Archive for the 'Random Sightings' Category

MegaPlaza in MultiContext


A visit to my LinkedIn page just taunted me with the reminder that it’s been over sixty days since I took the time to record a thought here.  Not that I’m a manic blogger, but that’s a long lapse.

It wasn’t for lack of thoughts.

The last eight weeks have seen a lot of change, with little time for public reflection.  I made the rough decision to leave a great job, moved from the bottom to the top of the West coast, married an amazing woman in the company of wonderful people, gallavanted around Central America and returned to dive head first into a wide-open new opportunity.  After years of annual moves and biweekly travel across oceans and deserts, these two months have been like a climactic montage of radical context changes.

There’s always an awkward balance of humor and discomfort in the collision of contextualities.  Honduras was full of them.  A bright Re/Max For Sale sign 12.5 miles up a dirt track road in Pico Bonito, teetering in front of a thatch-roof hut under a power line patched inside a plastic Fanta bottle.  The shell of a shopping center under construction next to a scraggy field full of impoverished cows breathing visibly around exposed rib lines.  Suppose they appreciate the irony of the Wendy’s being erected on the corner, an anchor brand of the shiny new MegaPlaza?

Should I?

As a strip mall anywhere in the developed world, this sight would have barely registered in my memory; a vaguely depressing blur in a scenery of suburban banality.  But here it seems jarringly out of place, offensive to my expectation of a secluded tropical island honeymoon destination.  Its unlit neons burn with an endemic injustice, just the latest signs in a long legacy of radical income disparity that dates to pirate ships and carries through to private yachts.

Those first reactions are soon challenged by further explorations of context.  What about all the job creation?  And who am I to say that Roatan’s middle class and visitors shouldn’t enjoy the occasional Frosty?  What right do I have to expect a culture of poverty just because I’m disillusioned with culture of quickserve gluttony?

This isn’t a blog about political economy and I won’t rant further about the moral merits of Central American development strategies.  The point is, living in MultiContext forced me to think long and hard about MegaPlaza.  Had I expected it, I never would’ve thought twice.


Disappointing at its own ends

Elvis Costello talked to NPR recently about what it takes to stay successful and satisfied in the music business for more than three decades:

I never set out with an objective that I had to, you know, invade Russia by next week or something.  That’s not a healthy way to carry on in music.  When I’m asked for advice by people whose children are considering music as a career, I say, “make sure it’s actually music they’re pursuing, and not fame,”  because fame on its own ends is liable to be disappointing, but music is very rarely disappointing.

In other words, don’t be a musician just to get famous; don’t sell widgets just to get rich.  You’ll let yourself down.

Thanks, Elvis.

It’s a spirit written into the the modern American dream — the hope that pursuit of passion will always lead to accidental profit and assured prosperity.  It’s also built into the foundation of brand consulting: companies inspired by big ideas will always be more successful over the long term than companies looking for a quick fix.  We turn this into convincing, sometimes even emotionally moving arguments for common rallying cries and higher callings.

But is it really true?  Is it really possible to sell insurance for the sake of peace of mind?  To parse endless lines of enterprise accounting software code in the name of productive efficiency?  Is that sense of ultimate purpose really what it takes to run a successful brand for decades?

Is, say, Nike really around to drive the essence of sport to the next level?  Like Mr. Costello, would they describe themselves as champions of sport first, and accidental business starlets second?

I asked their investor relations homepage.


I know, that’s a completely unfair conclusion.  Nike has nurtured an amazing brand from a backtop in Eugene, OR to a multi-billion dollar global business.  They stand apart in recognition and success because of their ability to nurture that brand, and to do so they take constant inspiration from a big idea that resonates.

But you won’t find much about that big idea in their 10-K.  The awkward reality that we brand consultants must come to terms with is this clumsy separation between big ideas and business models.  The fact that we believe in the power of brands but still struggle to quantify their value in balance-sheet terms.  The smirks we share when we take credit for bottom-line results.

If there are more than ‘intangible asssets’ at play, it’s time to find them.  Let’s make sure it’s actually brands we’re pursuing.

Sunday Riders and the Power of Novel Discovery

from Hummingcrows Flickr photo stream

I spend a lot of time visiting Phoenix, and aside from the excellent company, it’s not an experience I enjoy.  This is in many ways a city without a soul; a sprawling mass of asphalt,  strip malls, chain restaurants, SUVs and the leathery-yellow fallout of overused tanning beds.  I’ve been honked and yelled at more times while on a single bike ride here than the sum of all my other riding experiences, including urban LA.  It’s as if the mere sight of pedals and spokes threatens the validity of 64-oz-cup-holders and the constitutional right to self-inflicted melanoma.  I was once approached by a young dreadlocked Greenpeace advocate on the ASU campus who asked if I had a minute for the environment.  I told him that if he really cared, he should just give up and leave.  “Seriously dude, just stop consuming resources here.  It’s over.”

Needless to say, I have a bad attitude about the Valley of the Sun.  But this morning I had a change of heart.

The Valley Metro Light Rail has been up and running for just over a month; a single line spanning 20 miles from the sunburned suburbs of Mesa across Tempe and into the gritty heart of Phoenix proper.  It comes twice as frequently as buses and charts a far more useful route through hubs of activity and commerce.  And unlike other gentrified transit systems, a ticket for the train is the same price as a bus pass.

I wasn’t the only one fascinated by my first desert metro experience.  Our car was a social hall of skinny jeans, sleeve tattoos, Carharts and work boots, white-haired perms and hipster mullets — all commuting together for the first time without barriers of auto glass and lane markers.  A group of college students marveled audibly at how cool it all was, as if they were on their first trip to Europe.  A mother looked away when we passed a gawdy sex shop.  A smiling older gentleman, Dockers crossed and oxford socks showing nearly to the knee, leaned across the aisle and politely asked whether the train would turn around when it reached the end of the line.  “Or do you think we’ll need to change trains?”  Thinking he was worried about missing a stop, I asked how far he intended to go.  “The whole way,” he said, smiling at his wife.  “We’re just out for a ride.”

Looking around the train car, I realized that there were at least three other retirement-age couples doing the same thing; just out to see the city from a new vantage point.

I too, looked at Phoenix a little differently for the rest of the day.  Turns out it isn’t quite as wasteful as I’d assumed.  At the end of the day, a twenty mile, $1.4 billion single stretch of rail isn’t going to replace the SUVs.  It’s not going to turn Phoenix into a walkable city and it won’t displace enough CO2 to assuage the increasingly-dry and sizzling summers.  But the significance of light rail is more than the change of traffic technology; it’s an equally important change of window panes.

Six Dollar Ice Cream and Absurd Rationality

Earlier this month, I found myself outside of a so-called “boutique” ice cream parlor in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle at 10:30pm on a Saturday night.  The temperature was 38 degrees, and it was beginning to sprinkle.  I was waiting in the wet cold because so many people were packed inside, patiently anticipating their own chance to fork over $6 for made-to-order waffle cones filled with homemade flavors with names like ‘balsamic strawberry,’ that the door itself could barely open — let alone admit another customer.

Jumping up and down to stay warm, I had time to contemplate which was less logical: my decision to wait, or the fact that we were all there in the first place.  In the midst of the worst economic storm in decades, with pink slips piling up in every sector of the economy and consumer spending in a serious funk, here were dozens of people clamoring over each other to buy a premium-priced frozen treat; a consumption experience with a shelf life of roughly twenty minutes.  In January.  In Seattle.  In the rain.

And yet, somehow I was surrounded by completely logical decisions.  As Molly Moon herself told the Seattle Weekly, “it’s one of the cheapest things you can do in Seattle at night.”  Indeed, at the level of cold cash calculation, a scoop of cardamom is easily half the cost of a movie ticket.  It fits at a cultural level, too — Seattleites have survived for more than a century by finding spots of disingenuous sunshine under the cloud cover.

Today I’ve been thumbing through James Galbraith’s (yes, son of Johnrant on the deep ironies of markets.  Tongue firmly in cheek, he reviews the all-too recent realization of behavioral economists that people do not, in fact, always act rationally in a micro-economic context.  Shockingly, empirical studies show that people don’t consistently make predictable decisions even when markets operate at ‘ideal’ conditions.  Galbraith interprets:

These are remarkably subversive findings, for they suggest that even if there were no monopoly, no externalities, perfect information, and perfect foresight, markets composed of real people would still not perform as the [classic conservative] vision requires.

Call me captain obvious, but here’s a shot-from-the-hip hypothesis for James:

  1. Logic is entirely contextual.  People make what they feel are rational decisions based on the resources available at the time of the decision — including, yes, their inherently distorted perceptions of self, others, time, consequence, and the world around them.
  2. Micro rationalities can quickly add up to absurdity.  Let’s all save money and skip the movies, and pretty soon we’re waiting in the cold for ice cream.
  3. Rational absurdities become macro realities that are difficult to shake.  In other words, we logic our way into entirely illogical situations which then re-frame the rules of context in which logical decisions must be made.  Credit default swaps, anyone?

So what does any of this have to do with meta-brand green?  Beats me.  Depending on what side you’re standing on, living sustainably is either a series of serious decisions that throw the finger to centuries of worldwide lunacy… or a tirade of follies that fall hopelessly against the wall of capital-r Reality.

Maybe it’s time to stop selling green as the smart thing to do.  Crazy as it sounds, maybe there really is more promise in pitching to the whimsy of doing something different; to the sense of mischief born on a damp sidewalk in January.

After all, it worked for ice cream.

© Ryan Cunningham 2009

Keeping Things Green

jiffylubePacing around the endearingly dingy lobby of a Glendale Jiffy Lube this weekend, I encountered this message among outdated corporate ad campaigns and framed photos of hot rods.

Jiffy Lube wants you to know that it “wants to protect the environment” so much that it “incurs a variety of expenses” related to environmental compliance, including equipment for cleaning up spills, spill prevention training, and proper uniform and rag cleaning techniques.

I’m not in the business of environmental auditing and I won’t knock JL’s corporate policies; for all I know they do manage to keep oil out of the storm drains and chemicals out of the washing machines.  But they sound far from enthusiastic about it.

Here’s the problem: Jiffy Lube — and almost every other company feeling pressure to green their image — faces a tough brand paradox.  “Keeping Things Green” means publicly trumpeting the fact that you’re in the business of harming the planet.  And that you’re willing to meet the minimum standard, or maybe just a bit more, for how much harm you’ll do.  It’s admitting you’re evil and icing it with marginal mediocrity…  hardly something to get excited about.

What’s an oil change franchise to do?  They fundamentally survive on a planet-wasting car culture, and they make the most money on the worst offenders.  Thanks to empowered activists with fingers to point, the cost of doing and saying nothing is high and rising.  But the payoff to doing and saying something is in many ways still elusive, and the risks in doing and saying the wrong thing are enough to make any copy approver paranoid.

Too many firms are stuck with a myopic perspective and few good choices — ‘Going against our core business model to do less harm than we normally would’ is why most CSR strategies have always rung hollow to me.

It’s time we started finding better alternatives.  What about ‘leveraging our core brand and business strengths to contribute to a proactive solution?’

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

Caring > Understanding

Stumbled across a report (pdf) released earlier this year by brand research firm Cone and Boston College exploring the gap between consumers’ response to green marketing claims and actual comprehension of their significance.  The paradox, as argued by one observer: people care about green and feel they have a grasp on the big picture, and yet they don’t understand commonly used phrases.  30% of consumers are still confused by the phrase ‘Fair Trade Certified,’ 36% want more information than the badge and another 15% think it’s a misleading label.

So much for the power of ingredient brands.  This is the essential problem with meta-brand green — too many cooks and too many ingredients.  Too many labels.  Sustainable.  Eco-friendly.  Conservation.  Light green.  Dark green.  LOHAS.  LEED-Certified.  Organic.  Certified Organic.  CFL.  PZEV.  Ecomagination.  Environmentality.  I’ll save you the next five dozen.

Let’s stop coming up with the next great American sub-brand and start creating stories that communicate effectively.

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

Tikis at the Mortuary (or, ‘On Unexpected Assets’)

Happened to drive by the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale yesterday night, where I passed a billboard advertising their latest museum exhibit featuring both traditional and contemporary Polynesian artifacts.

Yes, the funeral home that pioneered the concept of open expanses over crowded headstones (and inters Walt Disney among many other late celebs) has led the way once again.  Into art and education.  The folks at Forest Lawn decided they weren’t just a place for the ending of life, they were in the business of celebrating life.  And, thanks to an eccentric founder, they had a massive art collection on hand.  Put the two together and you have an opportunity to extend a relationship with people into a positive realm and create entirely new occasions for visiting the cemetery memorial park life-celebration place.  More power to them.

This is similar to the story of Arm & Hammer, who had the epiphany that they were in the odor removal business, not the boring baking ingredient trade.   They now make everything from deodorant to vacuum bags to cat litter.

Meta-brand green is having some of the same revelations.  It’s not just about saving trees and polar bears anymore.  It’s about saving money, solving security, creating jobs, etc.  The key to making these extensions stick is finding the unexpected assets already inside the soul of the brand, and reintroducing them to people in an entirely new way.  And not just traditional capital assets like solar panels or ground-source heat pumps — this is a matter of core values.  Long before I’m going to show up at your mortuary museum or consider your all-electric alternative vehicle, I’m going to need to see you differently than I did before; to see your values enhancing the image I see in myself.

Those assets are far cheaper than wind turbines, but a lot harder to construct.

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

thoughts at the collision of business, brand and creativity

I'm Ryan Cunningham. I help companies and culture play nice with each other. At CREATURE we call this Brand Strategy, a term that carries a nice halo of reliability and structure. Here, I'm just another guy who thinks about the world and writes it down from time to time.

The result is a pile of knowledge to be used in, and for, the future. Feel free to sift through the heap for useful connections.

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