foggy harbors, and associated sounds. From rushing winds and crashing waves, to the song of the gulls and the rocking and creaking of boats, it was poetic expression. The musical sound track I chose was an open hole flute orchestration by the legendary Sir James Galway. The breathy sound of the flute seemed the perfect voice to tell the story.

There were no actors, but I’ll suggest the camera was the character. My work with the camera exploring and observing these locations at all times of day helped me craft the story. I used an 8MM Kodak camera with a wind-up mechanical drive and no audio. It was a family camera, and all I could afford. I had enough cash for 4 rolls of color film and processing. My audio recording device was a portable cassette machine.

Hitting various locations at the best light and multiple days, I had to carefully apportion my film stock. I limited myself to 3 rolls, saving the 4th for additional shooting that might be needed.

Editing involved working at an edit table jammed under a staircase in a school hallway. I made the set-up work to my advantage. The bottom of the stairs over my head were a perfect place to hang the various pieces of film as I cut and arranged the edit. I worked out a system using the lower stairs, right over my head, for the beginning scenes and worked my way up for the final scenes on the higher stairs. In this way, I could work out the cut and remain organized.

Once I had a cut I liked, I got to work on the audio; this was particularly challenging. I worked out a system with my limited gear using multiple tape players to build the audio. It was a nightmare. For distant sounds, the player volume was lowered, and I even moved the machine doing the recording further away. In this way, I built a recording of all the atmospheric sounds in time to the cut and the music. This involved countless attempts before it all fell together. It wasn’t perfect but it worked well enough.

In the final screening, I had to hit play on the projector and the tape deck at precisely different times for the cues to hit as planned. I worked out a syncopated countdown in my head and practiced it over and over until it was second nature.

The day of the screening, miraculously, it all came together. The visuals and audio in perfect sync; more or less. In a moment of failed judgement, I left a corny end scene in place. The words “The End” written in the sand being washed away by a succession of waves. I still cringe.

Constraint is a powerful motivation in creativity and innovation. One of the purposes of a brand brief or project brief is to outline the challenge, the constraint…the problem to be solved. Constraint is our partner in creativity, not something to be bemoaned but embraced.

To quote Bob Dylan, “No one is free, even the birds are chained to the sky.”

 

The author generated the image for this post utilizing OpenAI’s large scale image generation model Dall-e 2. The words used by the author to generate the image; flying bird in a sky made of chains. The author reviewed the image before posting and agrees it reflects the input and accepts responsibility of its publication.

Naming is one of the most important things you can do for your brand. A great name is memorable, easy to say, relatively short, and helps to position your brand in the hearts and minds of the consumer. A descriptive name can also evoke the brand promise. In other words, what problem does the brand solve in the lives of the consumer.

The Fresh Market is a great brand name. It checks all the boxes, and the instore experience largely lives up to the suggested promise.

What happens when the strawberries are moldy?  The promise is broken. As a consumer who do I blame, the producer or the purveyor?

The strawberries certainly looked good in the store. Red, ripe, and juicy. Turns out this was just the top layer of berries. Almost every other berry in the box were moldy. Do the berries on the bottom always mold up faster than the ones on the top? Were the moldy ones intentionally placed lower down in the container?

As a consumer my choices are limited. Drive back to the store and demand a refund or toss them in the garbage, which is ultimately what I did. It’s a hassle and time consuming to make another trip to the market and with the cost of gas these days I’m consolidating my errands.

The Fresh Market is a promise to customers. When a brand does not live up to its promise, it breaks a bond with the customer, opening the door to competition.

A brand is a living, organic experience and allowing it to get moldy is not good stewardship.

Block, Light, Rehearse, Shoot.

It’s happened before, technology democratizes an industry and craft suffers before it rises again. There is a rash of technique over substance. We need a conscious return to the craft of story in the creation and execution of brand ideas.

The art of the story must be paramount to the art of the production. Thanks to the internet, there exists an insatiable desire for content. And thanks to the democratization of the technologies of content creation, everyone with a camera and a zoom recorder is suddenly a producer.

Content is delegitimizing advertising.

The skill and creativity of the story teller, not necessarily the gear involved, is one of the prime ingredients in the craft. In the right hands, the appropriate gear has the potential to make a great story that much stronger in execution. In and of itself, all the gear in the world will not make a better story. Flying cameras, movement for the sake of movement, outrageous POV shots are often senseless and usually add expense. If not integral to the telling, these production hijinks are significant distractions from your brand idea. In a very real sense these distractions cost you twice. The essential skills of blocking in support of the scene, lighting supports the performance and rehearsing action that will deliver the intended emotion seem to be a lost art in the world of brand content.

All the technical expertise in the world will not make a bad story better.

Most production companies are not built like agencies; most are built for episodic engagements, not brand stewardship. Building and safeguarding your brand story takes a long-term view, it takes insight and planning and strategy and great creative ideas, smartly executed. This is the work of brand agencies.

Today there is a profusion of production companies that have technical skill because the technology has made it much easier to look and sound good.  Technical skill does not make them effective at decoding your story. A direct engagement with a production company may make your marketing budget look cheaper on paper but the long-term cost may be significant.

Insight driven strategy liberates creativity.

Really good agencies know this, and really good clients know this too. Really good production companies know this and expect to partner with brand agencies. A great commercial director wants to understand your brand and its audience and she wants to partner with your agency. This is where your brand agency insight and executional expertise will guide the production team and help them tell your brand idea in the most compelling way.

This is the work of producing content; to tell your brand idea, and it is why brand agencies employ creative directors, writers, art directors, strategists and producers, to define your brand idea.  And then in partnership with the director working to a clear idea, shot by shot, adding and building scenes, intention upon intention, the entire production is aligned with the purpose of your brand.

This is the craft of vocal pictures.

Part of my work at Skidmore College as the F. William Harder Chair Professor of Business Administration includes the recruitment and production of an annual lecture.

Each year, a speaker is recruited and asked to present to the students a topic within their areas of interest and expertise. This year, it was me.

The link to the lecture: https://vimeo.com/557756796

If you’re working in the industry, it’s important to keep in mind that the audience for this presentation are students. The age range is 18-22. Their context as young adults is a world in which they have never known anything other than digital media and social media. To draw out the importance of this context, I will point out here that as part of the boomer generation I grew up with TV. I never knew a world without TV. My parents, part of the silent generation, grew up with radio; TV for them was a transformative technology. For my generation, digital has been a transformative technology. For these students, generation Z, digital is nothing new at all. However, their challenge is gaining some perspective, not simply on the past but also about where we are today and, if I did a decent job, suggestions to motivate their own work and understanding going forward.

This is academic work and is shared here in that context for that purpose. The work used to illustrate the presentation were derived from various sources, most of it my own, some of it sourced from various on-line resources available to the public. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this lecture was delivered virtually.

I hope you find it insightful.

A brand is a problem solved. It’s as simple and as vexing as that. The obstacle for the customer is the obstacle for the brand.

The vexing part comes in creating a differentiating idea that clearly positions the brand as the most appealing solution to the customer problem. In highly competitive markets, the challenge is even greater, especially if the market is a category that is already over-served, such as beverage. (Excuse the pun.)

Carving out a competitive and meaningful brand proposition for a beverage brand requires insight that resonates with the emotional needs of your audience.

All brands must satisfy an emotional thirst.

Of course, if it is a beverage, it must taste good, ideally with a singular flavor profile different from the competition. Additionally, it will benefit from some unique graphic design and packaging to help drive consumer understanding of its unique qualities. A great campaign that breaks through and tells the idea remains essential. But these aspects are table stakes in the land of brand creation and differentiation.

The consumer mindset is the single most important context in the lived experience of the brand. In meetings about branding, discussion of customer feelings often generate less attention and hand-wringing than the typography and color palette. These things are easier to talk about because they are tangible, while consumer feelings can remain an enigma.

Feelings are messy things. Often not entirely clear and variable as they are, they present an obstacle to assurity.

All clients want assurance, which is one reason we now have scads of market research. The digitization of quantitative methods has achieved unfathomable scale and mirrors the scale of robotic ad placement. Like the proverbial Gordian Knot, it’s just too much of a good thing. Offering little in the way of deep emotional insight, this data does offer assurance. Or at least the appearance of assurance.  It has always been a wonderful backstop to qualitative insight, but alone, it avoids the obstacle.

The obstacle is the path to big ideas that stick.

La Marca shoes for French Vogue, photography Guy Bourdin. This is a campaign I worked on in the early 80’s. Mr. Bourdin, projected his image onto a black and white TV, then made another image. We double up the image to create a spread. Classic black and white aesthetic, French style and clever art direction too…magnifique!

I have always enjoyed working in fashion, mostly because I love working with and making images. Fashion is challenging in unique ways, not highly conceptual in the traditional sense of advertising ideas but highly conceptual as a representation of an emotional need, the clothing, the fashion… is the idea, it is the mood, the attitude, the projection, the persona. The job of the fashion creative director, art director and photographer is to avoid over art directing the ad. We must elevate the work, that is the fashion, without competing with it for attention. It is a subtle balancing act that might best be described as restrained sophistication.