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.

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.

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.

Ken Zane’s show  Art Buyer For Hire is about 45 minutes in length. During the show we touch on a range of topics from idea development, to execution and agency culture too. While I was chief creative officer of Palio I hired Ken in the role of art buyer-producer. It was an important moment for both of us as it signaled a new level of growth for the agency and another chapter in Ken’s amazing career.

The title of Art Buyer is a bit of a misnomer, the role is  really about identifying and collaborating with talented artists.

Even this description falls far short of the many facets of the role. Building meaningful relationships with the artists as well as the agency internal team is essential to the task. Being a good people person is a requirement, as is being a strong listener and excellent communicator. Helping both parties collaborate effectively is another key skill. The actual buying of the art, the terms and price are, in my view, secondary to the primary task of delivering a great agency product. Ken Zane has an amazing eye and is a talented photographer in his own right. With significant background in the arts, Ken is able to quickly bring visual reference for color, composition and style into alignment in support of the work.

In short, Ken elevates the work with unwavering support for the vision of the team.

I hope you enjoy it. Click here for the show.

Smart Brand Managers are forever scrutinizing the value they are gaining from their agencies.

The ad industry is forever trying to accurately respond to the old quip, attributed to John Wannamaker, “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Recently, Marc Pritchard of Unilever announced their “People First” initiative. As stated in CampaignLive; “a structure in which talent from roster agencies across holding groups are brought together under one roof to service the FMCG giant’s North American fabric care business.”

This is a client doing everything he can to unlock value from these relationships for his brands. Multiple agencies, multiple brands, massive media spend, redundancy and not enough of a payoff; or at least that’s what we can infer from the directive.

I don’t know Marc Pritchard, but really appreciate his efforts not to throw the baby out with the bath water. In the article he talks about bringing all the various agency creative together as a new model effort to find value by uniting the agencies in one collaborative effort.

I’ve run huge global brand development sessions with agency partners and client brand teams from all over the world. The largest initiative included participants from 16 countries. The approach can work miracles in ideation and equally important in getting everyone on the same page. Getting everyone on the same page with a big brand idea requires great talent in the room, a hugely collaborative effort, and egos left behind.

Believe it or not, it is rarely the creatives who do not play well with others.

The minute the big idea is agreed, it’s the agency business leads who start tearing at the budget like lions on a kill. Unless a client is willing to address the budget and compensation in an equally unilateral manner, it is very tough to make the collaboration stick.

I’ve worked on both Unilever and P&G brands and these are smart people with massive resources and still they are struggling to realize the promised value in the age of “new media.”

A big culprit is the industries’ addiction to its own hype.

The ad industry did not invent Google, or Facebook or any of the other super creative things that are reshaping the world; all we do is figure out how to monetize these things to our advantage and now clients are finally asking; How do all these exciting pieces of content you create make me money and build my brand?  Clearly there is benefit; but how much return is in that investment?  Spending less on creative and eliminating this redundancy is helpful to a brand if all the collaboration works out; but this is a client-driven attempt to solve an industry problem. We need to get better; showing and proving our value in context of the media and not just the execution itself.

Possibly one of the worst things to have happened in the advertising industry is when media was cleaved off from the agencies and became independent. It is not a matter of church and state; it is a matter of execution of ideas, and ideas cannot be separated from the media that gives voice to their expression.

Blockchain could save the media environment for brands. There has been much written about how blockchain might result in greater transparency in media buying and tracking. If it all works as conceived, it will also be a boon for content creators, enabling direct engagement with audiences and direct payment too. This has the potential to put more leverage back on the side of creators like musicians, film makers, photographers, writers and journalists too. The early interest in NFT’s point to success. Time will tell.

Blockchain has potential to minimize fake news and level set social media.

This is particularly important for brands. Of course, the success of any given blockchain at minimizing fake news will entirely depend on the integrity of its creators and managers. It could just as easily be used to legitimize fake news and fake news sources.

For legacy media outlets, with legitimate journalistic integrity, like the NY Times, fake news is rarely, if ever, an issue. Ads served in this context are elevated by the integrity of the enterprise.

In social media, brands end up in the unchecked context of the user; uncorroborated reporting, fabricated events and misinformation.

Corroborated reporting is a hallmark of journalistic integrity.

Blockchain has the potential to force down a governance of integrity through corroboration and help social platforms maintain social integrity. In effect, this would give brand managers and media buyers leverage, insight and security.

This would also reward journalistic integrity of the blockchain with greater ad volume and minimize fake news, slowly choking off its source of income. Fake news has become a game that is undermining our culture. Advertisers on social platforms have an obligation to uphold the integrity of media environments because there is so much at risk.

Fake news is a not just a race to the bottom, it is the bottom.

Brand marks  are invested with symbolism; meaning derived from perceived value, ambition and aspiration too. On this 4th of July I thought it would be interesting to start with a consideration of Uncle Sam; a representation of the U.S. Government. The creation and evolution of Uncle Sam is an interesting story about which much has been written. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction but one thing is certain, the illustration created by artist Montgomery Flagg is a hit. This rendering was used to promote the idea of being ready and prepared for war. World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Sadly, there is never really an end to war and persecution and the excuses used to justify it all. Right or wrong, the symbol of Uncle Sam became a call-to-arms which found its inspiration in the 1914 Alfred Leete illustration from England used in a WW I recruitment poster.

openness, compassion

Columbia, symbol of the people of the America

Uncle Sam’s better half, known as Columbia, famously depicted by Paul Stahr ca. 1917-18, named to honor the legacy of Columbus, went on to inspire the naming of countless organizations, including Columbia University as well as Columbia pictures, which later took the lovely lady as a symbol of its own. You’ll notice a strong resemblance to Lady Liberty, the grand statue itself a gift to the people of the U.S. from the people of France. The Statue was designed by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel and dedicated on October 28, 1886.

In the painting of Columbia, we are quite literally taken in by her open arms and compassionate and sincere expression. Columbia was said to represent the people of the Americas. The Statue of Liberty holds a tablet with the Roman inscription of July 4, 1776; testament to our declaration of independence. Broken chains lay at her feet, a beacon for all the world to see, a symbol of independence and freedom at the entrance to NY Harbor. Her torch held high, welcoming immigrants from all over the world. The statue was also inspired by the Roman Goddess, Libertas.

The fabric of America

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
— Emma Lazarus

It should not be surprising that women are used to represent openness, liberty and freedom while men are depicted as aggressive, directive and controlling. We are ourselves symbols. Check out the early illustration by Thomas Nast from Harpers Weekly of Uncle Sam having Thanksgiving dinner with immigrants from all over the world, this tells the story of America at its best. The world at its best.

At a time when the U.S. and perhaps much of the rest of the world seem on a path of isolationism, it would do us good to remember the power of symbolism.

The U.S. welcomes immigrants from all over the world

Uncle Sam, having dinner with immigrants

America’s most important export is our culture. For centuries, the promise of America has inspired countless millions to risk it all in pursuit of freedom, openness and inclusiveness. We seem to be forgetting, the meaning of America, of liberte’.

What will you export today? Perhaps you can start with a welcoming smile.

Start your day smiley

The originally smiley face, created by graphic artist Harvey Ball made legend by millions of buttons and now emoji too