Archive for April, 2011

Stanford Expands Innovation Journalism Conference To Include Communications Track

innovation journalism  

We don’t typically associate the word “innovation” with communications. 

Instead, communicators gravitate to “creativity” and like derivatives. 

Regardless of how we label it, today’s upside-down world calls for fresh approaches to communications. 

The status quo no longer works. 

Sure, you can do the same things and perhaps even generate results that appease your stakeholders. 

But that doesn’t mean you’ve moved the needle in how others perceive your company, its products and the brand. 

That’s why I was enthused when I heard that the Stanford Conference on Innovation Journalism (InJo) will include a communications track for the first time this year. 

David Nordfors, the senior research scholar and founding executive director of the SCIC Center at Stanford who spearheads the InJo movement, asked Jan Hedquist, Stuart McFaul and me to serve as a sounding board for the communications section. As part of our online dialog, Jan shared a particularly insightful email that he was kind enough to repackage as the guest post that follows. 

A little bit of background on Jan - 

Linguistically gifted - he can counsel clients in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, German, French, Spanish and English – Jan spent 35+ years in the advertising industry. Former roles include VP of BBDO Worldwide, president of Ketchum Advertising and vice chairman of Young & Rubicam Europe. 

His guest post truly looks at the broader discipline of communications and brand building. 

By Jan Hedquist

The proliferation of electronic communication has totally changed the world.

I suggest that the video tape and fax machine had more to do with the downfall of communism than Reagan’s threats. Tiananmen Square would have never assumed the importance it did without videos and communication by the protesters to the outside world. And the events in the Maghreb and Middle East were largely made possible by mobile media.

Thus the communications “cat” is out of the bag where we had largely kept it comfortably under control since the Gutenberg press. 

While people and motivations have remained pretty constant through history, technology has not. Often, people find uses for new technologies for which they were not originally intended. Today is the probably the ultimate example of this with one overriding result -

There is a great sense among corporations, governments and other influence-seeking groups that things are out of control, and fragmentation and the ensuing lack of message cohesion makes for a very “messy” environment. The herding of message “ferrets” has begun!

Technology changes.

People don’t.

Consequently, the brand and the branding process have assumed enormous and unprecedented challenges. With the fall of the “wall” and the opening of the PRC, the size of many corporations’ staff has expanded geometrically (as well as racially and culturally) and merely managing internal communications and how to treat what many now call “the brand inside” has become a huge challenge at the same time as these employees are bombarded by electronic communications from every azimuth.

The successful groups will be those of who can harness this confusion through innovation in how they manage communications, and how these complement each other in some kind of harmony.

Interestingly some of the most successful “brands” today have recognized the problem and have decided to exert more, almost totalitarian, communications control. Such is the case of Apple, which has espoused the ancient model of vertical integration controlling most of its sales through owned and operated retail outlets, very sparse press relations draconically controlled, (almost Kremlin like …) Same thing for IKEA, perhaps because they have identified the communications confusion and have decided to avoid that scene until they can figure out if they need to jump into the fray and, if so, how.

Regardless, most marketing and communication executives sit in a state of confusion.

As a “brand” guy I am scared, very scared. I like control, I like to measure results, I like trackable trends, I like to forecast based on empirical, stable data. Since all that has gone bye-bye I need to embrace the change and try to figure out how to leverage it in favor of my brand.

Innovation in communications – new ways of working today’s world – can be the only solution to this dilemma.

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Brand Building Requires Courage

After working on a number of branding exercises over the years, I’ve noticed the same issue surfaces time and time again.

Intellectually, executives recognize the challenge of differentiating their companies and brands in today’s noisy world.

Yet, these same executives gravitate toward approaches to branding that are similar (if not the same) to what everyone else is doing, a recipe for blending in, not differentiation.

In watching this dynamic play out, it always comes down to the same emotional component:

They perceive safety in sameness.

They worry that the marketplace won’t like it.

They worry that their spouses won’t like it.

Nothing scares the bejeezus out of an executive like the possibility of looking foolish.

Sue Kim, who opened our office in Seoul, Korea and now heads up global comms for IDT, taught me a wonderful Korean phrase years ago:

모단돌이 정맞는다

Loosely translated, it means, “The nail that stands out gets hammered.”

For executives, fresh ideas that make a brand stand out can be terrifying.

In such scenarios, there will absolutely be people who don’t like it and even a subset who ridicule it.

That’s why executive courage, particularly from those in B2B companies who often have little experience in this area, can go a long way toward determining the success of a branding campaign.

That’s what happens when you foist different thinking on others.

Just look at Albert Einstein who’s life was pretty much a train wreck until he hit 30. Eventually, his genius won people over.

Even the people who express negative views can be “wins.” At least they’re paying attention.

Of course, this assumes the company’s behavior and actions – the core of any brand – will eventually move these views to the positive quadrant.


When Storytelling Morphs Into “Laying It On Thick”

One doesn’t typically think of the humble news release as a storytelling platform.

Savvy communicators have proven otherwise with examples ranging from Gold’s Gym (Fit for a Phone) to our own recent work for Zediva.

But is it possible to take the storytelling in a news release too far?

Try to guess the product category in this news release.

luxury messagingLet’s start with the kick-off line in the release:

“The art of seeking the very best that life has to offer is reaching new heights this spring.”

The next line goes on to espouse that this company “has upped the ante of maintaining a sophisticated lifestyle.”

The crescendo keeps building with the release explaining that the design adopted:

“… legendary architect Mies van der Rohe’s less is more mantra … arranging complex technological functions internally within a limited space, all while presenting extreme simplicity externally.” 

Finally, the “explosive” payoff:

The result: a figment of beauty and geometry with high attention to detail, featuring a series of intersecting planes.


I’m exhausted.

OK, let’s look at the hints:

  • A sophisticated lifestyle
  • Minimalistic design
  • Technology
  • Figment of beauty and geometry

I’m thinking nothing says lifestyle like a car.

Could it be a riff on the classic La-Z-Boy chair? (Although there’s nothing terribly sophisticated about drinking a Budweiser while watching ESPN in a quasi-horizontal position with the head tilted forward.)

Or maybe it’s a sound system which doubles as artwork when not in use?

What’s the product category in this news release?

Maestro, give us a drum roll -

If you guessed a toilet, you’re either pychic or work for Kohler.

Because this particular news release announced what Kohler describes as its most advanced toilet yet, the Numi.

I’m all for pushing the envelope in storytelling, but I’d say this one goes a tad too far.

To the credit of the Kohler PR team, they did secure strong media interest highlighted by the Tuesday story by Ed Baig in the USA Today.

P.S. I wouldn’t call the color of a toilet “biscuit,” but in the spirit of full disclosure I have zero experience in marketing toilets.


YouTube Jumps on Storytelling Bandwagon

digital campfireYouTube has become synonymous with viral videos.

When I play the video association game, I think of the Old Spice man and the hilarious Coke happy machine.

Now YouTube wants to be perceived as a digital campfire for storytelling.

Toward this end, the platform is hosting a free webcast on April 21 that promises to teach how YouTube can benefit your company by serving as the modern-day campfire.

The promo copy explains:

Since the beginning of time, humans have connected through stories and in the past five years, YouTube has emerged as one of the most engaging and powerful storytelling platforms in existence. From the entertaining (Double Rainbow, JK Wedding Dance) to the political (Neda’s story) to the inspiring (the Fully Sick Rapper), the stories that have been told on YouTube are part of our cultural narrative.

Nice turn of phrase, “part of our cultural narrative.”

But I think YouTube missed an opportunity to bring its stories to life by simply hyperlinking “Double Rainbow,” “JK Wedding Dance,” etc. to the actual videos.

Instead, the three hyperlinks in the body copy take the reader to the same place, the sign-up page for the webcast. I wonder if YouTube feared moving the prospect to an entertaining video would lose the prospect’s interest in the storytelling webcast?

It’s kind of ironic.

The power of YouTube comes from touching the emotions of people to the point that they want to share the video with others.

Yet, YouTube doesn’t tap the same dynamic.

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Recruiting Frenzy Returns To Silicon Valley

I write a bi-weekly column on Silicon Valley for the Korean newspaper Electronic Times. 

Here’s my latest column (before translation) on the quest for engineering talent when demand far exceeds supply. 

“Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys
Don’t let ‘em pick guitars and drive them old trucks
Make ‘em be doctors and lawyers and such”

help wantedThese lyrics come from the song, “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” by the country western singer Willie Nelson. 

If Willie could rewrite that last verse for Silicon Valley today, he would replace “doctors and lawyers” with “engineers and scientists.” 

Virtually every tech company in Silicon Valley is on the hunt for that most precious commodity, the whiz-kid engineer from a premier university like Stanford, Cal Berkeley, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, etc. Those who fit this description can expect to be pampered like basketball superstar Kobe Bryant. 

No, that’s not accurate. 

The whiz-kid engineer can actually expect BETTER treatment than Kobe. 

Here’s what I mean. 

Let’s put money aside – obviously, this talent is highly compensated – and look at how Silicon Valley companies are rolling out the red carpet for a hypothetical whiz kid we’ll call Robert. 

Robert drives up to his reserved parking space, but he’s not alone. His dog Jetson gets to hang out with him at the office. To avoid interrupting Robert, the company has hired a valet to walk Jetson when he needs to “take care of business.” The valet also takes care of feeding all the office pets, which include a friendly iguana. 

Before Robert has settled into his office, the company barista arrives with a double latte in which the milk has been steamed at a precise 136 degrees Fahrenheit (Robert prefers his latte slightly below the standard temperature). 

At 10 a.m. the company dispatches an administrative assistant to Robert’s new house to let in the cable guy to install a system. Striving for efficiency, the assistant also restocks the pantry with groceries – Robert favors the lower sugar ratio in Antonovka apples imported from Russia – and takes care of his dry cleaning. 

A stomach growl at 1 p.m. signals to Robert it’s time to head to the company restaurant where the chef prepares a penne pasta with salmon. Naturally, its wild salmon lest the company offend Robert’s taste buds with farm-raised salmon. 

On his way back to the office, he pops into the company salon and asks for a hair trim similar to the one actor Matt Damon favors. As Robert scans the salon, it still strikes him as weird to see guys getting manicures.

And the company just hired a Reiki specialist for those who find their stress levels rising. 

Anyway, you get the idea. 

It’s not just about the money. 

Companies want to be perceived as cool and different to attract the best of the best; hence, the perks keep escalating in this battle for talent. It reminds me of the dot-com mania days in the late ’90′s when the energy seemed to feed on itself. 

In short, demand far outstrips supply especially for software programmers., a search engine for job listings reported 40 percent of the 130,000 open positions – you read that right; 130,000 open positions in Silicon Valley are for software engineers. 

Google has publicly shared that it will hire roughly 6,200 people around the world this year with at least 2,000 of these new employees planted in Silicon Valley. Facebook already has 1,400 employees in Silicon Valley and plans to move to a new campus this summer which can house 3,600. Twitter’s employee base stood at only 140 just a year ago. That number has now tripled with the company talking about growing to 3,000 employees by mid-2013. 

And this only tells part of the picture. 

Don’t forget that the heavyweights in the Valley like Apple, HP, Intel and Oracle are also feverishly striving to find engineering talent. Even Dell, which has its roots in Austin, Texas, plans to employ as many as 1,500 people at its new R&D center located in Silicon Valley. On the other end of the spectrum, the growing number of startup ventures and their potential mega payoff through an IPO adds to demand. 

It’s revealing to look at the management team of a database for unstructured information company called MarkLogic that’s enjoyed 45 percent growth over the past year. The title for Josh Narva is simply “Vice President, People.”  It’s all about the people which explains why VC firm Sequoia Capital hired Josh as employee No. 7. 

Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix who garnered considerable attention by publicly sharing a slide deck on the company’s culture, founded his first company called Pure Software back in 1991. We supported Pure which did indeed have an actual iguana roaming the halls. 

Such radical thinking 20 years ago – if it makes employees happy let’s go with it – is standard operating procedure in Silicon Valley today.

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