Monday, December 8, 2008

Big Three Sheep

It's huge news about the big three automakers coming to Congress for a bailout. What really got the attention of the press was when they all arrived on private jets. In the hearings, they were grilled about their travel arrangements and chastised like children. On their second trip to DC, all three executives apparently drove from Detroit.

It might be good PR. But it's stupid business.

Here's another way to look at it. If you have enough confidence to entrust someone with a billion or ten billion or whatever, do you really want him spending the next ten hours in a car? Or waiting in Chicago for a delayed flight? Wouldn't you want him to have everything he needs to help him make the maximum use of every second? For my money, I want him with that jet at his beck and call. If he has to be in Japan tomorrow for a deal to keep 2,000 jobs, that's what it takes. It's not about living large. It's about big picture thinking. The press has to stop focusing on what makes incendiary headlines and more on what makes the world go 'round.

Copyright 2008, Bremmer & Goris Communications, Inc.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Cobra -- Like the Snake

It was the night before Thanksgiving at the worst possible time. The sewer drain was blocked and no water could be run water until it was fixed. I had to leave the next morning, and this couldn't wait. It happened once before, about five years ago -- the result of tree roots seeking water and invading the pipes. I couldn't remember the name of the people who fixed it before. So I do what any city dweller in need of a specialty service late at night -- I Googled "drain cleaning" with my zip code. Ads for national franchises popped up, but I wanted a local guy who would come right now. I called the one with an address listed the closest and left a message. As I was about to call another, the guy called back: "be there in an hour." Perfect.

The process was simple. They string a twisting steel "snake" 110 feet through the sewer line to the street. The result was a three foot long ball of tree roots removed within fifteen minutes. Water running. Problem solved.

So you're thinking -- what does the sewer cleaning story have to do with branding?

When I asked who the payment check should be made out to, he replied: "Cobra -- like the snake." Wow ... an instant, and permanent visual connection with the "snake" they used to clear the drain. The whole story was right there in the name. I don't remember his name, And I couldn't have recalled the his company name before he told connected it with the snake, but now I'll never forget it.

What's in a name? Could be everything. The important thing is that people make the connection with the name and what it offers.

Copyright 2008, Bremmer & Goris Communications, Inc.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Real Deal

Too much time has passed without a post on this blog. It's been a productive Summer with lots of stories to tell, including many from a trip to Costa Rica. While traveling there, one thing that struck me was the lack of big name brands. Once outside the city of San Jose, we saw few signs for large companies or franchises. No Starbucks, McDonalds, Home Depot, Pepsi or Coke. No FedEx. No Walmart. All visible forms of commerce are local. Signage is almost all hand lettered. It was refreshing not to have the same old slick brands pushed at you all day long.

In Costa Rica, they decided two decades ago not to try and compete with other central and South American and African and Indonesian countries on a commodity and focus on quality. Now they only grow and export high quality Arabica coffee. Talk about positioning.

When we saw the sign for "Don Juan's" coffee plantation in the Monte Verde region, I was skeptical. It looked like a marketing attempt to create a character to promote coffee tours. All I could think of was Juan Valdez, the fictional persona that graces the coffee logo. According to The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia's website, "The Juan Valdez logo was developed 1981 to identify and serve as a seal of guarantee to the brands that do indeed consist of 100% Colombian Coffee as approved by the Federation."

Turns out Don Juan's is an a real working coffee farm turned tourist attraction, and Don is a real guy -- a living Juan Valdez. There is some slickness to the place, but the experience was educational and the coffee was outstanding.

My son Cole thought Don Juan was so cool, he insisted on having his picture taken with him. I think the attraction was that he was authentic. It's hard to compete with that.

Copyright 2008, Bremmer & Goris Communications, Inc.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Trying Too Hard to be Cool

One of the things I don't like to do is to comment on other people's creative work. Unless I am asked. But today, Chelsea Clinton asked me for some input.

Chelsea's email began: "We need your help to make a critical decision -- our next official campaign t-shirt." The message included a link to vote on my favorite design. Apparently this is the result of a contest where the Hillary campaign asked for the public's input for a new design that will presumably help them turn it around.

According to Chelsea, "It wasn't easy to narrow it down, but we've chosen five we think are particularly great." They've narrowed it to five designs, all with little connection with anything we've seen in the campaign. The ideas they have put forth present no consistency in image or message.
Looking at the designs I can't help but think it's in response to the recent press that Obama's poster has gotten. One of them looks looks like a lame attempt at mimicking Shepard Fairey's Obama poster by giving Hillary's face a pop art treatment. It's badly done art and worse, has no cohesive message.

The Clinton campaign hires top level consultants to shape every aspect of its image. I wonder why they didn't do the same here. Imagine putting to a vote what Hillary's next strategy should be in the primaries. No doubt a contest seemed like a good idea -- they probably wanted it to appear as a home grown effort. But with all of Hillary's supporters among the creative community they could have done better with professional help. A lot better. The Hillary people should know this better than anyone.

Unfortunately for Hillary, it's too little too late. And it doesn't matter what I think.

Copyright 2008, Bremmer & Goris Communications, Inc.

Friday, May 2, 2008

It's All About We

I was looking at a trade journal the other day, and started taking note of some the ads that stood out. There was one in particular for a law firm that stopped me with a compelling image. Unfortunately the rest was a disappointment. Reading it reminded me of listening to the person who corners you at a party and bores you to death talking about himself. The copy was riddled with "Our firm does this" and "this is what is important to us . . . blah blah blah." So what. In a message supposedly to engage potential customers, they used "we" seven times within a three sentence paragraph. This was the case with most of the professional services ads in the publication.

One breath of fresh air was an ad for a company marketing its services to the same audience. It didn't use the "we" word once. Interestingly they used "you" and "your"six times.

One of my favorite expressions is from a copywriter friend who always advised clients not to "we all over the page." He was referring to the use of "we" and other pronouns (like "our" and "us") when writing marketing copy. It's an easy trap to fall into. It's a challenge to avoid the "we" word when writing about your business. His advice was to try frame the message as a benefit. People care about what's in it for them. When you start a sentence with "you" or "your", it's a lot easier to focus on what is of value to the reader. And you've already primed readers with their most interesting subject: themselves.

If you were a homeowner concerned with maintenance, which of the following sentences would be more engaging? "We are specialists in painted ceilings." Or, "You can extend the life of your porch with the right ceiling treatment."

It's easy to talk about yourself. And it's essential to do so when you're trying to promote yourself and your business. The hard part is to talk about you in a way that makes people want to listen. Replacing "we" with "you" is a good start.

Copyright 2008, Bremmer & Goris Communications, Inc.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Win-Lose Situation

Not long ago, a business associate asked if we would design a poster for her organization's well known fundraiser, on a pro-bono basis. This was a well-attended local event and the project sounded like a worthy challenge. Toward the end of the conversation, she said: "oh, and we're having several others work on poster designs as well" -- basically turning the request into a contest. She said arrangements had also been made for the printing to be donated. When I asked if she was having more than one printer produce it, she laughed and said: "of course not." I respectfully declined to participate, but what I wanted to say was: "Do you know how rude this is?"

I can imagine few other circumstances where someone would ask for a favor, while at the same time saying essentially: "We value your contribution...unless we decide to value someone else's more." I think one reason for this attitude is that we are taught from a very early age to place little value on creative work. Because it's "fun" and "anyone can do it." Contests are common in schools where kids learn that creative work (like music and art) is secondary to "academics."

Many professional design organizations reject contests as unethical. I dislike them, but for different reasons. My problem with contests is that they are a colossal waste of resources. Imagine that an organization decides they need a logo, so they launch a 60-day contest. Suppose they get 100 entries, with each requiring an average expenditure of 20 hours of design time. That's a total of 2,000 hours -- almost a year of labor. That means that after picking a "winner", the other 1,980 hours (of the community's pool of pro-bono time) has been wasted. Simply in the interest of giving someone a choice.

I don't think competitions should be shunned. And I don't think creatives should stop entering them -- if that's how they choose to spend their time. If it makes business sense for a firm to participate in them, they should have at it. But I do think it's important for organizations to think about how they value what they ask for, and how they ask for it. If they truly need a donation of time and talents, it shouldn't come with an insult.

Copyright 2008, Bremmer & Goris Communications, Inc.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

You Like That? Really?

After nearly 14 years in the same space, it was time for a redo. What began over a year ago as a plan to upgrade parts of our office has grown into a project that includes new rooms, new lighting and virtually no surface untouched. We're looking forward to the end result in the coming weeks. The process has required daily decisions and focus on a lot of details. Mostly design details. This week while looking at lighting fixture options, many of my preferences were met with, "please tell me you aren't serious" from one of our designers. When I thought about it and really looked at some of my choices, I realized that it wasn't that they weren't well designed. They weren't in fashion.

This made me start to think about the relationship between fashion and design. On occasion, a young designer will show me something that I will instantly not like (not liking something has absolutely nothing to do with its effectiveness as a solution, but that's another discussion). Usually the reason is because I've seen it before -- years before -- and I connect it with old and tired (think mauve bathroom fixtures from the 80s). So I tend to dismiss some things out of hand when what I should be looking for is what the designer has done to draw from the past and turn it into something new.

The need for newness is what drives fashion. Clothing is an extreme example of this. My teenage son wears his hair and dress the way I did in high school in the late 70s. And I would guess that style has come and gone several times since then. Things that look dated and old to someone in their 40s can appear new and exciting to someone half that age seeing it for the first time.

The office design has made me think twice about the things, colors, textures and finishes we surround ourselves with. I realize that my comfort zone has been defined by what I have been used to seeing. So I have been trying to look at new ideas and old materials with an open mind. After all, nearly everything we do is some kind of mashup of what's been done in the past. I think the key is to not just redo what's already been done, but to remake it. I'm starting to really like the "new" stacked stone wall in our conference room. It kind of reminds me of my grandparents' circa mid-60s "Brady Bunch" split-level.

Copyright 2008, Bremmer & Goris Communications, Inc.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Check Your Dignity at The Door

Imagine if you went to someone's home for dinner and as you were leaving, a guard asked you to empty your pockets -- just to make sure you weren't stealing anything. To say it would be insulting is an understatement. What do you think the chances are that you'd return any time soon, or ever? Pretty absurd concept. Chances are, you've had a similar experience and didn't think twice about it.

Recently I purchased a pair of work gloves from a large retail store. It as a quick exchange -- I found what I wanted and proceeded to pay for the merchandise. There was a "guard" within 20 feet of the checkout who could clearly see the transaction. As I was leaving, several exiting customers proceeded to line up -- presumably to have their purchases "checked." As I breezed through the door, the guard called out: "sir..., sir..., SIR!" I proceeded to my car without delay. My son Henry, who was with me said "dad I think that guy is calling you." I explained to him that the guard probably wanted to see a receipt, but since the merchandise had become mine at the moment the sale took place, and I had no obligation -- legal or otherwise, to prove it to anyone. And that unless I had been shoplifting, the person had no right -- legal or otherwise, to detain me. This might be the store's "policy" but my policy is not to be kept waiting. I had to explain to Henry why some stores do this, and that it didn't used to be this way.

Branding Lunacy

Who thought of this? More importantly, when did it become acceptable to paying customers to line up like sheep eager to prove their innocence without a second thought? How much will people take in the name of "low prices?" Apparently the requirement that they prove they didn't steal from the stores they've just patronized has become acceptable and expected -- for a lot of people. I don't know which is worse: the fact that companies cook up these policies that disparage customers, or that the customers put up with it.

I wonder if the companies that spend millions on branding and identity give any thought to what they are doing when they make policies that essentially say: "All CUSTOMERS ARE CONSIDERED SHOPLIFTERS UNTIL THEY PROVE OTHERWISE." From a branding perspective, things don't get much worse.

Copyright 2008, Bremmer & Goris Communications, Inc.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Symbols of Patriotism

Barrack Obama's patriotism has been questioned because he doesn't wear an American flag on his lapel. In October, he said that the flag had "become a substitute for true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues of importance to our national security." The American flag is not a political symbol. But increasingly, that is what it has become. It may be precisely because Obama understands the power of the flag's symbolism--and its politicization, that he stopped wearing it.

Misuse of the flag has been on the increase in advertising and in politics. It started in the Reagan years and Republicans have managed to brand it as theirs. "Support our troops" ribbons and flags seem to be code for "support our commander in chief." If you don't support the commander, then you don't support the troops, or the flag. And that means you must be unpatriotic. It's part of the "if you're not for us, you're against us" attitude that has caused such deep division in the country.

Democrats could dilute its power as an icon for the right by reclaiming the flag and making it a symbol for the UNITED States, and not one ideology. In a nation so fractured politically, maybe some common ground can be found in the flag as a shared symbol.

Could it be that Obama reveres the flag so deeply that he cannot bear to see it used as a symbol of anything less than a great nation? Maybe he has more respect for the flag than some of the "patriots" waving it.

Copyright 2008, Bremmer & Goris Communications, Inc.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Who Has the Most Presidential Logo?

Why is corporate America quick to embrace corporate identity as a brand builder? Because they know a strong identity helps build and maintain a strong brand, and brands means money. Political campaigns aren't corporations, but they are ALL about branding. The best candidate will likely win in spite of whatever logo identity has been cooked up for them. But what if the presidential race were based on the candidate's logos?

When I was thinking about this, I was sure that Obama would lead the pack as the candidate most likely to be elected because of their logo. But after looking at and thinking about the four frontrunners; Clinton, Huckabee, McCain and Obama, I have come to a different conclusion. I'll start with the worst:

4. ) Mike Huckabee has by far the weakest identity of the four remaining candidates. The logo doesn't display confidence. It has too many elements and colors that make it appear to be trying too hard. He's the only candidate who has to remind us of his first name and that he is running for PRESIDENT. It looks as though he is running for Little Rock School Board, and not President of the United States.

3.) John McCain's logo is very strong. If George Patton were running for president this is what his logo would look like. It screams military. Not that military is bad, but it's a reminder of McCain's persona as a war hero and strong war supporter. The font is even the same one used to engrave the names on the Vietnam Veteran Memorial wall. It makes me think of big business--specifically defense contractor.

2.) Obama's identity is refreshing. For a presidential campaign, this one goes out on a limb and creates the impression of something new on the horizon (though the stripes are slightly reminiscent of the Bank of America logo). It stays safe with the conservative serif typeface and red and blue colors. It seems silly that they have included "08" as though people wouldn't know which presidential election he is running in. One could easily describe it as idealistic. This is not a bad thing, but unfortunately, it's too light to be seen as presidential.

1.) Hillary Clinton's logo is simple, strong and the most universally appealing. While not groundbreaking in its design, it uses proven elements: stars and stripes. Interesting use of three stars; a third term for the Clintons? It has a no-nonsense appeal shouting "Hillary" in a traditional, bold serif typeface. I would rate this identity as the "most presidential."

A Warning From the Past

Let's hope that the nominees don't make the mistake John Kerry made in 2004. The Kerry campaign started with one of the strongest logos seen in any race. But for some reason--probably a rush decision by a campaign aide--it was changed to a very generic treatment at the announcement of John Edwards joining the ticket. One story is that the campaign plane had to be repainted overnight--without letting anyone know about the Edwards announcement. Did it matter?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Branding? You Don't Know Jack!

Jack was an executive in an organization for whom I once worked early in my career. Jack was extremely busy, but there was something he always found time for. Every piece of print collateral -- from note cards to full page New York Times ads had to be approved by him. This was in the days before art was prepared digitally, so carefully marked up mechanical boards had to be taken to his office before they went to the printer. Jack read every word. No deviation from the organization's logo, tagline and colors escaped his red pen. In those days, changes weren't as easy, or as fast to make as they are now, but Jack would make them and he never compromised.

Jack wasn't a public affairs or communications guy, but what he understood deeply about his organization's message and its face to the world can be summed up in one word: consistency. I didn't fully appreciate his value at the time, but Jack with his obsession with details and consistency, was a brand steward. This is a rare thing to find in a Washington organization today -- and even more rare then.

One of the comments we hear from clients a lot is that "our materials don't look like they came from the same place." When you lay all of their publications and communications on the table, it's true. Typically you're looking at a lot of very nicely designed pieces but with little cohesion among them. Decisions have been made by department heads, short sighted communications directors, and worst of all, designers. I say this not to disparage the profession I have built a business on, but because designers are trained to make design decisions, not brand decisions. The scenario starts with "we need a brochure, get us a designer." There may be a graphics standards, but its usually pulled out at the last minute and handed over with a "see-what-we-can-get-away-with" wink. So a piece gets designed, printed and distributed -- independent of whatever else is going on in the organization. The result may be pleasing and a beautiful design, but often not the right design.

Unfortunately, many organizations identities are subject to the whims of whomever happens to be working on them at the moment. This can be an ego boost for the individual who wants to put his/her stamp on the organization, and fun for the designer who needs a cool piece for their portfolio. But it's deadly to the organization's brand because it usually sends disconnected, conflicting, or just plain wrong messages.

Imagine new staff at Starbucks' corporate office deciding to do "something different." Change the corporate colors, add a photo behind that plain logo, change "grande" to "large" ... just because. How long would they last? About as long as it takes to slip that sleeve on your mocha latte. Is this because Starbucks doesn't value design? No. It's because they do value design. But it has to be the RIGHT design -- and design aligned with their message. It's amazing that something that would never happen in corporate America happens daily at hundreds of Washington organizations run by very smart people.

Things are getting better. People are in general more savvy about the value of branding for their organizations, and the role that design plays. Change has to come from those with the biggest stake -- the people at the top. They're the ones who'll be left to look at the table of stuff that "doesn't look like it came from the same place" long after the staff have moved on.

Copyright 2008, Bremmer & Goris Communications, Inc.