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Nine Dots to Design Thinking

Sep 28, 2010   //   by Michael   //   Articles, Blog  //  Comments Off on Nine Dots to Design Thinking

I attend a weekly class on mindfulness, a form of meditation that emphasizes awareness of the present moment and “being” rather than “doing”. A large component of the class consists of interactive games and exercises meant to illustrate concepts of the mindfulness methodology.

Last week the instructor, Cathy Reinstein, introduced us to a simple mind-game that involves nine dots arranged on a grid-like layout. The goal is to connect all nine dots using only four connected lines, and in the process to demonstrate how our habituation to prior ways of being too often obscures us from approaching problems with a fresh perspective.

Take 10 minutes to try solving it before reading the rest of this article.

Nine Dots game

It occurred to me that this game and its solution powerfully illustrate the concept of design thinking. How so?

Most people see nine dots and label it as a grid, which then informs the process in which they go about solving it. Some even try to “think outside the box” and get creative.

But it is just nine dots. The hackneyed notion of “thinking outside of the box” still implies that it *is* a box.

A more aware approach is to visualize the nine dots as a completely new experience, detached from the box analogy. The solution to the game then becomes much more obvious.

The point of being mindful is not to preconceive outcomes but rather to simply experience what is. Too often we are hyperfocused on “details” and “solutions” and neglect to take in “experience”. Consequently, we miss a large part of what is going on around us in our daily lives.

So how does mindfulness in meditation relate to design thinking in business?

In order to drive a brand, business or product forward, you must begin with an awareness of where you are and where you need to be, coupled with a commitment to jump into the unknown. You must be unafraid to fail or falter. In the process, you must design outstanding customer experiences, like those of Apple, Target or IKEA, that require your company to be open to new and uncharted ways of approaching obstacles.

In business, like in the nine dots game, our lack of awareness often keeps us mired in our problems rather than floating above the problems in a way that they can be solved. We need to be willing to expand beyond our habitual ways of being to create our worldview from scratch. We need to be design thinkers.

Look at your brand, business or product as an entirely new experience. Approach your obstacles with childlike wonder. Be with what *is*. Be mindful. Innovative ideas will flow from this space.

Coca-Cola and the Concept of Localization

Jun 16, 2010   //   by Michael   //   Articles, Blog  //  Comments Off on Coca-Cola and the Concept of Localization

By Michael Tanenbaum

Coca-ColaI am married to an Argentinean woman who, like me, is a pop culture child of the ’80s. We occasionally exercise our nostalgia for old American and Argentinean TV commercials by rummaging through YouTube. This morning we re-discovered two fantastic Coca-Cola commercials, “I am the future of the world” from 1986 and “Coke is for Everyone” from 2002. What is remarkable is the strong part that localization plays in Coke’s brand advertising strategy. They consistently demonstrate the ability to speak in a unique and credible voice to individual nations and cultures.

Watch the reel for “I am the future of the world”:

This video reel contains the British, Argentinean, Colombian and Peruvian versions of the same commercial, which they likely localized to many other countries as well. The melody and theme are the same in each, but the lyrics are modified to each country’s colloquialisms. The song title was localized for the Argentinean version: they say “mañana” instead of “futuro”. The kids playing the main character are dressed differently in each, to correspond to each nation and culture. The scenes are also staged slightly differently, while the Peruvian version is especially localized. Watch these ads a couple times to get a feel for what is going on.

The “Coke is for Everyone” ads are from 2002. This reel, from countries as diverse as the USA, Thailand and Norway, is fascinating in another way: How Coke speaks to the individuals and subcultures within each culture:

Using the same concept and imagery across all the ads, each clever and humorous use of Coke is slightly tailored to the local idiosyncrasies of the respective culture. For instance, two bottle caps symbolize a pair of lips giving a kiss, which is unique in each ad. Or two bottles interacting in a suggestive way in the European ads but more discreetly in the Thai ad.

Coca-Cola is a master at this sort of brand advertising. And YouTube is a fantastic and powerful tool to discover and research the successes of other companies and organizations when it comes to localization.

The Value of Staying Focused and Taking a Stand

May 24, 2010   //   by Michael   //   Articles, Blog  //  Comments Off on The Value of Staying Focused and Taking a Stand

By Michael Tanenbaum

FocusThe job of a corporate branding initiative is two-fold: to provide focus and clarity to a client’s long-term strategy; and to position the client to stand for something in the minds of its customers. Our job, as a brand strategy firm, is to be the guide, build the foundation and fashion the tools that reveal the brand platform, provide the focus and inform the stance.

Be focused.

If you have a great product, focus on building it and selling it in the right places. Don’t expand too quickly. Your brand is your legacy and your reputation. Resist the temptation to expand with more varieties and flavors, prices and services across too many new markets.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company had a proliferation of over 15 product lines and models supporting a variety of price points and an R&D effort that was diversified far beyond their core computer business. The stock was under $13 per share. Jobs simplified the product line to three main product families, introduced the iMac, and slowly refocused the company. Thirteen years later, Apple is a $240 billion juggernaut, yet its brand platform is still based upon no more than five major product categories at any given time.

POM Wonderful makes pomegranate products high in anti-oxidants. They’ve kept a laser focus. Yum Yum Donuts is still in the fresh donut business after 40 years. They haven’t updated their formula because it still works. Inn-n-Out Burger sells savory burgers. It has retained virtually the same menu since 1948 — quality you can still trust.

By contrast, FIJI Water is known for selling expensive bottled water from the South Pacific. It was once a bastion of exclusivity with a tightly controlled distribution strategy and a unique positioning selling to a core demographic of the world’s best hotels, restaurants and spas. It can now be found in supermarkets and discount chains, and threatens to erode into commodity status. A more viable alternative for these new channels would be to spin off a lower-priced and differently-named brand with its own customer associations.

Two more counterexamples are Starbucks and Dell. Starbucks used to be in the designer coffee business. Now they sell music, a million varieties of food and other accessories — and cheap, instant Via coffee in every grocery store you can think of. Focus has given way to clutter. Dell used to be in the custom mail-order computer business. Nobody could touch them on price or quality. Now they sell generic commodity-priced laptops in mass retail chains. And their stock is in the toilet. Focus has given way to irrelevance.

Take a stand.

As consistently articulated rather eloquently by Guy Kawasaki, if you want to stand for something in your customer’s mind, then you can’t stand for everything. This is a mistake that many companies make.

The Macintosh is a polarizing computer. It was designed for typographers, graphic artists and design geeks for whom computers are not machines but extensions of their own fun, whimsical personalities. The Toyota Scion is a polarizing car. It was designed for 25-year-old adventurers with snowboards and a golden retriever, not 45-year-old mothers with four kids.

Some people will love your product and evangelize its benefits. Those are your customers.

Some people will hate it with a passion. Those are not your customers.

That’s far more preferable than people not caring about your product. Those will never bring you customers.

If you take a stand, if you innovate, some people will inevitably not like what you do.

So what?

Bill Bernbach, founder of the DDB ad agency, once said, “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you and nobody for you.”

Don’t establish a mediocre brand just because you want to reach as many customers as possible. Stay focused. And take a stand.

Bring the Conversation to Your Customers

May 17, 2010   //   by Michael   //   Articles, Blog  //  Comments Off on Bring the Conversation to Your Customers

By Michael Tanenbaum

Tying together Brand and Social Media StrategyClients invariably ask me about the brand value of having a Facebook or Twitter presence. Indeed there is tremendous value in using social media to promote brands. The real value, though, lies in integrating the social media strategy into a broader brand strategy that includes a deep understanding of your customers’ needs and desires. It is not enough to have social media tools; it is about using the right social media tools to nurture and cultivate an ongoing conversation with your most esteemed customers and fans.

Let me explain by example.

I recently attended a large event at the Hilton Hotel in Costa Mesa, a venue known for its conventions and meetings. I was most intrigued by the video screen in the hallway touting the hotel’s presence on various popular social media destinations.

Why does this matter?

It matters because Hilton Hotel in Costa Mesa has a Twitter presence with over 2,200 followers and 1,000 tweets. This specific hotel is actively using Twitter to post room promotions, push sponsorships and publish links to other businesses that are relevant to its customers. By reaching more than 2,200 influential and plugged-in customers, they are not only engaging those customers but also promoting their brand platform. (Its regional cousin, Hilton Anaheim, has even more: nearly 5,000 followers and over 3,000 tweets)

But Twitter is not where it ends. The Twitter campaign plugs into Hilton Costa Mesa’s broader social media strategy, including a Facebook page and a branded YouTube channel promoting the hotel as “Southern California’s premiere meeting destination”. It also features a blog that offers such goodies as a referral program specifically for the social media community.

Similarly, Hilton Hotels, the parent company, has a suite of iPhone apps for its hotel chains that enables travelers to book a hotel room, check in remotely and even order food — all from the comfort of their own iPhone. It seems that Hilton is angling to be THE destination for business travelers who are already avid and connected social media users. And Hilton Costa Mesa is carving out its own social media credentials by closely connecting itself to its most technology-savvy customers.

Where are YOUR customers hanging out online? How can you bring your conversation to them? Do they tweet about your service on Twitter? Comment about your product on Facebook? Buzz about your company on Google? With what promotions can you reward your most valuable customers? How can you provide them with an efficient and painless user experience?

Follow, engage, reward, challenge and energize them!

Owning a Word in the Mind

Mar 16, 2010   //   by Michael   //   Articles, Blog  //  Comments Off on Owning a Word in the Mind

By Michael Tanenbaum

How do brands become famous? They own a word or phrase in the minds of their consumers.

Business owners can learn a lot about branding from Hollywood. Especially at awards shows. Watching the Best Actress presentation from the 2010 Oscars, I was reminded of how well brand-positioned the best actors are in Hollywood. In fact, many of the A-list actors are instantly recognizable by a word or a phrase.

Take a look at this clip:

Specifically, at 6:25 and 2:17, respectively, when Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren are introduced for Best Actress, Stanley Tucci and Forrest Whitaker are summarizing what these actresses are known for in a couple of key words and phrases that could be taken straight from the personal branding playbook.

For example, Stanley Tucci says that Meryl Streep is, to most people, “brilliant, the most acclaimed film actress of our time” and shows “grace and humility” off-screen. That is what she is publicly known for. But he also points out that she displays “kindness”, a “collaborative nature”, “great good humor”, is “a dream to work with” and a “wonderful friend”, and possesses a professional “selfishness that is unseemly”. She’s not being typecast; she’s “quite simply the best”. This is what she is known for within Hollywood circles.

What Stanley Tucci is doing, consciously or subconsciously as scripted by the writers of the Oscars, is expressing Meryl’s brand personality in a way that is distinct and that only she can credibly claim in Hollywood. The elements that make her the “most acclaimed film actress of our time” are a combination authentically linked to her — and her only — and therefore inform the shorthand for how she is known.

Walter Matthau once said: “I used to think of myself as being an actor. But people don’t want to see actors. They want to see personalities.”

Owning a business is no different. Customers don’t want to see products. They want to experience personalities and relate to stories. Brand positioning expert Laura Ries explains that, just as famous Hollywood personalities own words or phrases in the public’s mind, you as a business owner need to own a word or phrase in the minds of your consumers:

In Hollywood, Meryl Streep is the “most acclaimed film actress of our time while Helen Mirren is “the Queen.” Jim Carrey is a “goofball” while George Clooney is “the man’s man.”

In business, Coca-Cola owns “classic”, while Pepsi is the “choice of the new generation.” Apple owns “innovation and design” while Dell owns “direct sales and business.”

What word or phrase do YOU own in the minds of your customers?

If You Create Value, They Will Pay

Feb 22, 2010   //   by Michael   //   Articles, Blog  //  Comments Off on If You Create Value, They Will Pay

By Michael Tanenbaum

Online content providers are in a doldrums. Consumers simply do not want to subscribe to pay for content. A just-released Nielsen study reports that 79% of web users avoid websites that charge for content, particularly when they can find the same content elsewhere for free with only a modicum of effort. (See story: Nielsen reports online user trends) Some providers have explored alternative business models, such as easier payment methods and micropayments, but so far few solutions have opened up consumers’ wallets.

So much online content is already available for free that it has become valued as a commodity. How can you create preference, inspire loyalty and command leadership in a digital world where so much is given away for free?

This is a problem.

The answer is to provide customers what they can’t get elsewhere, within a credible price range, at a level of service unparalleled in the particular industry. If you build a strong brand, people will pay.

Witness the success of Apple’s iTunes Music Store (iTMS), with a deceptively simple business model of 99¢ for most music downloads. While it did not put illegal filesharing out of business, its ease of use and massive selection of quality artists, among other branded features, simply made it a more engaging and reliable experience than most other methods of acquiring music. iTMS is now the largest music retailer in the world.

In the newspaper publishing industry, The Wall Street Journal has blazed its way to profitability, both online and offline, with its pay-to-play model. (See story: “What the Wall Street Journal Has, Few Will Match”)) The Journal provides insightful analysis of largely exclusive, narrowly focused content at a level of scholarship few other publications can match. In 2009 they landed the #8 spot on Mediaweek’s Digital Hot List of significantly relevant Web properties.

Why do consumers value the iTunes Music Store and The Wall Street Journal while they complain about paying for other content? Why is HBO so popular while network TV is falling to pieces? They each offer differentiated products that the competition cannot. And consumers are willing to pay — sometimes even top dollar — for unique, original and compelling content.

Go Where They Are

Jan 25, 2010   //   by Michael   //   Articles, Blog  //  Comments Off on Go Where They Are

by Dani Endrei

Absolut billboard

On my way home I saw this Absolut Vodka billboard. It seems companies are starting to realize the power of partaking in the online community. In this case, instead of pointing people to their own website ( and expecting people to stop what they are doing and visit their site, Absolut created a presence on Facebook. Now, with close to 500,000 fans, they use the page to offer their fans the ability to be the first to receive exclusive visionary content, event invitations, drink recipes and prize giveaways.

Absolut chose to go where the people are. They chose to stay relevant by creating a conversation and intriguing people with creativity on their own turf.

So I ask of you:

Are you still spending your marketing dollars interrupting your customers…or are you engaging them?

“Four score and seven years ago…”

Jan 3, 2010   //   by Michael   //   Articles, Blog  //  Comments Off on “Four score and seven years ago…”

by Michael Tanenbaum

What does the Gettysburg Address have in common with the most enduring brands? What lessons does it hold for distinguishing your brand message from the marketplace clutter of your competitors?

The scenario:

President Lincoln and Senator EverettOn November 19, 1863, on a bloody battlefield outside the town of Gettysburg, a series of speakers presented in honor of 160,000 men killed in the battle. The keynote speaker was Senator Edward Everett, the leading orator of his day. He addressed the crowd of 15,000 people for over 2 ½ hours. His unremitting torrent of verbiage was instantly forgotten.

Taking the podium much later that day was President Abraham Lincoln. He was placed a nondescript sixth in the day’s lineup of music, prayer and oratory. Lincoln delivered a two-minute speech. In 246 words, he laid out a vision for the United States that is still memorized in its entirety by American schoolchildren.

When promoting a brand message, most people have the tendency to use the kitchen sink approach: Toss in as many ideas, promises and slogans as they can and pray that the customer or audience remembers something.

That is a recipe for failure.

President Lincoln’s message was concise, compelling and coherent, his word choice carefully crafted. By contrast, Senator Everett’s keynote address was sprawling, verbose and unmemorable.

Aristotle wrote that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Over two millennia later, this concept is as profound as ever. Follow it. It will grant you distinction. It will buy you customers. It will earn you consumer loyalty. It will elevate your brand to the highest esteem.

See this website for a side-by-side comparison of the two Gettysburg addresses that day.

1 + 1 = 11

Dec 8, 2009   //   by Michael   //   Articles, Blog  //  1 Comment

By Michael Tanenbaum

No, it’s not the “new math”, numerology, gematria or Bernie Madoff calculating his stock returns. It is collaboration. According to brand guru Marty Neumeier, “The mathematics of collaboration is nothing less than magic.” Just as the whole of a human being is greater than the sum of its component organs, “1 + 1 = 11” is what happens when there is creative collaboration across silos and departments.

In other words, when you are deciding to build your brand, your internal conversations must involve everybody from the visionaries to the front-line employees. Brand building is neither the exclusive abode of the executives, nor something for corporate to cast aside to underlings. The knowledge and insight of every level, department, specialty and personality in the organization must be carefully considered and equally weighted. Finance, marketing, human resources, sales, shipping, must be empowered to talk to and work with one another, for it is the sum of these people and their skills, personalities and motivations, all aligned in tandem, that add up to a compelling and competitive brand.

Creating your Tribe

Nov 2, 2009   //   by Michael   //   Articles, Blog  //  Comments Off on Creating your Tribe

By Dani Endrei
At this point you may have heard of Seth Godin’s book Tribe.

Here’s an awesome 12 min interview with him.

He states that good marketing is not about shoving the most amount of information down the most amount of people’s throat. He takes Gmail for example. When they first started they were invitation only. They created huge demand and people were lined up waiting to get in.


Let’s talk!

Feel free to contact me by email!


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