Can we survive on candy?

Candy dispensers

If only Seth Godin would stop having important things to say, I’d stop referring to him in my blog, Facebook posts and general conversation.

Today he sums up the disastrous dumbing down we are all experiencing all the time. Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to change, if we just pay attention to it.

The decline of thoughtful media has been discussed for a century. This is not new. What is new: A fundamental shift not just in the profit-seeking gatekeepers, but in the culture as a whole.

Clickbait works for a reason. Because people click on it.

The thing about clickbait, though, is that it exists to catch prey, not to inform them. It’s bait, after all.

So? Click this instead.

 

When just one company controls what we see and hear

Seth Godin has written such a clear take on the issue of net neutrality that I was just gonna paste the whole thing here so you wouldn’t have to click to read it all. But that probably violates his copyright and affects traffic on his site. And if there’s one site I want to make sure stays healthy, it’s this guy’s.

So read, then click. Sometimes a middleman (like me) isn’t so terrible…..

The time to think about middlemen is before there’s only one

I grew up near a mall that had 42 shoe stores. If a store didn’t carry what you wanted, it wasn’t a big deal to walk 22 feet to a store that did.

The core issue of net neutrality isn’t whether or not a big corporation ought to have the freedom to maximize profit by choosing what to feature. No, the key issue is: what happens when users are unable to choose a different middleman?

(Read more. You know you want to.)

Sources of creativity

My cousin Paul asked me to send him the names of some books I like that deal with Creativity. Titles that have been particularly helpful to my own creative process. I looked through my bookshelf, and found that, while I have bought a few of these kinds of books, I don’t have very many of them. And I haven’t been terribly inspired by most of those I’ve acquired.

So I started thinking about what books have truly inspired me. And, then, what other activities have stoked my own creativity over the years. This list is anything but definitive. But here’s what comes to mind.

Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step by Dr. Edward de Bono

I heard de Bono speak at a Westweek conference at the Pacific Design Center several decades ago. It was one of the most interesting, simple, inspiring experiences I’ve ever had. I loved his way of talking about the subject of creativity. Totally low-tech — just him doodling on an overhead projector. I bought a couple of his books, including this one, and ended up teaching from them at Art Center. We’d start every class with one of his exercises. It was a fascinating experiment. And I still use his techniques from time to time to jumpstart the creative process.

A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech

This book is somewhat related to Lateral Thinking. It explores all sorts of ways to think creatively in a little less theoretical and perhaps more practical way. To be honest, I’ve read chunks of it, but not the whole book. Good chunks. (But I devoured de Bono.)

Seth Godin: Pretty much anything he writes or talks about

I find Godin incredibly smart yet accessible. Fun to read. Fun to listen to. Full of ideas and new ways of looking at the world around him. He inspires me to see things differently and take nothing for granted.

And creative process development, other than books?

Improv classes

When you’re interacting with other people and making up dialog and situations in real time, you learn something critical: you learn to trust yourself. People are inherently creative. They just censor themselves too quickly. Staying open to the what’s going on in the moment is the trick. Being here. Now. If you’re open, you can see connections quickly. If you’re trusting, you’ll write them down or speak them out before they disappear. And a trusting and trusted partner only adds to the process…and to the fun.

Music

I play blues harmonica. Guitar, too, but the harp is the only thing I play well enough to get into a state of flow. If making music is creative, then improvising is even more so. You have no time to think; you just do it. You listen to the other musicians and to yourself, let the ideas come, and balance it all out so it sounds as good as you can get it right then. When you get too involved in “doing it right” you choke, or you sound rigid and over-controlled. Letting it flow is far more fun and usually sounds better. And if you hit a clinker, well, big deal. In the next moment, it’s gone and you’re making more music. Vocal harmonies are like that, too. You get that buzz, and you create something larger than the sum of its parts.

Museums

Art, natural history, science. All good. All expose different parts of your brain to different stimuli. All of which triggers new ways of looking and new ways of thinking. Travel works the same way.

Forget what you think you know

I think the creative process is this: fill your head with information, then forget it. Your unconscious mind will sift what you learned and help you stay pointed in the right direction. But when you’re creating you’ve got to let go of your knowledge and come at the problem like someone who knows nothing. Play more than you analyze. Trust. Step off the cliff. It’s only a metaphor. You can step right back on if it doesn’t work out.

Powerful consumers? Not always.

The ever-provocative Seth Godin wrote this about the power of the producer (i.e. the creator, manufacturer, provider to the consumer):

Producers and consumers

In the short run, it’s more fun to be a consumer. It sure seems like consumers have power. The customer is always right, of course. The consumer can walk away and shop somewhere else.

In the long run, though, the smart producer wins, because the consumer comes to forget how to produce. As producers consolidate (and they often do) they are the ones who ultimately set the agenda.

Producers do best when they serve the market, but they also have the power to lead the market.

The more you produce and the more needs you meet, the more freedom you earn.

And it reminds me of a TED Talk by Thomas Thwaites on “How I Built a Toaster From Scratch”. We live in a world where almost nothing we use, touch, interact with, is something we could actually make ourselves. As powerful as we are as a society, we are pretty incompetent as individuals. We need the producers, and each other.

Rooting for laundry: the most compelling brands around

I know, I know. I can’t seem to shut up about the brilliant podcast 99% Invisible from the very talented Roman Mars and friends. This week’s edition is about, of all things, baseball uniforms. And while the show (produced this time by the also-very-talented Jesse Thorn) is hilarious, insightful and entertaining, it contains a fascinating observation about brands.

Dog_in_shirt_NY_Mets-600px

Photo by JoeInQueens (Wikimedia Commons)

Paul Lukas is the founder of a website called Uni-watch that obsesses over sports aesthetics. He observes that even if we have strong brand loyalty to, say, Cheerios, we expect a certain quality level. If they change the taste or ship stale Cheerios regularly, we’ll switch. Maybe not the first time, but if it’s consistently bad, we’re outta there.

But if I am a Mets fan, regardless of whether they win, lose, change their roster, have an off season, blow a pennant race, whatever, I am consistently going to be loyal to the Mets. If suddenly 25 guys who were wearing Yankees uniforms last week show up in Mets uniforms this week, guess who I’m gonna root for?

This is nuts.

But it’s real.

There is no brand as strong as a sports team’s brand. Nothing inspires passionate support, unwavering loyalty, unconditional love, like a team uniform. Ultimately, as Jerry Seinfeld so eloquently states to David Letterman, it’s all about the clothes. We’re rooting for laundry.

How does a brand compel that kind of intense attachment? What is it about us that makes us so strongly identify with a logo and an outfit? And how can other brands hope to come close?

Perhaps the answer (as Seth Godin would no doubt agree) is in our need to belong to a tribe. We all hunger to be part of some sort of group where we share a common view of the world. Whether that group is Mets fans or skeptics, rednecks, philosophers, design aficionados or sports uniform geeks. We seek to identify with something larger than ourselves that other people like us find value in, agree with, and will put their asses on the line for in some way or another.

So what?

So creating an opportunity for “fans” of any brand to identify each other through a common visual signifier is a great way to build groups and cement a level of loyalty. That signifier could be a logo, sure, but it could also be the design of a product. In fact, much of what design does is convey those kinds of messages, and serve as an anchor for our association with them. Though being beautiful or elegant can help to differentiate a brand, it’s less about being pretty, and more about being different and identifiable.

Look at how Prius created a weird-looking car that instantly told eco-conscious consumers that there were others around who felt like they did. Suddenly Prius owners became a tribe — and the car took over the market. A Macbook Air is a silent rallying cry that says to other fanboys “I give a damn about design and cool technology” or “I’m creative”. The “Don’t Tread on Me” flag says to other Tea Partiers, “I think government sucks — just like you do”.

Giving people a focal point around which they can unite — something unique that calls up your brand’s “Why” — is the whole idea. Like a uniform, your name, your logo and your product come to embody something much larger than they do inherently. That larger thing is your brand. And that’s a force not to be taken lightly. Ask any Mets fan.

My favorite books on branding (so far)

My friend and leadership group buddy Cheryl asked a bunch of us for our favorite books on branding. I sent her these, and thought I’d post them here for all of you, too.  I’d love it if you shared your favorites in the comments.

Brand is Four Letter Word:
Positioning and the Real Art of Marketing
by Austin McGhie
This is a smart, opinionated overview from the president of Sterling Brands’ Strategy Group with deep experience on the both the client side and the agency side of things. There’s a good interview with him on the Design Matters podcast that will give you a taste of the book. He hates the word “branding”. He contends that a brand is simply a relationship, and that you can’t “brand” anything, you can only position it.

World Famous:
How to Give Your Business a Kick-Ass Brand Identity
by David Tyreman
This is a workbook on defining your brand. I’ve used it as a rough guide in leading two companies through a deep evaluation and redefinition of their brand strategy and found it very helpful. Tyreman worked with Polo Ralph Lauren, Nike, Banana Republic and many other companies and has a kind of enthusiastic upbeat approach that works. I find him a little relentlessly self-promotional, but the core stuff is great.

Start With Why:
How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
by Simon Sinek
Probably my favorite thinker about clarifying who you are and what your purpose is, and letting that drive what you create — as a company and as a person. First got turned onto him by a friend at an agency who was using his concepts in everything they were doing for their clients and themselves. I have drunk the kool-aid.

The Brand Gap:
How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design
by Marty Neumeier
Practical and highly visual, Neumeier presents his ideas in an entertaining and very valuable way. Easy to read. Fun to look it. Awesome cover design. “Fresh” and “relevant” to quote some of the blurbs. Many clear and simple ideas, but not “light” ones. The guy has thought through his subject and distilled it well.

Purple Cow — or practically any of his other books
by Seth Godin
This guy is the big thinker about positioning and marketing businesses. Huge influence, unafraid and committed to getting people out of the fear-driven culture and finding their art as business people. Purple Cow is about being different and remarkable — the essence of a good brand. I have to admit I didn’t like it at first; it seemed a little contrived and precious. But as I’ve delved deeper into Godin’s world through blog posts, interviews and other books, the principles just make more and more sense.

Your turn.

Bringing art to your work

The courageous Seth Godin talks about getting out of your comfort zone because it’s not safe. Taking a risk? That’s safer.

44 minutes of enlightened conversation.

Benetton’s remarkable new campaign

Benetton UNHATE campaign

If it’s true, as Seth Godin says, that you’re either remarkable or invisible, then Benetton may have redefined “remarkable”. Their new UNHATE campaign features world leaders kissing — and I think it’s awesome. The cringe factor, the humor, the humanity, the irreverence, all combine to make the ads simply unforgettable.

For years, Benetton has been a brand that makes waves, that challenges our assumptions and our prejudices. It’s what I love about them. But whether or not we love them or hate them, we sure do know who they are. They stand for something — in this case, for world peace and better communication between humans. Not a bad thing.

As branding mavens, we should all pay attention to this one idea: remarkable or invisible. Those are your choices. When in doubt, take a risk. It’s far less risky than doing what’s safe and expected.

Click the image, or here to see all the ads.