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.

The show is about 45 minutes in length, during which 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 into 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.  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

As humans we are hard-wired to see and appreciate beauty.

The impact of beauty has been studied and proven countless times. There is nothing like a beautiful face to garner our attention; one look online or on TV or in a print publication proves beauty is an effective tool of advertisers.

Our fundamental appreciation of beauty has also been studied by neuroscience. As creatures, we are inclined to beauty and increasingly, that appreciation of beauty is being understood to go well beyond a pretty face.

The appreciation of beauty in everyday life, from landscapes, to sunsets, to kittens, puppy dogs and the astral skies, all hold common appeal. Beauty amazes us in nature and in the products and services we enjoy as well.

Manufacturers that understand the power of beauty use great design from end-to-end; from the simplicity and elegance of a well-conceived user experience to the shape and form of a physical product and how it functions, to the design of their brand mark and print materials too. This appreciation of beauty extends to all manner of content creation from the quality of the images they create to the voice, tonality and simplicity of the written and spoken word.

Nothing extraneous that will diminish the beauty of their conception is allowed. By example, think Apple, think Dyson, think Audi, think 3M. Beautiful design works beautifully.

Ugly, poorly designed products and services end up in the dollar store of our appreciation. Well-conceived, imaginative and well-executed design work elevates all aspects of a brand, the most important of which is consumer appreciation.

Defining this beauty means starting with insight into the desires and needs of the intended users. It also means establishing a beauty language for your brand, a unique and appealing design vernacular that informs all that you produce.

Beautiful ideas, beautifully executed. These ideas Head for The Heart.