Thursday, December 01, 2016
With it all over but the inauguration, Donald Trump is now the 45th President of the United States. I know, not everyone likes to hear that, but that's the way it's going into the books. At the time of this writing, there are still a lot of holdouts fomenting recounts and Electoral College mutinies. I expect all that will subside by the Rose Bowl's half-time show.
The year of 2016 was exciting, for sure. But I'm a branding guy. To me, this stuff is already history. I'm looking out at the horizon, straining to see what lies ahead. And from where I'm sitting, it's already beginning to look fairly amusing. Indulge me on this.
I don't care if you're conservative or liberal: Any way you look at it, the Democrats got flattened in 2016, losing the House of Representatives, the Senate and more than likely, any voice in filling vacancies on the Supreme Court. The big enchilada, of course, was their "shocking" loss of the presidency, but from the 100,000 foot view, the real sea change was the long-awaited delivery of the internet's promise. Outspent and outnumbered, Republicans -- Trump in particular -- leveraged social media even better than Obama did in 2008.
That was only the second half of the change, however. The first half occurred earlier in the year, as the United Kingdom roundly rejected the European Union, spectacularly defeating globalism while reclaiming its cultural and economic sovereignty. "Brexit" was, as they say, huge, a tremendous -- and possibly the most important -- boost not only to the Trump effort, but to the realization that the internet really can move millions of individuals to action. By utilizing the intricate channels of social media, the public actually felt as though it was really participating actively. All of a sudden, people weren't simply reading about the news; they were discussing it, adding to it and re-igniting political passions on which they'd long past given up for dead. For the first time, people really felt their voices were being heard -- whether they actually were or not.
In short, for the first time in decades, the concept of possibility became more real than ever before. With the United Kingdom, that meant the European wasn't indomitable. In America, it meant any boy really can grow up to be President.
This is where it gets really fun.
From where I sit, the rebirth of possibility is what the next four years will be all about. With the Democrats having no place to go but up, and Donald Trump's victory reaffirming the concept of wide open possibility, there's a real chance that the next Democratic candidates for president will be Donald Trump knock-offs. Prepare yourself for a host of beauty contestants, each one a CEO or such "stepping down to pursue personal interests," as they parade past the judges in search of political support.
Think it can't happen? It's already started. At the moment, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, has conveniently stepped down as CEO on December 1, 2016, and is not exactly vehemently denying his political interests. Schultz leans left and has never vigorously opposed the idea of seeking public office. In fact, he's gotten burned more often than French Roast for his attempts to drag coffee into politics. As for ego, there's plenty of it in the tank, and like many successful people, I'm sure he believes that if he can make a few billion dollars selling coffee, he can do anything. Maybe he can. At this point, the only thing of which we can be certain is that we're going to be seeing more of him -- and he won't be hawking java.
What can we take away from this? Maybe nothing. But more likely, if the world is anything as I imagine, we'll spend the next year or two watching more rich commoner Democrats thinking that if Trump can do it, so can they. Watch for more CEOs, along with famous non-politicos dipping their toes into the political waters. Watch it happen even faster if the French decide to exit the European Union. It's going to be like when the first automobiles were invented and nobody knew if steamers, gas engines or wood-powered vehicles were going to dominate the market.
These are historic times. Not since the turn of the twentieth century, when the bulk of political power transferred from monarchies to republics, have we witnessed so much change happening to so many people in so little time.
Get ready, America. Grab your popcorn. The beauty contest is about to begin.
Thursday, November 10, 2016
No Experience Necessary
So here's some good news: the presidential election of 2016 is over. Donald Trump won. Hillary Clinton lost. Which means there's nothing in this piece even remotely calculated to persuade you as to how to cast your vote. Nothing. What you will find, however, are a few non-partisan observations that, like Trump's victory, nobody sees coming.
And the best part is that all of them are good, no matter who you voted for.
The first observation is something I can relate to because I've been an independent consultant for a long time. Whenever I interview prospective clients, they invariably ask me the same questions, including the infamous, "Do you have experience in our field?" It sounds like a reasonable question, but it's not, in fact, an appropriate one, because while a certain amount of familiarity is definitely an asset before plunging into a situation, it's the very lack of experience that allows an outsider to recognize flaws and opportunities to which lifers have become either blind or immune. Thomas Edison famously acknowledged this when derided about his eighth grade education. The lack of a higher education, he maintained, freed him from the constraints of dogmatic thinking. He was able to see alternative solution and create thousands of inventions by not thinking in traditional modes.
It's pretty much the same thing in my own career. I don't need to know the intricate details of threaded fasteners or how to write a million lines of code. I need to know just enough to spot a flaw and improve output. And since I'm not a lifer, I have no allegiance in corporate legacy or fear of political reprisal. Many are the times I've challenged "We've always done it this way" with "And that's why you're losing money." That's when the client accepts my recommendation and we turn the business profitable.
The second observation is that young people everywhere should be thrilled with the notion that the world still offers them possibilities, no matter how little experience they have. Who among us hasn't trudged out of a job interview having been rejected solely because "you don't have the experience?" Remember saying to yourself, "I can do this job, if they just gave me a chance?" You never doubted you could prove your naysayers wrong. And remember that time when someone, somewhere looked you in the eye, smiled and said, "I know you've never done this before, but there's something about you that tells me you'd be a natural at this"? If anything, this election shows that experience isn't everything, but hard work, endless energy and the will to succeed can drive you to your goal and win it.
A third observation is reserved for some of our older friends. Forget what you think about Trump for a minute and focus on the fact that the man has never held public office (neither did the Founding Fathers, Ulysses Grant or Dwight Eisenhower, for that matter) and now holds the highest public office in the land. That's pretty good. But I suspect that in the wee hours of the morning, many people imagine what they would do if they were president, only to comfort themselves that "I don't have the political connections to run for office."
Well, I guess that myth just blew apart. Trump not only didn't get any active Republican support, he actually got active Republican opposition. He had no political connections, but lots of political enemies, fueled mostly by -- dare I say it -- jealousy.
Yet I find something positive even in that jealousy. The fact that there is no longer any excuse -- other than your own self-doubt -- for not pursuing your goal, and now a guy you're not so crazy about just proved it. You may not like it, but that very jealousy confirms both opportunity and possibility are still very much alive in the United States and that every kid really can grow up to be President. That's important to you and me, but it's critical to our kids and everyone who has left the work force due to the last eight years of rejections.
You don't believe that, do you? Well, you don't have to. Not yet. But come the twentieth of January, you may just have to.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Let's Not Go To Mars
So it's a slow day and I'm talking with one of my sons, who brings up Elon Musk's latest presentation on how we humans are going to colonize Mars. It's a fascinating subject, I admit, but at one point in the conversation, my son asked me if I'd ever want to go to Mars. My answer was simple and direct:
Why the f*ck would I ever want to go to Mars?
I admit, it's difficult enough to get me out of the house for a quick dinner, so it should come as no surprise that journeying to a distant planet is not exactly my idea of a good time. More to the point, I cannot for any good reason, fathom why anyone needs to venture to Mars.
Spare me the misty-eyed romanticism of a Star Trek soliloquy. I get the whole image of boldly going where no man has gone before and all that stuff. I understand what's being sold to the public, because every other movie trailer is chock full of CGI effects that make space travel seem fun, adventurous and somewhat easy.
But there's a huge disparity between what's being sold to you and what's really going to happen if and when we ever try to slip the surly bonds of Earth for the red planet. Let me explain:
Historically, human exploration has never been anything more than man's fulfillment of self-interest. Fish crawled out of the slimy ooze looking for better food and hairy apes migrated to cooler climes for better weather. I get that. But if you know your history, after that, virtually all human migration surpasses mere self-interest, and is propelled by commercial enterprise.
Remember discovering the New World? Do you still buy into legends of the pilgrims motivated by religious freedom? Or have you grown up to accept that there were truckloads of money to be made exploiting a whole continent overflowing with raw materials? The expeditions into North America, Asia, Central and South America were launched by governments and public and private companies, like the Dutch East India Company. I promise you, none of those entities recruited, paid and sacrificed their crews for the romantic notion of human expansion. These guys all wanted their cut of the loot, no matter where they had to go or who they had to kill when they got there.
Going to Mars is no different, except there's nobody there to kill. Believe me, you and I and your grandchildren aren't going to be making reservations at the Asteroid Hilton any time soon. The first humans on the moon won't even be human, they'll be corporations like Google, SpaceX and Amazon, each carving out its territory as part of its deal with the government as private contractors, probably for mineral rights, because in case you haven't noticed, nothing grows on Mars.
Think about this for a second. As far as we know, Mars has only two things to welcome your ship when it lands: Rocks and a poisonous atmosphere. That's it. Even if you brought the wife and kids, there'd be no place to go and nothing to do other than die of asphyxiation, which you could do just as easily here on Earth without having to pay for the space travel.
Of course, there are those who believe that some day, Mars will be made habitable in the way they did it in one of those Star Trek movies, but I wouldn't bet the pension fund on it. If you're going to place bets according to movies, you're probably a lot better off going with the first version of Total Recall, where everything that lives survives under an airtight dome of artificially oxygenated air. And even then you wouldn't enjoy it because you'd constantly be worrying about some terrorist sabotaging a leak in the system.
Sound like fun to you? Not me. My heart goes out to those knuckleheads who fall for that whole idea of colonization, because the first five generation of Mars colonists aren't even going to be tourists. They're going to be construction workers and contractors, just like the ones who don't show up on time to remodel your bathroom. They'll have two jobs: Build the machines owned by the corporate sponsors and fix the the machines owned by the corporate sponsors when they break.
Don't get me wrong, I thought landing a moon was a magnificent achievement, possibly the only moment in history when the entire planet really was brought together. But people forget that before, during and after the moon landing, the Vietnam War continued to rage and thousands of humans went right back to their everyday jobs, carpools and PTA meetings.
Sure, the government will tout how NASA's moon program is responsible for microwave ovens, digital clocks, pocket calculators and Tang® the astronauts' orange drink. And I suppose there's value in that. I just don't see how peering through a telescope and finding nothing but rocks is going to gain any of us anything.
Unless, of course, we see someone peering back.
Thursday, September 08, 2016
You're Not That Important
I'm pretty sure it was Karl Marx who opined that "religion is the opiate of the masses." Since those days, the consuming public has a lot more choice when it comes to opiates. There's television. Music. The internet. But more than anything, I'd crown personal techno-vanity as the all-time champion.
By personal techno-vanity, I mean all those useless gadgets, data and devices that allow you to monitor activities that carry no real importance to anyone, anywhere, at any time. There are pricey apps that monitor every step you take and there are expensive wrist devices that track them. For a modest monthly fee, the app will send and store your data someplace on the cloud so that you can retrieve and analyze it at any time of the day or night.
The question, however, is why would you want to?
I've got no quarrel with phones and devices that make you more communicative and productive with other people. I'm a big fan of those. The stuff that gets me scratching my head is the paraphernalia that does little other than promote an unhealthy level of self-absorption. Do you really need an app to remind you not to lock your kids in a hot car? How fast your heart beats? Your core body temperature? What are you really going to get out of monitoring your body mass index other than -- possibly -- bragging rights with the righteous dudes at the sports bar?
I know people who run. I know people who swim. I know people who lift, bro. What I don't know is why they make such a big deal out of it, or why they require little wrist devices to enslave them.
Actually, I do know why. It's because companies like Apple and Nike have discovered that vanity is the opiate of the masses. They know that you not only love yourself, you practically worship yourself. And if they bolster that illusion of self-importance by creating pointless hardware and software, you're going to spend all kinds of money in an effort of believing that you really are that important.
Newsflash: You're not that important.
Oh, I know that in this age of social justice warriors and snowflakes and participation trophies you might think you're something special, but you're not and neither is all that extraneous data you're hoarding. Have to watch your blood pressure? Your glucose levels? Okay, I get that. But wirelessly linking your smart phone to your shoes? Really?
And if that's not enough, what's the deal with running triathlons and Iron Man competitions? What's everyone trying to prove to everyone else? How much do you really need to bulk up? A host of millennial brands perpetuate these worthless pursuits, featuring fitness models running through the countryside while everyone else is at the office making a living and paying bills. The truth is that these fictitious fitness freaks never had to buy fitness equipment or use supplements or software to get in shape -- they're all in their twenties. They were born that way.
But don't tell that to brands like Bowflex, who prefer you believe that being cut is what every fifty year old really wants to be, when I'd venture to say that what the average fifty year old really wants is to be left the hell alone so he can order a piece of cheesecake without having to endure a lecture about cholesterol and triglycerides.
There was a time when people worked and played. And that's all they did. Nobody felt the need to analyze data from the family picnic or check a website for the precise moment high tide rushed up on the beach. There was a time when you could have a good time just to have a good time. You could run because you loved the way fresh grass felt on the soles of your bare feet. There was no time target. No personal best. It just felt good.
So relax. Unplug. You're not that important, despite what you think the data indicates.
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
I get a fair number of people writing to me, both online and off, about all kinds of issues. Most of the time, they're brand-related topics, although like this blog, some of those topics stretch the very bounds of "tangential." I am surprised, however, at one deficit common to so many of them:
Mind you, the people with whom I engage are not uneducated in the general sense. They run the gamut, from high schoolers to post-graduates. Some are intuitively brilliant; others incredibly motivated and disciplined. So it's not that they're stupid or naive. They're simply not educated about how money, finance, business and the economy works. They lack critical thinking skills.
It's not completely their fault. Try finding a middle school, high school, college or even a graduate school that teaches people how to think critically or actually do business. I'm not talking about that useless crap that passes as a "business education," like Introduction to Accounting 101." I'm talking about the drive, the initiative, the critical thinking and decision-making that propels people into business success. And don't get fooled by "entrepreneurship" classes, either. They may show you the lay of the land, but not how to successfully navigate it.
To see what I mean, try Frankel's Financial Literary Test yourself or on any of your peers. It's really simple. One question:
What would you do with $1,000?
The top answers are usually, "I'd buy something nice for my Mom," followed by, "I'd buy something nice for my Dad." After that, you may hear, "I'd buy something really nice for myself," and occasionally, "I'd pay down my credit card."
The correct answer is, "I'd see how fast I could turn it into two thousand." If you hear anything else, you've lost.
It's a mind set thing. And this is why just about every MBA I meet is so thoroughly disappointing. Sure, they know how to read a balance sheet and a financial statement, but rarely know how to do the one thing that drives business success: spot and exploit an opportunity.
One reason why so many people have so little money is because, let's face it, it's been a tough economy since 2008. But lots of people have managed to succeed even during these tough times, not because they were connected or privileged , but because they not only knew how to recognize opportunities, they actually hunted them.
Prior to America's Great Softening in the 1970s, the top rated characteristic of Americans was self-reliance. The vast majority of citizens took pride in the notion that if they didn't kill, they didn't eat. Everyone, sporting the bluest blue or whitest white collar took pride is his ability to seek out opportunity, and once found, exploit it to his advantage. It's how he provided for himself and his family.
That's only half the equation, however.
The second part of financial literacy comes about after success, when questions arrive as to what can be done with the proceeds of success. Once again, Frankel's Financial Literary Test comes into play. I'm impressed by the number of people who have no idea what to do with their money after they've made it. Prominent citizens -- not just students fresh out of college -- have no idea how entrepreneurial investment, the stock market, bonds, fiscal or monetary policies affect them. The same laziness that likely landed them in their corporate law firms prompts them to turn over their earnings to financial managers whose only real talents are in herding "easy money" clients into company-created mutual funds. The very same funds, by the way, that take the hardest hits when the economy goes south.
Especially at the time of this writing, there are no simple answers for "reliable income" or "financial security." And despite the free seminars being offered on TV and radio, there are no courses that provide "survival skills" for the financially illiterate. You can teach people how to flip houses, but you can't teach them motivation. You can only convey the importance of recognizing opportunity.
It's the foundation on which successful lives -- and successful countries -- are built.
Saturday, August 20, 2016
The Truth About Online Ads
If you subscribe to my blog, you know I spend a fair amount of time touching on issues that are tangential to branding. That's because branding - despite what every other "authority" might tell you -- is really just about harnessing human behavior in order to increase your bottom line.
Let's face it: Why even bother with branding if it doesn't enhance your profitable revenue?
This time out, I'm hitting closer to home, answering the often-asked-but-never-answered tactical question, "Does online advertising really work?" The short answer is yes. And no. The correct answer is, "It depends." And here's the real-life data I have to back it up for you.
If you're going to commit to advertising your product or service, the first decision you have to make is whether your offering is a solution or a lifestyle issue. I'd define a solution as a definitive remedy to an immediate problem, whereas a lifestyle issue is less an immediate solution than it is an elective purchase. Finding a plumber to fix your leaking pipes is an immediate solution; purchasing a box of chocolates is more of an elective lifestyle decision.
This is a major variation on the traditional methods used by advertising agencies to plan and buy media for clients, because in the past, most ad buying was determined by demographics, targeting audiences by quantifiable data such as gender, age, education and geography. If you can put a number on it, demographics was the way to go. As media flourished, however, psychographics have become even more important, focusing on wants and needs. After all, if you're selling maple syrup, you can be either gender, any age, with any education in any part of the world. The only qualification is your love of maple syrup.
Before I get too far into it, let me add one more caveat: Ad agencies are very fond of "generating awareness" as an worthwhile goal. And while it's true that people have to know about your product before they can buy it, awareness alone is worth nothing. In fact, the worst case is when everyone knows about your brand but nobody buys it. Awareness that produces no revenue is merely a trajectory to complete failure.
In my own little corner of the world, I've tested both approaches with products/services of my own. I figure my own pontification is just that more credible if I've played with my own money, so here's the deal:
My findings (and I'll bear this out with numbers for you) is that solutions do well with Google AdWords while lifestyle purchases do best with Facebook and, to a far lesser extent, Twitter. Here are the two projects I've tested. If you know me, you already know them. But if you're new here, they are as follows:
OneDayDecisions.com is an online settlement service that allows anyone in America to avoid small claims court by settling and paying out any monetary dispute by simply going online. It's a disrupter. It does for small claims disputes what PayPal did for payments. It's cheaper, faster and more efficient than any small claims, arbitration or mediation. OneDayDecisions.com is clearly a solution. The only people who would need it are people who need to resolve an immediate situation that's happening right now.
When people need a solution to a problem, they don't hang around scrolling through Facebook or Twitter. They do what you and I do when we have a problem: They Google the problem in search of a solution. That's exactly how the numbers play out for OneDayDecisions.com: Neither Facebook nor Twitter did anything to move the needle on site activity or even visits, because nobody scrolls through their feeds looking for solutions to problems they're not immediately facing.
Google AdWords, on the other hand, is like Facebook/Twitter's evil twin. If you subscribe to my definition of branding being "perceived by prospects as the only solution to their problem," you need only consider what situation prospects experience to search Google for your offered solution. In this case, our Google AdWords ad appears when our prospects find themselves threatened by some sort of court or collection action. In an industry where a 1% clickthrough rate is considered nominal, OneDayDecisions.com ads generate well over three times that rate -- at the ridiculously low cost of less than 42¢ per visit -- to send qualified prospects our way. That's way better than Facebook, Twitter or even national TV. Google AdWords is the "go to" medium.
But for different products/services, Facebook succeeds where Google flops:
The other project is my latest book, The Artist Who Loved Women: The Incredible Life & Work of Patrick Nagel, the Most Successful & Anonymous Artist of the 1980s. Believe me, it's a great book, but nobody is scanning Google searching for it. Why would they? It's not an immediate problem for them. The book is more of a lifestyle decision, which lands directly in Facebook's wheelhouse. If you haven't noticed, all the political haters, zombie television fans and cat lovers have proven that birds of a feather really do flock together, if only to follow pages and people who endorse and promote their common agenda. Love Trump? Hate Hillary? Feel the Bern? Your age, gender and geography doesn't matter; your common interest does.
For that reason, Facebook allows you to reach people based on those common interests which are more casually experienced. In the case of my book, that means reaching out to art lovers, design people, hipsters and baby boomers (read: fans of the eighties) through Facebook groups devoted to them. As part of its program, Facebook creates a landing page that others can join, which can also direct them to your commercial site. I participate by commenting from the book's Facebook page, so that anyone curious can simply click to the book's Facebook page and then on to either Amazon or the book's website to actually buy the book. And they do. While Google AdWords fails to drive any traffic, Facebook users click through at over 3% -- at only 9¢ per visitor -- and sales are increasing.
If you're still with me, you should know two more things:
First, Twitter is pretty useless, even if you have a decent following. I tested two accounts, one with 2500+ followers and one with 26 followers. Believe it or not, neither produced any discernible sales, but interestingly, the account with 26 followers produced more visitors, simply due to one basic strategy: using hashtags to get other accounts to retweet my posts. Turns out that a generic hashtag will get you retweeted by robots designed specifically to send out updates and build their own followings. So one tweet with the URL TheArtistWhoLovedWomen.com, a graphic of the book's cover and the hashtag #book got retweeted to about 100,000 Twitter accounts. So who really needs a huge following?
Second, Google does a lot of pick up work behind the scenes, meaning its robots are constantly scanning the internet, tracking and listing all your efforts. A simple search for the book's title shows an increasing number of Facebook and Twitter activity and links which I didn't lift a finger to create. The only caveat here is to make sure all your URL links are valid and accurate so that prospects land where you want them to be.
And here you were, thinking I ever do is snark.
Friday, July 22, 2016
Why Comedy Isn't Funny
I was scrolling through another mindless Facebook newsfeed, when I noticed something I found really interesting. Among the screeds of political haters and social justice warriors was a disproportionate batch of video clips and photo memes from comedians, all of which were politically themed. Most of them were snarky. A few were certifiably fake. But none of them, regardless of their agenda, were particularly funny.
Instead of making me laugh, this phenomenon made me wonder. Why is there so much comedy? And why is so much of it just not funny?
Okay, so I'm not a young, millennial hipster. I acknowledge that I am no longer cutting edge (not that I'm sure I ever was). I hail from an age when comedy was a completely different animal, dominated mainly by self-deprecating Jewish men. To this day, the works of Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Alan King, Don Rickles, Henny Youngman, Phil Silvers, Jerry Stiller, Albert Brooks, Garry Marshall -- schtickmeisters of the Golden Age -- still elicit chuckles from me and everyone else who has the motivation to seek them out.
In those days, everyone in the multi-ethnic audience laughed. Today, nobody really does. I think I know why:
First, the whole notion of "funny" has changed. And I'm not rehashing the whole social justice warrior thing. I'm talking about what people now identify as humorous. Sigmund Freud once asserted that humor is actually veiled hostility, citing the fact that unlike every other animal on the planet, humans are the only ones who ostensibly don't show their teeth as an expression of anger. Freud speculated that all humor, therefore, actually is rooted in anger, it's just served up as laughter.
Freud may have been right, considering a majority of what I now see passing as humor is much more akin to harsh rants and endless diatribes about all that's wrong with someone else. Whereas George Burns might have remarked on the adorable, misguided antics of his wife, Gracie Allen, now we watch any stand-up wannabe drone on about how stupid the people are at the DMV. Or the post office. Or in the government. Or at the very next desk where they work.
Today's comedy has also been dumbed down to the low level of education of the audience. Few people know anything about history, world events, art or literature. Were they to launch their act today, I'd bet Monty Python's Flying Circus would never get off the ground. In fact, with the world increasingly atomized by digital technology, everyone lives in his own individual world, unaware that others exist. As such, the comedians' frames of reference has shrunk dynamically to the point that very few common frames of reference can be addressed. Believe me, comedians don't focus on sex because it's edgy; they focus on sex because it's one of the increasingly few topics to which everyone in the audience can relate. As the country dumbs down, there's less relevant material. This is the momentum which powered Jerry Seinfeld's brand of relativistic comedy: Comedy went from people laughing at this is my funny observation to nodding in agreement to have you ever noticed?
Comedy was no longer funny. It became a sense of community which then morphed into factionalism. You either get it or you don't. You're either in or you're out. You're either one of us or you're not.
I also notice that what passes for comedy is often nothing more than petty sniping, offering no solutions to the problems the comedians cite. Even the dark humor of Lenny Bruce not only exposed the folly of narrow-mindedness, but offered up solutions. Today, if you listen closely, comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert offer nothing other than sharp criticisms, but never reveal their true cleverness by going the next step of solution, which would be far funnier, especially if the solution to the problem were simple and sensible.
It's too bad that comedy, like so much else, has deteriorated to the levels it has. But it doesn't come as a complete surprise. Now unzip your pants and enjoy the show.