A new year, a new venture

It’s been a while! For the past few years most of my time has been spent as the Director of Strategy at Great Mondays, and I’m still part of their team.

But it’s time to get back to my “heart” clients, the do-gooders and world changers I love. So In 2020 I’ll be splitting my time between GM and my own consulting practice. It’s still a work in progress, but please follow me over to www.troveinsights.com.

Dollar Shave Club and Unilever win big — what about the customers?

Everyone is talking about the $1 Billion dollar buyout of Dollar Shave Club by Unilever in terms of disruption and startup success. I can’t help but wonder what’s in it for customers.

DSC sells monthly subscriptions to inexpensive men’s razors, a rebel brand positioned against the trend of aggressively overpriced and over-featured razor blades. (Think $1 per blade vs. $3-5. Razors are such a racket!) The company has never turned a profit, so from their perspective a buyout worth 5x their revenue is a dream. While they hadn’t yet made it into the black, what they have done exceptionally well is attract an engaged, young demographic poised to buy their product monthly for decades to come. Access to this customer base — and the cheeky advertising that built it — is what Unilever is paying for. It’s a big number to DSC, a tiny one to Unilever. A win-win.

The analysts see disruption as the takeaway. That another upstart has undercut an established industry is indeed scary news to many businesses. Naturally, the press has put out a string of breathless warnings about new models and subscriptions coming for their market share. No one is safe! They’re right. They are also speculating how this affects competitors, particularly Gillette, owned by P&G, and if a pricing war on the horizon. All very interesting from an industry point of view.

Where are the customers in this conversation? I haven’t seen any mention by analysts of how this might be good (or even bad) for customers. How do they feel about their indie brand selling to a mega CPG company? How will this impact their dirt cheap razor prices? Will they stay loyal, or defect to one of DSC’s competitors, like Harry’s? Will Unilever maintain what they value about this brand?

Unilever is a good company, known for a sincere commitment to being an ethical, sustainable business. I have no reason to believe they are scooping up a competitor to wreck it. But they won’t maintain an unprofitable division for long. Reportedly, they hope to increase profitability by reducing marketing costs and scaling up. Who knows? Maybe they’ll pull it off. But if I were a customer, I’d be expecting a price hike. If not now, soon.

Regardless, I hope Unilever is truly listening to these new customers and keeping them front and center in their conversations.

ETA: This is a great article about how this disruption happened, and role the invisible juggernaut AWS plays.

Collaborators wanted! Inquire within.

I’m always on the lookout for great people to work with! Wondering what’s a fit? Naturally, I have a visualization for that:

efrye_vennThe green zone is my ideal – a strategic role in a team-based, consulting environment, working for mission-driven clients. If you can help me make this happen, you’ll be my hero!

Mission-driven is my shorthand for a range of possibilities including both for- and not-for-profit organizations that have a strong sense of purpose beyond making money and contribute positively to their communities. I consider many entrepreneurs and small businesses to be part of this group even without an overt social mission.

Only a tiny handful of people work completely at the intersection of brand, mission, and team, so while I cultivate that space there are two other intersecting zones I look for.

The yellow zone comprises the heart of my work as a brand and communication consultant. The engagements I enjoy most are developing organizational identity, positioning, and narratives from the ground up. In plain terms, that means I help them get clear about what they are and can go, gain new insights into their audiences and markets, and bring it all together in messages that are simple and powerful.  I always appreciate referrals to leaders in mission-driven organizations who are ready to raise their visibility and impact.

While this offers rewarding work for clients I love, direct consulting is often solo. To balance that I also look for opportunities on the other side, in the blue zone. It’s doing the same kind of work, but as a freelancer with existing brand agency teams for more mainstream clients. Working with teams is collaborative and accelerates learning, and these experiences give me renewed inspiration and tools to bring back to my mission-driven clients. If you know of agencies or consulting firms that need freelance help on their projects, introductions would be most welcome.

Those are three ways you can help me grow. Please let me know what I can do to help you!

Be the best maple tree you can be

bonsai_680

My inner control freak loves bonsai! It’s nature, in a tiny, perfectly-designed form.

Over a long weekend in Oregon, I lucked into an exhibit of American bonsai by Ryan Neil at the Portland Japanese Garden. It was charming and beautifully staged in origami-like frames.

What I learned is that American bonsai differs from the Japanese tradition. Japanese bonsai treasures the ideal, training each maple tree to be the ideal maple tree, whereas American-style bonsai brings out the unique characteristics of each individual maple. In the words of Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” That’s what Neil is doing. Incredibly, he does this with wood that’s as much as 600 years old, teasing out fresh life from what seems mostly dead. (Remind me of this if you hear me say I’m too old for anything.)

Why am I talking about bonsai? Because it is a great analogy to how we’ve evolved our thinking on brand and organizational development. The old school way was the “best practices” model — there is a right, replicable way to do things, and we succeed by emulating the ideal.  And, certainly, it is enormously useful to study the success of others.

What this overlooks is that organizations — and people — are not machines made up of levers that can be reliably manipulated just so. They are complex organisms filled with complex organisms, and despite common patterns no two are alike. Human systems simply can’t be templatized the way business books promise.

When we insist an organization must look or act a certain way, we lose sight of the individual characteristics that give it strength and power. And we miss seeing what might be actually better, outside of tradition and beyond our imagination. To be sustainable, brand and culture must be built on what is authentically different, not what is the same.

That’s not to say we can grow wild and still succeed. Bonsai has much to teach us about careful cultivation. But with careful training and pruning, we can become something amazingly unique from the inside out.

Living up to a people-powered promise

redhatcollaborate

Much of my time over the past year has been spent in the company of Red Hat, the open source software company.

The organization is rooted in the ideals of the open source movement: collaboration, innovation, and generosity. Their brand team is doing some fun stuff to bring what they call the Red Hat Way to life through campaigns celebrating the people and teamwork that make them great. Go check out their people-powered billboard! So awesome.

While everyone I’ve met at Red Hat has been great, we work virtually and until recently I hadn’t had a chance to witness the larger culture. So I was excited to visit the Raleigh HQ for a workshop with their Global Services folks. It was a great session, full of deep insights and collaboration, but what stood out the most was how their behavior truly lived up to their values.

It was an ambitious workshop, engaging interactively with participants on 4 continents — naturally, technological obstacles kept popping up. Yet, one after another the Red Hatters jumped in to help us troubleshoot and find solutions so everyone could be included. Frankly, I’ve never seen so many proactively helpful senior staff. (Or, at least, not in the for-profit world.) They were generous, collaborative, and humble, which stands out in the world of tech.

They’re clearly doing something right in their culture, and it makes me happy to know I’m supporting such great people.

 

2015 Highlights

One of the best things about consulting is having a variety of organizations and people to work with every year. Here are a few collaborations from 2015:

Red Hat

red-hat-180This one was a lot of fun — a “State of the Brand” analysis for open source leaders Red Hat. Teaming up with Great Monday, I did tons of market research and wrapped it all up in a visual presentation that is a resource to their brand team and a conversation-starter for executives.

Garfield Innovation Center

Kaiser Permanente’s innovation center, a longtime client, asked for help reframing their services so it’s more clear how and when to engage them. This has come up a recently with multiple clients — the architecture of products and services sounds simple enough but is truly one of the biggest stumbling blocks in communication the value of an organization.

Revolution Media

rm-workshop-180Working with Intactic, we refreshed the Revolution Media identity, starting with a workshop and ending with new messaging and a website. They now have a voice that embodies their direct, confident, no-drama culture.

Global Footprint Network

As part of a pro bono team, I spent a whole lot of this year working on positioning and messaging for Global Footprint Network, an environmental research organization. We’re not quite finished yet, but we’re very, very close and I look forward to sharing more soon.

Entrepreneurs

taiwan_180pxI’ve been advising a new finance company on marketing strategy, and had the great fortune to accompany the founder on a trip to Taiwan. It was quite an adventure!

Several purpose-driven solopreneurs also came to me this year for coaching on their strategy and story. Supporting entrepreneurs is one of the purposes I most value — there’s something about helping someone achieve their dream and build their legacy that hits me right in the feels.

Hello Kitty, hello cuteness

hellokittybillboardOn my recent trip to Taiwan and Tokyo, the cute factor was inescapable. Buildings, restaurants, museums, you name it. Everything has a mascot. Everything has an animated character. And the queen herself, Hello Kitty, continues to reign supreme.

But of course Hello Kitty is more than a mere character. She’s a phenomenon and even a way of life, and has been for 40 years. Even guys can be spotted with HK gear. (Full disclosure: I still have the plush Hello Kitty I got in the 4th grade.)

hellokittybackpackOur trip coincided with the debut of the new EVA Air Hello Kitty route to Houston. The subway and street ads feature Kitty as an astronaut, which makes sense. Why she carries a basketball, I couldn’t say. Maybe the Taiwanese are crazy about the Houston Rockets?

These themed routes have special planes decked out in Hello Kitty from tip to tail. It has to be seen to be believed. The depth and detail is truly astonishing — in addition to the plane wraps, there are more than 100 Hello Kitty branded items inside the plane, from the lavatory soap to the food to the toilet paper. EVA Air has even redesigned its airport counters and kiosks to promote the collaboration. It’s like a a giant Sanrio store.

I can’t even wrap my head around the amount of work and money this must have taken to build out. The licensing and contracts alone, much less the design, printing, and manufacturing costs to duplicate everything on a plane… amazing. They report it’s expensive, but profitable.

That is what you call brand equity.

Puppets and pandas

 

taiwan
This summer is off to a unexpected start!

I’ve been advising a good friend and colleague, Michael, on a new business he’s starting. It’s based here in Oakland but with an office in Taipei. He asked if I would go with him on his next trip, which was only a few weeks away, and I jumped at it. I’ve been looking for ways to shake things up in my work and life anyway. Why not see what a couple of weeks in Asia kicks loose? It would also give me an opportunity to piggyback a few days to see family in Tokyo.

The company is confidential, so I can’t say much about that. And I couldn’t possibly cover everything we did and saw in Taiwan. But I can tell you about pandas and gondolas and marble gorges:

Puppets!

puppetsMichael was over the National Museum after several visits, so our first day there we powered through jet lag and heat exhaustion to go to the Puppetry Arts Center instead. It’s a fantastic little museum packed with inventive, delightful, and even creepy puppets of all kinds. And on the way we visited the beautiful Xingtian temple. It was an inspiring start to our adventure.

Gondolas and pandas

gondolaAfter a business meeting downtown later that week we hustled out to the Maokong Gondolas, only to be foiled by a thunderstorm. It was, frankly, a rough day. Let’s just say mistakes were made and neither nature nor transit were on our side. But serendipity graced us, leading to the famed panda born at the Taiwan Zoo. (Which we could see without waiting since it was 100 degrees and raining. Yay?) And we did eventually get to take our gondola ride at sunset later that day. It was worth the wait — gorgeous and serene. Except for those screeching monkeys after dark.

Taipei 101

taipei101Something I love doing in big cities is taking in the cityscape. In Taipei, you do this from the observatory at the Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world. The city is simply huge! It stretches in all directions up to the edges of mountains and rivers. Taipei is a little dreary at ground level, but from above it’s stunning. After the sunset faded we capped our evening with dumplings at Din Tai Fung. Beyond delicious. I’m still drooling over that meal.

Taroko and Sun Moon Lake

tarokoWe left the city for a few days and saw a prettier side of Taiwan. We started by driving down the eastern coast to Hualien, where we found a great night market and the “coffin bread” I’d been hunting for. The next day we drove across Taroko National Park, starting at sea level and making our way up to the peak at 10,000 feet – where the cool air was a welcome break from the oppressive heat – and wound our way back down and over to Sun Moon Lake in the center of the island. Taroko Gorge is made of marble! Beautiful scenery. Crazy, white-knuckle driving conditions. Michael is a brave man.

Cute overload

My inner 9-year-old was giddy over the omnipresent Hello Kitty. (And my inner brand manager was agog at the volume of licensing deals.) She is everywhere, all the time. As were a million other mascots and characters; clearly the culture of cute rules here. Even the Taipei 101 has a mascot, the “damper baby”, a character based on its spherical wind damper. And Din Tai Fung has a dumpling mascot. Seriously. More on this to come.

Lessons from Mad Men: Bigger is not always better

mad-men-time-and-life-partnersAs Mad Men winds down, we find our beloved anti-hero, Don Draper, losing his agency.

Over ten years in television time we’ve watched him pull rabbit after rabbit out of his fedora to stay ahead of mergers and takeovers. (Not to mention contracts.) Despite a last-ditch effort, this time there are no more rabbits. It appears Sterling Cooper & Partners will be assimilated by mega-agency McCann Erickson.

Why the SC&P partners would be dismayed at joining the fold does not compute to the McCann rep. He says to them: “You’re dying…and going to advertising heaven.” Where heaven is the biggest clients at the biggest agency. And it’s true, this is heaven for many folks.

But from Sterling Cooper’s point of view this means giving up their clients. The ones that stood with them while they built the agency. The ones they’ve built strong relationships with.

That hits home for me.

Their story is a little different than mine. In addition to clients, SC&P also faces a loss of autonomy, probably most of their staff, and the Sterling Cooper name. More than their name — their identity. If anything, I’ve been reaching beyond my old identity and giving away some of my independence! Where our stories intersect is valuing relationships over billings and not believing bigger is necessarily better.

There was a time in my career when I dreaded cocktail party questions about my work: “Who do you work with?” “Have you done anything I’ve seen?” Few people had heard of my clients, and this felt like the mark of being less-than. Just as the McCann guy assumes, I did expect to move on to bigger clients and bigger agencies. Even though I liked the values-driven, emerging businesses that gave me my start, it seemed inevitable to leave them.

I hadn’t yet grown into the wisdom that these clients were not stepping stones, they were my destination. Big or small, the size of the organization is irrelevant. What matters is finding people you trust and look forward to working with, towards a goal you can get behind. It’s especially sweet when they are small, though. The feeling you get from helping a founder bring her vision and legacy to life is incomparable.

Now I see those questions differently. Sure, we could talk about a company you’ve known for decades, or I could introduce you to one that’s breaking new ground or making the world a better place. Which conversation would you rather have?

Are you ready for the design-led revolution?

Over the past year I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with the sustainability team at Autodesk to envision their support for the design-led revolution. Haven’t heard of it? You may not know the DLR moniker, but you’ve seen revolutionary design in action. From affordable prosthetics to solar robotics, high-impact solutions are emerging everywhere. And just in the nick of time!

The reinvention needed to make our planet livable for 9 billion is immense, and I love that Autodesk is committed to helping designers, architects, builders, engineers, and entrepreneurs reshape our world. We need more companies like this leading the way.

Their aim isn’t only to raise awareness about epic challenges and inspire people to do what’s right, although that’s certainly a big part of it. It’s also about helping designers and companies get ahead of  the inevitable resource shortages, urbanization, and climate change coming our way. To stay relevant — and profitable — in the future, you must start thinking differently now.

So, how will you design a better future?

Credit where credit’s due: The awesome folks at Free Range are the storytellers behind the design-led revolution video, manifesto, and hero case studies.