Thursday, February 28, 2008

Meshing Gears--Fashion and Manufacturing Mash Up

John Winzeler did it again. Refusing to let the gloomy outlook for American manufacturing dim his vision, the gear maker unveiled another collaboration with the School of the Art Institute last week. This time it was right on the shop floor. Winzeler Gear sponsored a design competition for fashion students. The challenge was to incorporate Winzeler Gear parts into the design. I attended the opening. The entries ranged from quirky (dress with the automated flimstrip through the middle) to elegant, but all of them were inspired. Plenty of young spunky things attended and mingled amidst the machinery. It was a remarkable mashup. Have a look and judge for yourself.

Bronze Medal--Film-strip Dress, Summer Romero and Kaitlyn Aylward designers

John Winzeler, CEO, Winzeler Gear
Winzeler Gear is a case study in my latest book.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Corporate Philanthropy Day

Yesterday was corporate Philanthropy Day. I was glad to see PNC Bank won an award for their Grow Up Great campaign. I wrote about PNC in my book, noting that their CEO has been both visionary and strategic in steering external affairs. Grow Up Great addresses lots of issues from education to health care for kids. It helps PNC employees feel proud and gives the bank a point of view about the quality of life.

Also of noteworthy, Wal-Mart gave the most in 2007. The mega-retailer gave away more than $296 million in donations to more than 4,000 U.S. communities in 2007. It outpaced Target's philanthropy, yet Target owns brand cred. for its generosity. Can it be that the low-low prices and the management culture leaves consumers with the impression that Sam and Company are tight wads?

Hot trend: Corporate giving and sponsorship are now entering into Wall Street assessments for buy/sell advice. Get this from a Wall Street advisory's newsletter:

"Dominion Resources Inc. was trading up $0.02 with a trading volume nearing 600,000. Monday February 25, 2008, Dominion is ranked 11th among the "100 Best Corporate Citizens" for 2008 by CRO (Corporate Responsibility Officer) magazine. "

Companies spending on green initiatives are also seeing their stock values rise. It makes you wonder. How long before sponsoring NASCAR becomes a liability given its colossal carbon footprint and stratospheric fees?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Godless? The Pew Study on Faith Confirms RenGen Shifts

Pew's latest study on religion in America is a window into RenGen spirituality. Religious affiliation is waning in America. However, "There is a sizeable number of Americans who are not affiliated with any particular religious group but who nonetheless have religious beliefs or engage in a variety of religious practices," the study said. Among the "unaffiliated," only about a quarter identified themselves as non-believers (atheists or agnostics). The remaining three-quarters were those who reported "nothing in particular" when asked about their religious affiliation.

So, people are still believers and practicing some form of spiritual practice, just not in traditional ways. Very RenGen.

You see, the decline of established religions and the rise of new spiritual practices is what happens as part of a culture's rebirth. This is because organized religions help the faithful cope with life. The practice of that religion gives people solace. It also shapes communities in real ways.
When I think about my own upbringing where schools, hospitals, and social services all sprang from my religion, I see how that infrastructure helped people live better lives.

But times have changed, drastically. Now, people seem to need something else, and the faith they were raised in lacks meaning. It was in a climate such as this that Martin Luther made history. He redefined how people communed with their God, essentially cutting out the self-empowered middle men. Obviously, people must have been yearning for new meaning or they wouldn't have followed him into the Protestant Reformation. Pew's study tracks the emergence of a similar shift.

This is what it looks like right before a renaissance.

Photo courtesy of Marshall Simmons

Monday, February 25, 2008

Book Lover Reads Between the Lines of Kindle

If you didn't catch Timothy Egan's eloquent commentary on why reading still matters in the Sunday New York Times it's worth, well, reading. Egan responds to Steve Jobs' not invented here dismissal of Kindle and in doing so takes on the larger question: Is reading really dead?

Here's an excerpt:
"The Mac, Pixar, the iPhone, the iPod, iTunes. This stuff is cool. Lighter than air. iGetit. But it’s just product, dude.

Reading is something else, an engagement of the imagination with life experience. It’s fad-resistant, precisely because human beings are hard-wired for story, and intrinsically curious. Reading is not about product. For most of my lifetime, I’ve heard that reading is dead. In that time, disco has died, drive-in movies have nearly died, and something called The Clapper has come and gone through bedrooms across the nation.

But reading? This year, about 400 million books will be sold in the United States. Overall, business is up 1 percent — not bad, in a rough economy, for a $15 billion industry still populated by people whose idea of how to sell books dates to Bartleby the Scrivener."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Why Do We Miss What's Bad for Us?

This year, I had to give up cheese burgers. I miss them, especially when I'm on the road. I travel across the country giving talks on the RenGen, and I've discovered that burgers can tell you a lot about a place. Does this town insist on fresh lettuce? With hot fries or cold chips? (Fries rule, okay.) Do they serve them with pride?

So many of us are letting go of bad habits these days, still others are acquiring them. I was interested to learn that Altria is taking more than 80 percent of its marketing dollars overseas to places like Turkey, where it's still cool to smoke.

Mind you, I don't judge smoking. I'm a reformed social smoker myself. But what I'll really miss is the exportation of Altria's brave, visionary sponsorship portfolio. They sponsored everything from BAM Next Festival to stock car racing, the latter proved fatal for both. It's crazy when people hate you and your product and your brand, but still buy your product--there is a tremendous freedom in that. It gives you the liberty to go out and take marketing risks that manufacturers of cotton swabs, let's say, would never take. Cotton swabs are jim dandy, people just don't crave them.

Consider also that scientists at the Mayo Clinic's Nicotine Dependence Center have learned that smokers have billions more of the receptors in areas of the brain that have to do with pleasure and reward. Altria's use of event sponsorship, which is far more sensorial than outdoor or print, helped reinforce their customers loyalties in more ways than one.

Do certain brands, products, experiences, even people have the power to seduce us and make us lonesome when they go?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Dancing Librarian Stomps Down Fines

It seems Boing Boing likes librarians as much as we do. Cory Doctorow, who writes for the popular blog, covered the story about the librarian in Wadleigh NH who challenges patrons to "dance down" their library fines by taking her on in a session of Dance, Dance Revolution. Clever!
Hat tip to Jenny Levine.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Getting Ready for the Renaissance

It's been a banner week for media coverage on RenGen theory. The latest edition of AdWeek features my essay. I describe how marketers can apply RenGen thinking to their work and seize the opportunities so rapidly unfolding as this psychographic sets the agenda for the marketplace.

Here is an excerpt:

Products and services that will thrive in the renaissance translate into helping people create meaning when their world is transforming. The idea is less elusive than you might think. Here are three concepts that will figure into how people who crave meaning will devour the brands smart enough to serve it up to them.

1. Fusion, not fission. Fission, the dividing up and segmenting of things, was a way to create energy in the 20th century. The 21st century is moving the other way: uniting things that are sometimes paradoxical to create force. As we shed the old civilization's trappings, we won't invent a new reality overnight. We will harvest what is still meaningful and fuse it with the new. Brands that adopt fusion as a point of view will rule in the RenGen. Reebok's research revealed music, the spoken word and dance were eclipsing sports as leisure preferences among youth. Rather than make its customers choose between the athletic and the artistic, it fused the two identities with the "I am what I am" campaign.

2. Smarten up. New ideas, thought and knowledge are aspirational. Your brand's teachable moment will be its moment of truth. Allowing the consumer to play an active role in that learning experience is nirvana. That goes for employees as well. Google's author series brings notable thought leaders to headquarters for live discussions with employees. The events are taped and loaded for the world to see. And they are all managed by employees.

3. Truth is beauty. A renaissance is a period of heightened context. Sights, sounds, smells, textures all have elevated importance. Consumers crave experiences that indulge their senses, not so much as an escape, but as a point of inspiration for those who see themselves as creative and self-expressive. Icons, logos and symbology will be more important, as will elegantly written narratives in the place of blah-blah product copy. Doing things will matter more than buying things, so sponsoring events will bring the two together.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Make Your Brand Mean Something

That's the title editor Jennifer Rooney gave my latest article in Advertising Age. An excerpt follows:

Our unraveling economy is part of a deeper cultural metamorphosis. From the restructuring of home values to the reorganization of mass communications, we are witnessing the disruption that occurs when the dominant civilization loses its relevance and another rises to replace it. We are becoming a renaissance generation -- RenGen, a generation that is smart, self-expressive, idealistic and cynical all at once. History shows that the seeds of the first great renaissance were steeped in conflict and waste. YouTube, Facebook and MySpace are all evidence that our society is gearing up to become very creative -- just in time to solve some serious problems.

So, what do we do in the interlude while the RenGen gears up? How do we create meaningful campaigns when so much is up for grabs? There are three brand archetypes that will hold appeal in these times....

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Whole Brands: When the Idea Fits the Experience

My colleague, Alice lives in New York and has an astonishing photography collection. She invited me to see it a while ago, and I was staggered at the breadth of the collection. But the piece that really knocked me out was the Piss Christ by Andres Serrano, one in a series of Serrano's photographs where the icon is submerged in a vile of the artist's blood and urine, hence the name Piss Christ. And yes, it's the same photograph that gave Jessie Helms his national censorship platform and nearly zeroed out the National Endowment for the Arts.

For me, the piece was breathtaking. (Full disclosure: I am a practicing Roman Catholic highly suspectible to guilt and incense.) So by rights, I should have been violently offended by the image. Instead, I stood in Alice's hallway where it hung and couldn't tear myself away. She finally broke the spell by offering a cup of tea.

So what gives? Why can something that is so abhorrent in principal be so beautiful when we experience it?

Because the idea of something is not the same as something. When the idea of something is sympatico with the experience of it, the effect is magical. When they diverge it can result in several things. It can create a niche of fervor--a cult following the likes of which Malcom Gladwell describes. Or, it can leave people feeling confused and unfulfilled. The accumulation of which leads to cynicism. In which case, the experience trumps the idea. Elizabeth Gilbert explains in her bestseller, Eat, Pray Love, that the renaissance was possible when the Italians had experienced the perverse corruption of the Emperors because when nothing could be trusted, people decided to trust what they could experience--beauty.

And so it goes for the RenGen, too. As a witness to the political circus currently on display, I can see that when the ideas and the experience people have are in harmony, namely that we live in a society where tri-racial people exist and thrive, where men and women share power--magic is possible. When the ideas rest on a definition of American life that feels contrary to people's experiences--it's a dud.

For anyone dreaming of what to create, sell, or promote next, paying attention to the chemistry between the ideas and the experience of the brand is one of the basics that can produce a masterpiece, which always speaks for itself.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Snowboarding and Sponsors Return to Union Square

It's been a weird winter. I was in New York in January and it was 55 degrees. The following week a dozen inches of snow pounded Gotham. By February 7th, it was balmy again for the second annual StreetSessions Snowboarding competition in Union Square Park. With temperatures near 70 degrees 140 tons of snow had to be imported for the event, which featured twenty of the world's top riders hurling themselves down a ramp for five hours. Jeep and Burton returned as lead sponsors, with Red Bull on-site with vehicles and samples.

Jeep made great use of its vehicles by incorporating them into the competition. "Freedom and adventure are among the core values of the Jeep brand, so we're excited to sponsor The Union Square Street Sessions, said John Plecha, Jeep Marketing and Global Communications. "Snowboarding is one of the many outdoor activities Jeep owners enjoy." Prize money was a little less than last year at $15K.
The usual injuries were reported. Split lips, broken collar bones. I once asked my 19 year old son to explain the extreme sport/Fight Club phenomenon. He said he figured in his lifetime, women were going to be in charge, make the decisions and the money. "Most guys aren't sure where that leaves them," he said. "So, sometimes it just feels good to get back to the basics."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

And the Winnner IS....

Remember the kiss that rocked your world? Well, then you know the finessse it takes to retell all that leads up to the kiss. This week we ran a Kiss-And-Tell story contest. People described their ultimate kisses. It put us all in mind of the power of one person to lean into another and pour forth love. Happy Valentine's Day!

Congratulations to the winners of our Kiss-and-Tell Story
Niefer's second story
Dancing Barefooot
Margie on the Metroliner
Winners recieve a copy of John Stark's book The Dictionary of Love, along with our best wishes
Thanks to our judges: Liz Strauss, George Needham, Karen Hanrahan , Tony Talent and Julie Daley.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I'm a sucker for romantic literature. Forget the cloying bodice rippers you find dog-eared in beauty salons. I revel in a romp through a well-crafted piece of adult fiction to really hasten my pulse. Mary Gordon's Spending comes to mind. As for non-fiction Jane Juska's A Round Heeled Woman made me blush. And with Valentine's Day right around the corner, I was over the moon when one of my favorite writers, John Stark, had his new book hit the shelves. John collaborated with RenGen culture scouts Mary Kay Baumann and Will Hopkins to produce The Dictionary of Love. (I am proud to disclose that John is one of our writers here at the firm.) His writing talent is immense. Even more abundant is his wit, which he flashes to hilarious affect throughout this delicious little book. Let me give you a peek between the covers:
-Kinkalicious is your girlfriend in a teddy.
-Plumber is a boyfriend who keeps pipes open and isn't timid about crawling around in dark places.
-Frankenboobies are surgically enhanced breasts.
I bought several this week to give away as gifts. I know, I very frisky of me!
If you are stuck for ideas about how to celebrate with your sweetie, I recommend that you paddle down to your nearby bookstore and pick up a copy, pop into the wine store, and also pick up a few candles while you're at it. With your Valentine's kit complete, snuggle up and read along together. Purr: a low vibratory sound one makes when being loved...

Monday, February 4, 2008

Yes We Can

As I watch the candidates march toward Super Tuesday, I have remained stalwart in my critique of Obama's poor use of the web, (his website reads like law professor's blah-de-dah). That changed as of this morning. A few minutes ago a friend from Tampa emailed me this video link. This is a very RenGen push. What we have here is a group of Americans, mostly artists, mostly Gen Y's with a few Boomers sprinkled in, who share the conviction that small personal acts--like singing on a video or voting--can make a difference. And its being facilitated by the Internet. A few simple clicks and it's everywhere. I want to confess something to you. I watched it and wept. Right here at my desk. I had no idea that eight years of an empirical Administration could create such an emotional force within me. I wonder just how many Americans feel this way? Exhausted by the energy required to carry this burden of cynicism, afterall we are a profoundly optimistic nation that has been forced to play a role against our type, are we all waiting to be re-energized by three simple words: yes we can...?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Buy Less: Live More?

"I realized something, buying things is not the same as doing things," says Brandy Agerbeck, graphic facilitator and RenGen culture scout in a recent newsletter to her fans. Turns out she's part of a larger chill that is keeping consumers out of stores, looking instead toward experiences to enrich their lives.

In some cases, this has become a movement. The Methodist Church in the U.K. recently launched a campaign for Lent entitled "
Buy Less: Live More." Here’s how it works. When you sign up for the campaign, you get a pink credit card embossed with a scripture passage instead of an account number. The card rests in your wallet in front of your credit cards to remind you to stick to your Lenten pledge. The "Buy Less: Live More" campaign wants to encourage Christians to "opt out of the consumer culture." Or at least slake their desire to acquire.

The worsening economy, the post-holiday bills that are coming due in people's mail boxes, and the fact that many people will begin their spring cleaning only to discover they own things that have little meaning in their lives, will trigger a growing sensibility that echoes Brandy's sentiments.

This shift in attitudes was forecast by
Pitirim Sorokin, sociologist who envisioned a decline of consumer-based culture and the rise of an idealist culture. Meaning that people will trade in their credit cards for a set of ideals that give them altruistic satisfaction. His four volumes on the rise and fall of civilizations is described in my book, RenGen:Renaissance Generation.

Now more than ever, selling anything will require that the product or service deliver incredible value. It should be truly useful, beautifully designed, well constructed, emotionally relevant, and convey a sense of altruism. Tall order, I know.

The bright spot is a return to community and events. People will want to be out, to be seen and have an exchange. Festivals and free concerts should see huge audiences this spring and summer. Farmer markets will grow into community cultural "scenes" with live music and crafts. Smart marketers will snap up sponsorships to such events because they deliver some of the elusive elements that keep a brand authentic.