Thursday, January 31, 2008

Entering the Age of Enlightenment

What do Opera Winfrey, Eli Stone and Elizabeth Gilbert all have in common? They are bringing spirituality into the mainstream. Oprah's new venture with Discovery Communications is an indication that advertsers believe there is enough there, there in what has long been considered ethereal woo-woo for the fringes.
Elizabeth Gilbert's non-fiction blockbuster, "Eat, Pray, Love" is another barometer of mainstream interest in following a 35 year old woman as she seeks her spiritual identity across three continents. And this week, ABC launches "Eli Stone" which is about a corporate lawyer who discovers the redemptive powers of faith. Very RenGen.

What happens right before a renaissance is that the society resets its moral compass. It creates new values to guide people toward behaviors that contribute to social progress. It reorganizes its relationship with God. Consider that the European renaissance saw the rise of Protestantism led by Martin Luther. If this process of reconsidering our spiritual selves gets thwarted or delayed, our civilization could fall into a dark age. To witness rising interest in entertainment content about faith and spirituality is yet another indication that we have reason to be optimistic. Very healthy signal of large-scale change.

After fifty years of progress at any price, where greed is good, it is refreshing to see people are now adopting a more enlightened, altruistic point ot view. Our ideas about faith and the spiritual realm help shape our culture, always have. No longer a fringe phenomenon, cultural consumers are flocking toward this content. This is what it looks like right before a renaissance!
photo courtesy of M. Omair/flickr

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Giuliani's Myth Exposed--Death Spiral of a Brand

Giuliani lost in Florida. He was overcome by the grassrooots, not by political opponents. Watching the tape of parents whose children were firefighters in 9-11 broke my heart. They travelled from New York to Florida to be heard. Guardian's coverage of the "9-11 Myth" campaign is a gut punch to witness. By staking his claim in one state he made it an attraction. Giuliani drew the fire of 9-11 backlash. These folks appeared in town hall meetings and at fire houses to speak openly about many things including Giuliani's reluctance to equip firefighters with high-tech communication devices they requested after the first terrorist attack, and much more.

My question is this: how does a brand survive when its single point of difference is rendered from it like meat from the bone?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Sundance Mash Ups Herald New Genre, Masters

A short summary of this year's Sundance Festival goes like this: Deal making was tepid and Robert Redford did his best to control the commercialism at the festival, while keeping corporate sponsors paying six-figure fees happy. Never an easy balance. And Bono was captured on videotape giving a self-serving pitch to Redford in a lobby about his U2/3-D entry that made me wince to watch it. (Seems that clip has been taken down from the Sundance site and replaced with a slickly edited piece about just what an "indy" guy Bono is.)

But what intrigued me from afar were the new multi-media mash ups being showcased this year. It's a fusion of handmade and hi-tech. The Web has facilitated colossal amounts of creative output. And according to Mike Plante who writes for Filmmaker Magazine this is stimulating a new appreciation for craftsmanship. MMOGs, podcasting, video, and hand-drawn art that is videotaped and YouTubed (now a verb) is combining to create a new genre.

When the accessibility of laptops, programs, and video equipment makes filmmaking possible for anyone with an idea, it forces the masters of digital media to focus on the basics to master their media, multi- or otherwise. Brent Green, a multi-media artist whose work was showcased at Sundance commented that, “In order to rise above the fray, the writing needs to be there; the tragedies, jokes, and beauty need to be there. Accessibility to technology has forced us to make good films to get noticed.” This is the glimmer a master class of artists who are creating a new culture--a RenGen phenomenon.

Consider that DaVinci and Michelangelo rose is such a context. It cheers me to know that amid the disastrous news that the Bush Administration is secretly planning to build military bases in Iraq to permanently commit American taxpayers to war in the region, that a new era is unfolding despite all rest of it. America is forging a new vision of itself as a creative force, not a destructive force.This is what it looks like right before a renaissance.
Image courtesy of ajiartist

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Is Higher Education the Next Economic Bubble to Burst?

It has begun. The annual frenzy of parents trying to get their kids into college. What's wrong with this picture? It's the parents, not their charges who are bearing the brunt of what is a daunting and disagreeable business of getting into college. These parents have been derisively dubbed "helicopter parents" for hovering over their children lives. But let's consider for a moment what they are facing.

If you are reading this and are over 35 the process went something like this: you took the SATs or ACTs, went to College Night in the gym at your high school, sent out your applications, and got a fat envelope with an acceptance letter and you packed your bags. Done deal. That's ancient history, my friend.

Today's college-bound families face a maze of a process that is less than transparent. Given the price tag, $140,000 per private institution for a Bachelor's degree, a college education is the second most expensive asset for families after their homes. Sobering, no? That's why a recent survey of students found that over 80 percent of college freshmen believed their parents played an appropriate role in helping item get into college. What 17 year old could handle something so weighty without some guidance?

Some might worry that this generation of high schoolers are too willing to cede responsibility for a job that should rightly rest with the kid. If the process looked anything like it did way back when, that would be a fair critique. But let me give you a first-hand glimpse into the rigmarole. First, colleges vie for the applicants with the very highest grades and test scores. That's crucial to their rankings over at U.S. News and World Report and the Princeton Review. Then they have to make sure your kid will accept if offered a seat. Why? Because if a kid is offered and declines, it can also hurt the college's rankings. So some colleges will not accept a kid who looks like he/she may have too many suitors. Finally, the big state schools which are the most affordable receive so many applications, they simply run them through the computer to select the very highest scores. Forget that some applicants are first chair violinists, award-winning writers or have volunteered at the local homeless shelters. As an admissions officer at University of Illinois told a group of parents, "Look, this is a numbers game." Not exactly heart warming to parents who have done their best to raise well-rounded children.

So parents find themselves having to get involved to give their kids a fighting chance. I learned this all first hand. My son is a college freshman. I confess I am a busy working mom with zero time to wrangle with the unwieldy system higher education has become. And when my son went on college visits to scout his favorites, I put cash in his hand and dropped him off at O'Hare with my best wishes. (By the way, this horrified my peers, but the college admissions people loved me for it!) But in the end, I had to get involved. It was all too overwhelming.

So, the recent news that Harvard will roll back tuition, oh sorry, grant more financial aid, is an indication that the system can no longer hold. Yale and Michigan are following suit. The status quo is a triple threat crisis: the process is too frustrating, it's a lose-lose for parents who are both tax payers and consumers, and it's way too expensive. No longer the ivory tower on the hill, higher education is the next dark cloud resting on a bubble.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Torture Couture That Hurts So Good

Right on time, fashion is trending uber-extreme. Torturous in fact. John Galliano's Men's collection 08 is a stunning example. It's part of what occurs when the tastes of the masses grow more inclined toward good design. It forces the avant-garde to seek the extremes. RenGen culture scouts Mary Kay Baumann and Will Hopkins spotted this trend in 2005 and talked about it in their legendary "Visual Trends" class they teach at Stanford. They believe that visual appetites are forking off in two directions: authentic and extreme.
As Kevin Kelly explained, we are moving from "mass to mess" as the information age matures. Part of the reorganization of mass culture will push toward the extremes. Now, more than ever, fashion designers must live on the bleeding edge to get the attention they need to sell high-end apparel. And let's face it, men's wear has overstayed it's time in the land of the vanilla Brooks Brothers.
photos courtesy of Image Monkey

Monday, January 21, 2008

Napa Journal-Final Entry

The White Sulphur Springs campus rests in a lush canyon in the Napa Valley. Every morning at daybreak, I’d walk through a forest of red woods and eccentric oaks covered in velevty moss. The sun rose behind the mountain, so the canyon road glowed with borrowed light to slowly reveal more and more forest.

Before noon of my first day, I took a winery tour. Julie Daley, the corporate creativity guru who was my tour guide, turned out to be a great sport. We tucked into a hearty lunch of short ribs and sea bass at the Martini House. Our conversation ran the gamut from our aspirations to our most devastating setbacks. By the time we marched out of the place we were friends and free to take the day for all its promise. And so we did.

We got lost wending our way through the mountains in search of the private estate and vineyard of Pat Kuleto, the restaurant designer responsible for many the Bay area’s most successful restaurants. We had to stop at a biker bar to ask directions. Okay, I grew up in Detroit and Chicago. I have nothing to compare this experience to because frankly, a non-biker woman doesn’t enter a biker bar unless she’s looking for trouble. Me, I was looking for directions. I am happy to report that the patrons of the Turtle Rock Bar provided them most amiably.

When we finally arrived at the Kuleto Estate our guide, Mark, welcomed us and showed us around. He manages a variety of projects at the winery, including the membership club and the tasting room. We toured the grounds, climbed to the peak and sipped a cheeky Shiraz while overlooking the valley. The sun was beginning to set.

To savor the experience, I joined the wine club. Every quarter they'll send me a shipment. The winery supplies Kuletos’ restaurants and sells to members. Retail is not a channel. Not sure why. Would have asked Mark if I had the presence of mind to do so, but was too busy sipping Shiraz and lapping up the view. My first shipment arrives in February, which gives me something to look forward to now that I am back in Chicago. I returned to 10 degree temps. But tonight, it’s warming up and a gentle snow falls over my sleeping garden. Earlier this evening, I walked to the post office with an armload of my books to send out to some bloggers who had requested them. I felt a little lighter for having had some California sunshine on my face last week.

My thanks to Raz Ingrasci President of the Hoffman Institute for inviting me to speak to his remarkable faculty and for being such a thoughtful host.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Napa Valley Journal

Today, I visit the Kuleto Estate Winery. It constitutes over 800 acres of breathtaking valley terrain. Kuleto has produced some of the most coveted cabernet wines produced in California. My tour guide is Julie Daley, a creativity catalyst--which means she coaches leaders who turn to her as their creative conciliari. Julie works with Michael Ray, professor emeritus at Standford Business School, who is a pioneer in opening the minds of business leaders to the power of creativity in business processes. He's known widely as the most creative man in Silicon Valley. Julie is bright, charming and game for a fun afternoon. I'm grabbing my sweater, not my heavy coat, and we're off!
More later.....

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Napa Valley Bound

I don't know how I got so lucky, but I'm packing my bags for Napa Valley and thanking my lucky stars. It's mid-January in Chicago. That means grey sky, grey skin, grey, grey, and more grey. I can't wait to shake it off for a few days. I have the honor of speaking about the RenGen to the faculty at the Hoffman Institute Foundation. The Institute was founded by a visionary, Bob Hoffman. His life's work was spent creating a process that would release a person from his or her troubled childhood to become a more whole adult and achieve their highest potential. Sounds a little woo-woo, I realize. But the Hoffman process has produced some amazing results. Harvard's Kennedy School recently partnered with the Insitutute to develop a leadership process to prepare leaders for a new century. The Institute is nestled among the wineries of Napa Valley. I plan to visit a few of them while I'm out there.

I asked my friend Karen Hanrahan, about the difference between organic wines and regular wines. Karen runs a popular green foodie blog, and manages content for a local chef's blog. She lives across town from me and we coffee clatch occassionally and trade blogging tips. Always the earth mother, Karen had this reply, along with a vow to find out more for me:
"The foodie crunchy part of me likes to think that that all organic anything
is better. Perhaps the idea that a wine comes from a clean soil bed and
perhaps has no pesticide residue has some truth to it, I always wonder how
they seperate acid rain drops from other rain drops. I'd like to think that
an organically grown grape in more nutrient dense, has all that whatcha ma
call in it that is so valuable for you and all. Studies certainly show that
vegetables organically grown are more valid nutritionally. Yet, when it comes
to wine it's all about flavor - depth of flavor and it's subtle nuances. I find
more of that in european wines." Thanks, Karen.

I promise you another post on the Napa adventure. The scenery, food, people, and oh, yes--the wine.

Photo courtesy of Lightchaser.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Counter Culture

Order up! Next up in the coffee war between Starbucks and McDonald's is patter. A tone of welcome and reassurance has been the hallmark of Starbucks service. But now, the hamburger giant will attempt to deliver a little compassion with their new coffee line. That, plus an aggressive expansion plan will look to gouge a big hole in Starbucks market share. Expect more caffeine-flavored, specialty coffee drinks in McDonald's over 14,000 restaurants. Its line of mochas, lattes and cappuccinos, served hot or iced, is expected to ratchet up the company's challenge to Starbucks' coffee throne.

But how will a McDonald's mocha fly among the RenGen? In the Silicon Valley, where java is the pick-me-up of choice for the wireless set, the San Jose Mercury News reports a strong "cultural bias" against the idea. "I can't imagine going for a coffee in a place that smells like junk food," said Ilan Twig, a 34-year-old software company manager from Cupertino. "I wouldn't do it if they paid me."

What's at work here is deeper resistance to being pegged as someone who might subscribe to mass-marketed fast food. The RenGen will not open their minds nor their wallets to brands that have for years relied on one-size-fits all food and messages that promoted it. Furthermore, the sensorial attributes of fast food emporium versus coffee house are a total non-compete. Who wouldn't opt for the aroma of coffee over frying grease at 8AM? But it will be fascinating to see if McDonald's can compete with the counter culture Starbucks has created, and which it's founder Howard Schultz believes is its secret weapon. "Hey, how's it going? Want fries with that latte?"

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Seth Says Time to Smarten Up

I took special delight in Seth Godin's recent blog on the perils of dumbing down your marketing message. He boils it down to this: like begets like--dumbed down marketing attracts a dumb consumer. As the knowledge economy matures, the plain fact is that more people appreciate being spoken to as if they have a brain. As the RenGen emerges powered by the rising numbers of cultural consumers, these self-expressive, inner-directed customers will reshape the way we approach mass marketing. They want to create not just consume. They want to think for themselves. "Brighten up!" will soon replace "Dumb-it-down," as a marketer's mantra.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The 57% Solution

Long time no blog. Sorry. I was in New York this week talking with the media about RenGen voters and how they are likely to vote. While flying home last night, I reflected on how different this election is to the one in 2000, especially with regard to women voters. In eight years, women have come to realize their power in the marketplace. Their frustration is that despite the fact that they make a well-documented 80% of buying decisions, that has rarely translated into real power. That is, until New Hampshire where 57% of voters were women. Even if their wallets gave them little power in the world, their votes will.

For the Democrats, the Hillary candidacy is symbolic, especially for boomer women with a RenGen mindset. Younger female RenGen are less loyal, and find Obama's optimism and power-to-the-people platform very appealing. I want to give equal time here to both parties. However, on the Republican side it's hard to decipher if any of the candidates are even vaguely aware that women voters need to be appealed to. It's an unsegmented, mass market approach, as far as I can tell.

The Oprah endorsement has been like a female voter delivery pipeline for the Obama campaign. But it didn't flow as well in New Hampshire as it did in the bread basket among Iowa women. But something's still missing. Unity. A generation gap is opening up between GenY and boomer women. The candidate who can close that gap and deliver the female block will win the White House. It bears repeating. Women represented 57% of voters in New Hampshire.

Why am I so into this election? Because it looks more like a battle of the brands every day.

And its intriguing to see the electorate engage again and take back their power. Male or female, the most enlightening message in all of this is that people really do care about the outcome and believe they can register a point of view with their votes that will foster change. After years of tracking consumer behavior as it relates to shopping, I find it refreshing to follow consumers as they shop for agents of change.

(Photo by J. Cash care of Flickr)

Friday, January 4, 2008

A RenGen Spirit Rocks Iowa

When my radio alarm popped on this morning with the news that Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses, I felt a certain vindication. These past few weeks I've been tangling with the media over just how significant the RenGen phenomenon is. I mean really, how seriously should we take this new form of enlightened populism that has the Average Jane thinking she can command some change through small, personal gestures? Well, everyday Iowans turned up in record numbers last night. They bundled their kids into snow suits and drove to the local gathering spot and caucused. And collectively they sent a big fat message: America wants change. End of story. People seem to understand that the electoral system has been so corrupted by fundraising and downright chicanery, that they've decided to invoke the one small power they still have--their voices. RenGenners believe in the power of personal gestures to make collective change. They are inner-directed, self-determinists. They will gather force online. They will vote. They will give. They will volunteer. And that's the big story coming out of Iowa.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Predictions 2008

As the curtain goes up on 2008, I feel compelled to offer predictions for the RenGen. The problem with writing predictions, is that as soon as you write them, you want to see them turn up everywhere. So your senses sharpen to detect ever more evidence that you are right. Call it observational narcissism. I think I am so afflicted. Having confessed to that, here's what I expect in 2008:

Rise of Adolescent "Always-On" Syndrome
A few years ago, a New York Times article coined the phrase "always-on" as a syndrome suffered by executives addicted to email and websurfing--an adult version of ADD. Now teens are showing signs of anxiety from always having an audience--always being on. Hours spent in the limelight of Facebook and MySpace where simple "wazzup, you going out?" conversations have an audience, kids are feeling a certain performance anxiety. This social anxiety is like a low-grade fever. Won't knock you out, but will drain your batteries. Look for teens to seek out ways to boost health, resilience and confidence more than ever. Healthful infusions will replace drinks like RedBull. Vitamin boosters, meditation and sacred self-protective practices will catch on.

Information is the Enemy of Time: Info-concierge Services Will Grow
When Yankelovich asked Americans to place a value on their discretionary time, they learned that $1.25 per minute was the average rate. As people grapple with productivity devices that have vexing learning curves, a need will open up for concierge services in a wide variety of business-related activities. Pressure will mount for search tools to deliver more relevant information. My biased opinion is that anyone who does not have a crack librarian in their talent portfolio is a fool. Consider the price: it's free. And a good librarian can change your work life by streamlining and ferreting out the best of the best. Also look for, freelance blog-etorial assistants hired to stimulate blog audiences, field comments and weed out riff-raff. Oh, and the public will finally grasp the privacy issue in 2008. Different topic all together, but I'm lumping it in here.

New Rules for Cool: Make Peace Not War
Cyber-bullying reached an extreme in 2007, when an adult women so bullied her daughter's classmate that it allegedly triggered a suicide. But when Pew studied the matter in 2006, there seemed to be more concern about the prospect of cyber-bullying than actual incidents reported. The Internet has bred a new class of social vitriols. Just as the "new money" class is often criticized for its lack of tact and breeding, newbies to social networking, MMOGs, and blogs seem to suffer a similar fate. Overall, as the digital culture hastens our evolution, the need for guidelines, policies, and plugged-in Dear Abbeys will increase. Citizens will start including civility statements on their blogs and in their email signatures. New "make peace not war" norms for human exchange on the Internet will arise.

Born to Lead: Females Will Lead Without a Ladder
The young RenGen are born equal. Males and females alike ages 14-18 see the world without gender biases. The fact that a woman will contend, and likely win the next presidential election, portends an age when women will not protest to be heard, nor demand to be paid fairly or to win executive privilege by gradually moving up the pecking order. They will simply assume it. And these women will not suffer waiting for their shot at the corner office. Life's too short and their agenda is too long. It includes children, creative pursuits, and causes, as well as careers. RenGen women will learn to lead without a ladder. They'll form groups, lead initiatives, and make things happen. The corporate world cannot compete without their energy and will find ways to build talent portfolios that include these women, as well as their male peers, who want the same things, by the way. This opens a gap. Much like the haves-and-have-nots and generation gaps before it. The old power elite will struggle to adapt, but will likely remain the same, perhaps with new window dressing. Emerging companies, however, will build-to-suit a rising generation of women and men more inspired to work together than to dominate based on gender dynamics.

As for what 2008 holds for me, I plan on spending equal time writing, speaking and working with clients. I am thrilled to have the luxury to pick and choose projects that hold great promise for creating a new culture. And I plan to continue my research on the rising renaissance underway. Already my travel schedule has me going on fascinating adventures. As I listen to my colleagues fret about the sense of decline and doom they feel, I continue to find evidence on the other side. The decline is throwing off seeds for the new civilization to blossom. The coming year will see more seedlings emerge and many flowers bloom.