Who are we now?

istock-538165625_webAs I looked back over 2016, and really stopped to take in what a watershed year it was, there were a few things that really stood out to me going into 2017.

Aside from the election, one thing that got me pondering was the Chicago Cubs winning of the World Series. Their first since 1908.

In all the glee and hubbub over winning it, there is a question that looms in front of Cubs fans: Who are they now? What does it mean to be a Cubs fan? For as long as anyone can remember, being a Cubs fan meant wearing a special badge on your heart. “Long suffering”; “lifted up and dropped right down”; — a group of people bound together by pain and sorrow and the feeling that they are a special breed of “foul-weather” fans who will stand in allegiance no matter what.

But now what? None of that applies any more. Now, the Cubs are just the most recent team to win the World Series. No more being able to bond over “a century of heartbreak.” An identity that many Cubs fans may realize was their #1 coalescent catalyst is now gone. The icon of their identity is no more. A whole bunch of new conversations will need to be developed. What it means to be a Cubs fan will need to be reinvented.

Identities shift and we’d all be wise to pay attention. The way you talk to a group today may not be the way to talk to them tomorrow. Whether it is your company that is changing, or your customer base, or the market conditions, you need to stay alert to how your customers perceive you, your product, but especially themselves.

A question I have been spending a lot of time on, on behalf of clients, for the last year or so, is: “who am I asking someone to be, in order for them to do business with me?” And the obverse: “How must someone define themselves, to make us the answer?”

This came up huge in the 2016 elections. Groups that had not previously been under the same umbrella were presented with an identity (of themselves) which brought them together.

Quite abruptly, the questions of “who do I have to be, to vote Democrat?” and “who do I have to be, to vote Republican?” are being answered very differently.

So whether it is for a Cubs fan needing a new way to identify themselves, a voter seeking a new answer to address their most critical problems, or a prospective customer looking for a “fit” that feels right; we need to be asking: “who does somebody have to be, to be with me?”

If you’re asking them to be someone they don’t want to be, then you have a problem.

Optimally, someone gets to think better of themselves because they are “doing business” with you. — That they will arrive at, or are on the road to, a better destination because you are their travelling partner.

It’s not just about telling someone how great you are; it’s allowing them to imagine relevant greatness for themselves, too.

— Simon Dixon

Notes on the Galaxy…

479407900_fire-phone_fnlSamsung’s decision to terminate the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone is a huge decision and is worth a further look.

It takes a page from the Tylenol book of crisis management. In what has become the textbook (although rarely followed) response to a critical product flaw, back in 1982, Johnson & Johnson pulled every bottle of Tylenol in the U.S. off store shelves and made public appeals for customers to turn in their stocks for replacement. This in response to several deaths in Chicago caused by a man injecting cyanide into Tylenol bottles. The physical problem was in Chicago. The brand problem was nationwide. J&J correctly responded to the brand problem and replaced over $100M worth of product. Their brand came out even more respected than it had been, and the halo of J&J as a company that cared for people over products still adds luster to their brand today.

In the last 10 years we have seen a tremendous shift, driven by software companies, to “test on the road” i.e., go to market with a minimally viable product and deal with issues as they come up. It has been a seismic shift in what customers will accept. It was a similar approach to product introduction that brought the GM brand to its knees in the face of the relative perfection of Toyota and Honda. Yet these days, Tesla gets away with repair costs 2-3 times greater than those of GM and Ford. And people are still lining up for years to buy one. (More on this, next blog.)

The coolness of Tesla outweighs the fire of Samsung…

Now we have flaming Samsungs. Many feel that their push to leapfrog the iPhone in technology and (less likely) popularity, stretched their quality controls too thinly. Commercial airline pilots have recently been announcing to passengers that if they have a Notebook 7 on board, they need to power it down as a fire risk. Hard to imagine a worse branding problem.

You may have heard me define a brand as “the answer to the question: what do people think of, when they think about me?” For Apple, Toyota, Microsoft, Coke, you have responses that go beyond what they do and into what they represent to you, emotionally. Another guiding credo I offer clients: “no one cares about what you do; they care about what happens because of what you do.” By and large, that exists for the above companies, but not so much for Samsung. For the level of success Samsung wants for their phones and other products, it needs to become so.

So I have to respect the informed boldness of their response. Kill the Note 7. It is a wise move. Although Samsung is something of a blend between a “branded house” (e.g., Ford) and a “house of brands” (e.g., Proctor and Gamble), their brand is still weak enough that, for most people, the name Samsung does not really conjure up anything except their product lines.

Right now, in this case, they are making their brand deficit work for them. The phone is the focus, not the company, and killing the phone will take much of the negativity with it. And they also get to create and ride the PR bonus of “how Samsung takes care of its customers.” They are laying great groundwork to ensure that the Galaxy Note 8 (or better yet, some other name) is the phoenix that will rise from the ashes of the Note 7. And that their brand will come out burnished, not burnt.

For Samsung, just like for you, your brand is what truly attaches you to your customers. Do you have a Samsung-level of awareness of your brand’s position, so you can make thus informed decisions?

If the answer is no, do your homework and make your brand more fire resistant.

— Simon Dixon


Don’t trip over me.

Gadsden_flag2_IEI go to church. The church I go to would have people categorize me as evangelical Christian, although it’s not a label I would usually apply to myself. People are often surprised that I am a churchgoer. The way I dress, some of my laissez-faire viewpoints do not necessarily fit one’s “standard” idea of a Christian.

I am also in a history book club. At our last meeting we discussed Neil Maher’s book, Nature’s New Deal. We all really enjoyed the book, which looks at FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps through the eyes of the socio-political issues of the time, (1930s & 40s). It gave rise to some great discussions.

One guy who was attending, a friend of the author (who was also in attendance – how cool is our book club!) said during discussion, “How can evangelical Christians support Trump? He is against their beliefs.” Common, smart rules of discussion would have advised me to leave that comment be… But I said, “I am an evangelical Christian and I don’t support him.” Luckily we extricated ourselves from that rabbit hole before we went too deep, but it really got me thinking.

There is a book called, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America that explores the idea that certain states the author feels should be voting Democrat (and used to reliably vote Democrat), are now solidly Republican. Part of what I realized from reading Neil Maher’s book was that these states originally used to be Republican, went Democrat as a (purposeful) result of the New Deal and now are moving back to the place from whence they came.

What does this have to do with marketing…?

Well, in the long and hard thinking about this that is my job and that Neil Maher’s book inspired, I really saw how often we decide for ourselves what groups other people should belong to. – At our peril.

The guy at book club thought evangelical Christians see themselves as that first and so should form their voting decisions based primarily on their religion. People who think Kansans should vote blue are deciding the citizens of that state should look at broad social-economic policy and decide that Democrats would offer more protection to populations living in areas in economic decline.

But more than ever before, we are seeing people feeling much more free to “identify” with groups that make sense to them but may not be the most obvious based on their surroundings, or gender or whatever.

The tools of this seminal change? The apps on our smartphones.

The most powerful force of social media is that it allows “me” to find other people just like “me” on a national and even global scale, whereas not too long ago, I’d have to decide whether I wanted to “belong” or “not belong” based on the people I would physically run into through the course of my day, week, year.

Not anymore.

Now I can feel like I belong, even if the group I belong to is spread out very widely in a geographic sense. However, in a communications sense we can be talking and reinforcing each other 24/7.

The old rules don’t fit. People are, less and less, part of a geographically-based groups. They are members of communication groups. It is people’s shared experiences and opinions that make them part of any group. Or a voting bloc. And those groups are now being defined by Facebook and Snapchat, etc., not by zip codes.

So be careful in defining people-groups the way you used to.

People are becoming less “Kansans” or “Christians.” They are “them.” A small (or large) collection of self-defined important viewpoints that become honed and hardened by largely talking only with others of the same viewpoints. And feeling very comfortable with being hostile to those with opposing viewpoints. (Just check out the comments section on any news site, YouTube or wherever commentary is allowed.) The drift would seem to be that instead of the collage of views and personality that any person has when you meet them in real-life, a social media relationship may only consist of the viewpoints you and “they” happen to mesh upon.

The internet has the power to bring people of widely disparate views together for discussion, but more and more it seems that the “melting pot” is reverting to a bowl of separate ingredients. (That may react violently when combined.) This can allow powerful specificity for communications strategies, but must be pursued thoughtfully.

Anyone who has seen me talk has heard me talk about conversing with potential stakeholders in a “resonant format” – i.e., in a way that makes sense to that group and identifies you as someone sensitive to that group. That is only going to get more important. Hardened “micro-groups” mean it can be easy to find people that “like” you. But it is also getting increasingly easier to step on communications land mines and face focused wrath as a result.

Tread carefully.

— Simon Dixon

One more thing. Again…

17374158_l-IEblogAppleI was giving a talk at Cal Lutheran University a fortnight ago and got some interesting looks when I mentioned that I thought that Apple may be on its first long-circuit around the drain.

Initially I thought this when the iPhone SE came out and almost blogged so, but I wanted to think about it more and subsequently realized that the “real beginning of the end” was the iPhone 6. And let me be clear, I don’t see Apple going out of business; but I do think that they are on the way to being just like other companies in their field such as Samsung. That’s a world of tighter margins and tougher competition. Samsung knows how to live in that world. Apple may not.

Back in 2010, Steve Jobs said, “no-one would want to buy a phone with a big screen.” To him, the iPhone 5 was the perfect size. (He was holding a 4 when he said it, but he had the 5 in development). Four years later, Business Insider ran a story about how wrong Jobs was, citing the huge sales of the 6 and 6 Plus.

But you know what? He was right.

I want the screen size of my 6s but I don’t want the size of the phone. It does not fit in my hand like my 5 did.

Soon after Steve Jobs died I wrote in my blog that “Now we’ll get to see if Apple is a great company or Steve Jobs was a great man.” My bet was on the latter. It’s coming to pass.

Ever heard the old story of Henry Ford saying, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” People would have bought those faster horses, too. But Ford was a visionary and he saw something better that people could not even think of. Steve Jobs was like that.

Currently Apple is run by engineers. People want bigger screens, so they get bigger screens. People want a smaller phone, so they get a smaller phone. That’s just how Samsung and everyone else does it. Samsung’s product line (and therein their brand) is just “a little bit of everything.” That is not the ethos that produces lines outside of stores…

Only in very rare cases does a brand evaporate overnight. But it can steadily erode if its underpinnings are removed. And although there is a lag, (the “Brand Gap”), sales will, in time, erode too.

I can see Steve Jobs pulling his engineers together and demanding, “I want the screen to be big when I look at it, but without making the phone any bigger!!!” And everyone would say, “there’s no way to do that” and then two years later the eyeball-tracking magna-screen would launch. –Or however he would have done it. But it would have happened. That was who he was. It’s what Apple was.

When the “One more thing” is showing something you’ve already made before, you have a problem.

Jobs wouldn’t have made the current 6 or the 6 Plus. And there’d be no-need for the SE or a bunch of phones in a bunch of sizes. There’d just be the Apple iPhone and it would be the coolest phone in the world. And you’d wait in line to get it. And you’d pay what it cost and be happy to do so.

Remember those days? They’re gone.

Today I had a meeting with an organization that does very important work with the economically disadvantaged. I had to remind them of just how special they are; how many people’s lives are better because of the work they do. We can get so busy responding to the market, that we forget the leadership and brilliance that got people to love us in the first place. Then you become a less interesting company: to buy from or to work for.

Take time to remember what defines your company. And regularly ask yourself if you are still living up to it.

— Simon Dixon

Golden State. Base metal plate.

blackcalifornia2Yesterday I gave in. I’ve always said that specialty license plates are a waste of money, but the new black California plates are going to have to go on my ’71 Buick Riviera. I cannot live in a world where (as I saw yesterday) a 2014 Honda Accord has the black plates and my Riv does not.

Which leads me to a thought…

A few years back I was in a meeting on one of the University of California campuses, which I was told was the first meeting where all 30+ deans were in one room. We were there to discuss the branding of the university as a whole vs. school by school. Dan Burnham, ex-CEO of Raytheon and at the time the head of the Trustees asked me, “Simon, we don’t have an unlimited budget for this, are there any things we could do that would be effective and not cost much money?”

I answered that actually, some of the things most important and most effective would almost certainly save them money. Back then, I had never been to a meeting at the university where 5+ people from the same department/school would have the same business card. And every PowerPoint seemed to be a custom creation. And so this tremendous university with many extremely accomplished faculty (including, a number of Nobel Laureates) had no unified message about its greatness. They would almost certainly save time and money by having all business cards and all PowerPoints created from the same template, but also, importantly, have them all pushing the same brand message. I have found this to be an all too common situation in large organizations.

And so back to license plates:
California still represents the American Dream to many people both in the U.S. and abroad. And the scintillating tagline that we choose to affix to the 13 million vehicles carrying California plates?


Wow. I guess we’ve decided that Californian governmental gridlock should be our defining feature. Also that our citizens have never heard of Google and so would need to walk out to their car to obtain the web address of the DMV. Perhaps it’s part of a state-sponsored plan to encourage web-browsing while driving.

So here we have it: a free mini billboard on every one of the 13+ million vehicles registered in California and it is just thrown away. I don’t even ask for originality, Governor Brown. Going back to using “The Golden State” would do the job just dandily. While you are at it, the blue and yellow or the black and yellow plate colours of old are also much better looking than the current colour scheme.

And here I saw maybe the flash of genius. Could it be that they make the standard plate so boring that the upcharged specialty plates become more alluring?

I don’t think so. It’s just that no one with the power to change it is thinking what messaging could be achieved by 13 million billboards.

Any suggestions?


— Simon Dixon


Did someone Trump?

shutterstock_355923599Ahhh…Donald Trump.

One day I wonder if he is a Machiavellian genius with a keen sense of what “just enough” people will vote for and the next day he reminds me yet again that “to trump” is UK slang for raucously passing gas.

But that Trump can attract strong numbers to his gatherings and polls should not surprise us. In truth, Trump is just extending his brand. Even if it were no-one else, people who would buy gaudy products or live in gaudy buildings with the TRUMP name emblazoned on them would find his similar approach to politics and leadership attractive.

If you have seen me talk, then you will almost certainly have heard me say, “better to be loved by some than thought of as ‘acceptable’ by many.” In most cases, people’s shopping lists for any particular product are one item deep. Which is how the polarizing lightning rod politician can score higher on the polls than any of the five fractionated flavours of “meh.” It’s also how Cadillac came back from the dead. Starting with the CTS, they stopped trying to be another German car and became something unabashedly American (plus well made). If you like that look (and I do) then you are not going to shop it against the German three that are rather interchangeable. A great move and it paid off.

Donald Trump actually stands for something. That you may not like it, even abhor it, nonetheless shows that you know what it is. He has done a good job of giving you enough information to make a choice. What does Jeb Bush stand for? Ted Cruz? Marco Rubio? Mostly, you’ve no idea. Neither much does anyone else, so traction is hard to come by.

Take all this and apply it to your own company and products. Do people know what you stand for? Do they at least think they do? If not, there is very little binding you to your customers (which means they are up for grabs) and people who would love you, have no idea who or what you are.

But with some work, it’s totally fixable. – Or, like the Donald, it’s certainly a problem you can over-comb!

— Simon Dixon

Will Hoverboards segue to Segway?

segway-peopleWith Hoverboard sales exploding (or the actual boards themselves, according to recent news reports) it has led me to wonder if we might see a related brand go through a metamorphosis. I remember way back around 2000, when I first heard of an invention code-named “Ginger” that was a personal transportation device. It certainly looked cool and the technology allowing a two-wheeled device to self-stabilize was truly cutting-edge. And then it launched as the Segway….

Many people have theorized why Segway never caught on. One thing I have learned over the course of my career in branding is that scientists and engineers often look sneeringly at branding. It can seem so silly and capricious to them. “Surely if it is a good product then people will see that and buy it” is essentially their position. There is an inherent dislike of the idea that something would need to be “sold.”  I think, largely, that Segway fell victim to that opinion. Segway could have been revolutionary but instead became the thing that dorks ride. I was on Maui last year and went on a Segway tour. It was tremendous fun, but I found myself rather glad that no one I knew could see me.

I remember Tina Fey referred to Segway on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update: “Scientists have said that Segway will revolutionize the way that people get killed by cars.” I loved that one. Segway has tended to blame authorities in various jurisdictions for Segway’s poor adoption because of laws passed curtailing their use on sidewalks, etc. but what really killed it was leaving the brand perception up to the masses and it didn’t go the way they assumed.

As I have often said, there will always be messages about you, your company, your product. The decision you need to make is whether you will be in charge of the message or someone else will. And the “someone else” may not be as kind as you. (Or perhaps, more benignly, just not aware of the compelling truths about your product.)

So back to Hoverboards. Right now they are the hot gift for Christmas 2015. (Immolation pun intended :)  If that stays true and people start riding them in numbers, it would be a great opportunity for Segway to reposition their brand. They have an opportunity to harvest the “cool” of Hoverboards and then burnish it with the superior capabilities of the Segway. (Although some hip redesign would not be out of order…)

If you find yourself on a Segway next year not praying that you won’t be recognized — thank the Hoverboard. It may turn out that you can indeed polish a… nerd.

#segway  #hoverboard  #polishanerd

— Simon Dixon