Archive | May 2014

Capturing Specialness In Bumper Sticker Slogans…Beware

Let’s have a little fun before the Memorial long weekend.

States, cities, towns, little towns…all try to win money from tourism. These days they commission, with taxpayers’ money of course, studies to find their “unique” feature for “branding.” But hey, when you plan a vacation, do you ever pick a place based on a slogan, catchy or not? New York Times’ Gail Collins offers some thoughts about tourism, slogans and their unintended consequences in her May 15th column. And the readers provided more fodder.

Here is a partial list to put a smile on your face, or an “uh?” look.

"May Snow" isn't likely to attract tourists...but not much accumulation.

“May Snow” isn’t likely to attract tourists…but not much accumulation.

North Dakota: “Legendary”

North Carolina: “Beautify Amplified”

Texas: “It’s like a Whole Other Country”

Montana: “Step Out of Bounds”

Montana, even better: “Get Lost”

Washington: “The State”

New Mexico: “New Mexico True”

The old tradition of emphasizing agricultural products seems to have disappeared. Wisconsin’s old “America’s Dairyland” is going to be replaced. So far, “Eat Cheese or Die” has been rejected. (Someone must have already considered, and quietly rejected, “Eat Cheese and Die.”) And evidently, someone once made some bumper stickers without the apostrophe.

Slogans are short by nature. A mistake, intentional or not, can impart significant change; for example, “Escape to Wisconsin” too easily becomes “Escape Wisconsin.” Idaho used to have “Great Potatoes. Tasty Destinations.” As Ms. Collins points out, when you pay money for an outfit to do branding study, you aren’t going to get a root vegetable in your slogan.

What would market research, branding study, or PR strategy inform you about your location? That your place is unique? That it’s beautiful? That your people are friendly? Do we need to pay others a lot of money to tell us something obvious? I have said it often, and will say it whenever I find the opportunity: We don’t need to spend a lot of money to find creative solutions to local issues; just go to our elementary schools, and we can get a lot of wonderful suggestions.

One of the major problems for relying on slogans to capture a place’s essence is that it will always miss something, and it will never please the majority of the residents because everyone has his/her take regarding what’s special about where they live, for better or for worse. The slogans often end up serving as an outlet for counter-punch creativity. For example, “Virginia is for [Some] Lovers.” Or, “South Carolina: The Schools are Bad, but the Beaches are Nice.” Pennsylvania’s old slogan was, “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania.” Gee, and I never once received an assigned visitor to be friends with when I lived in PA. “Sunshine” state recently found itself wrestling with whether to invest in solar power because “sometimes it’s cloudy.” The very same Florida whose old “Florida: Rules are Different Here!” certainly has elicited much sniggering given its recent news headlines. And New Jersey’s reputation aligns well with “NJ: Indicted but Proud.”

Green poking out of burnt area, with sprinkles of snow.

Green poking out of burnt area, with sprinkles of snow.

Branding research tends to inflate self-importance. Most people love where they live, but bragging seldom sounds inviting. Our small town recently engaged an out-of-town consulting firm to come up with a catchy (not) slogan: “Living Exponentially.” After you trip over your tongue saying these two words, you wonder what it actually means. And if I followed the logical consequences of living “exponentially,” I’d die from exhaustion. Very smart.

My favorite reader’s response to Collins’s column is this: A few years ago, Scotland spent 1/8 million pounds to come up with…(drum roll, please) “Welcome to Scotland.”

On the other hand, there are oldies that stay with people, like “I Love New York” or “Golden State.” You don’t forget them, and I wonder if those slogans came as a result of branding studies, or, from years of listening to visitors who happened to like the place, or just maybe, a resident with a good idea.

Whatever your plans for the Memorial long weekend, I wish you safe travels and a happy time. Till June 1st,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Consumer Power Is A Myth

As product lines grow, consumers may rejoice over the “choices,” but we end up spending more time to evaluate and search for information, with lengthened periods of indecision before finally making a purchase that may or may not be exactly what we need or want.

As the “choices” keep expanding, the consumers’ collective powers are dispersed. So, companies don’t really need to listen to consumers’ “complaints.” Only when a company becomes outrageously arrogant and pushes way too far would the masses revolt. When Bank of America planned to charge its customers a monthly fee for using their own money in the form of debit cards, it went too far. It backed down, but that doesn’t mean that the Bank won’t find other ways to impose fees here and there, and under a smokescreen of diversified offerings and differing packages, dilute its consumers’ attention and therefore power.

Hiking choices galore in my part of the world, and the pleasures are plentiful too.  Now, that's a win-win.

Hiking choices are galore in my part of the world, and the pleasures are plentiful too. Now, that’s a win-win.

I usually toss away most business mailings – pertaining to services I use — that seem to contain only promotional information. The occasional “for customers’ privacy” letters, or “rate changes” don’t concern me. It’s never to my advantage and I can hardly do anything about it anyhow. But once in a great while, for no good reason I can think of, I open a form letter and glance at it. A few months ago, I caught sight of a rate increase that made my eyes pop. American Express jacked up its annual membership fee by 100%! Since I don’t use it often (Visa works overseas just as well), I decided to cancel it…with pleasure. I wondered, though, how many people noticed the rate increase in time to avoid being caught by it.

The AE card final statement came with credit for previous annual fee prorated for the remaining time on the membership. Well… since I had already canceled it, wouldn’t the company (or, the computer program) figure out that a refund check should be issued? I had to take the time to go through the annoying gauntlet of “press 1 for X” and “press 2 for Y” before finally talking to a real person who then processed my request with, “You should receive your check between 7-10 business days.” So…what if I hadn’t called? messed up my credit. At least, the customer service agent was awfully polite (is that A behavior? or D- behavior?) and blamed it on a computer glitch and fixed it right away. What if I didn’t call?

And yes, I do have the time (though hardly the desire) to make such calls. Most people who are stressed out by their daily routines might not. Then what?

Verizon Wireless agent was terribly sweet and earnest in his sales pitch to us when we were looking into upgrading one of our dinosaur phones. For people to sign up with Verizon’s “Edge” program, they don’t have to lock in the usual 2-year contract, and they save…till you realize that you end up paying “just” $2 extra per month for the next two years, or till the phone is paid off. Some might react privately, “Oh, well…at least I can update sooner rather than later.” As if that’s a magnificent advantage. A $2 for each person might not be a huge deal; however, $2 from several million customers a month is a sweet little sum for the company. But, seriously, how much attention do we really pay to the convoluted sales pitch, especially when there are others queuing up in the store?

And then there is government bureaucracy. A friend got slapped for a parking fine. OK, she popped the payment in the mail the very next day. A month later, she got a letter informing her that she now had to pay extra for failing to pay. In order to straighten out others’ mistakes, she had to first go to the bank to request a copy of the returned check, with the endorsement shown (which usually doesn’t show up in the monthly statement) before she could argue her case with the DMV. She noticed the person behind her in the queue was also holding a copy of endorsed check. My friend was assured that DMV would correct the mistake, “Sorry, we just didn’t get around to log in your payment.” A few weeks later, my friend got another letter informing her to show up in court for lack of payment for this parking infraction! Now she had to take time off to go to court and hope that the wait would not be too long. What will be the odds for her to resolve this in less than 10 minutes?

I know, I know, these are minor annoyances. There are countless more serious mistakes, harassments, infringements…that make millions suffer a lot more, every day. But that’s my point: when will we ever get to say, “Enough, stop complicating my life! Design a system that gives me real ‘options.’ Provide me a real contact person who listens.” When everyone is so busy at work and doing their best to be contributors, don’t you wonder, “What more should we have to do, to make this society and our lives better?”

If you have any suggestions, please share.

On the positive side, Happy Mother’s Day.


Till next week,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Recommendation Letters For What They Really Are – Self-Promotion & Self-Protection

Like many many things in our lives, once a practice adds a positive sheen or serves a useful purpose, it becomes a fad, which in turn becomes an end in itself. “Recommendation letters” is one such practice. It has become absurdity onto itself…not all the time, but often enough.

What is the added value of a recommendation letter? Does it really offer more genuine information about the candidate than the candidate’s own track record would indicate? Are half the recommendation letters below average, as half the candidates must be? Have there been studies comparing the impact of recommendation letters against the candidate’s ultimate academic or job performance?

At 13,000+ ft, not for the weak kneed.

At 13,000+ ft, not for the weak kneed.

For candidates in certain professions, the higher up the promotional ladder the more elaborate the application package becomes. Some positions require recommendation letters from multiple outside sources. And the higher the professional rank of the promotion, the fewer the outside professionals whose recommendations will “really matter.” Guess what? Those highly sought-after professionals are terribly busy in their own organizations and networks, and while sympathetic they just don’t have the time to compose a letter telling the other organization how good that organization’s own personnel really are. How often is the practice “Please draft a letter for me” resorted to? And what counterproductive biases enter into the decision process? Marketing oneself seems natural to extroverts, salespeople, and many Americans, but how about everyone else?

I have known one person, who upon completing such a promotional package for herself (and deeply frustrated that her home organization put her through this nightmare for the promotion she had already earned) realized that she might as well distribute this package to apply for other jobs. She did, and she switched jobs. Was that what her home organization really wanted?

And how often do reviewers, for hiring or for promotion, pay more attention to the reputation of the person writing the letter than to the letter itself? I’ve known another person, world-famous in his field, who made a practice of handwriting recommendation letters for his students. Did such handwritten letters have more influence on their recipients than the identical information sent in an email would have? (Anecdotally they seemed to, and how is that not scary?)

What’s more, if the candidate later performs much below expectations (as most employees do a fraction of the time and a fraction of employees do most of the time), we can always use the cover that “hey, so and so thought he was really good.” To what extent do these recommendation letters vary profoundly… and so, what value do they really serve? Cynical? Tell me otherwise.

What I am driving at is this: Due process has its merits, but when we go through the process only for the sake of the process, we don’t just delegate anymore; we abdicate our responsibilities. If I was tasked to hire or promote someone, it means others want my judgment. Judgement, not formality or formula. I’d examine the candidate’s record carefully and interview the candidate accordingly, with quality questions. I’d pick up the phone and call a few people who know the candidate.

Hiring and promoting are more art than science; ultimately, it comes down to making a judgment call, yet we instead hide behind process hoping that yields a better hire or justifiable promotion. We seem to have lost our trust in judgment, our own and others’. The reason for that is a different topic and a lot more complicated…so I keep writing on these issues.

Till next issue,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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