Be the best maple tree you can be
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.
Hello Kitty, hello cuteness
On 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.)
Our 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
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:
Michael 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
After 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.
Something 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
We 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.
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.
Acceptance and Gratitude
Recently I had the good fortune to find a forgotten family gem, personal histories from WWII written by two of my grandfather’s brothers. It was an opportunity to learn about uncles I barely knew and get personal insights into one of the most important events of the 20th century.
What struck me was how often the word “lucky” came up in their accounts. Certainly they both mentioned hardships, both personal and physical, but their gratitude for what they did have — especially in contrast to those who had it so much worse — was deeply moving. Each brother spent about 3-1/2 years in the service, a long time to be in a war and away from home, and yet they told their stories with acceptance and grace. Even their comments about the futility of arguing with the Army had a certain air of positive resolve, rather than bitterness or even resignation. My grandfather, his three brothers, and their uncle (shown above) all served many years, and all came home. Those must have been long years not only for them, but for their wives and family as well.
Stoicism is a hallmark of my father’s family, although I did not inherit as much of it as I would like. I never forget I have been very lucky in life, but reading their stories inspires me to focus more on remembering the good more than the bad.
This weekend a friend was in town, and visitors are great prompts to do all the local things we don’t get around to — in this case, the new Exploratorium!
Something that caught my eye is their name for exhibit guides: Explainers. It’s a miniscule detail compared to the immensity and wonder of all the hands-on exhibits, but this struck me as truly the perfect word. In contrast to titles like Docent, Explainer is simple, kid-friendly, and communicates exactly what they do. Bonus points: Exploratorium Explainers is alliterative!
While small, this is a touchpoint that reinforces a playful, thoughtful brand experience.
The comfort of ritual
I first visited Tadich more than 25 years ago during my first family trip to San Francisco. Over the years we have returned there time after time for local classics like cioppino, hangtown fry, and petrale sole.
Tadich is a San Francisco institution, the oldest restaurant in the city and the kind of place politicians and financiers meet for a late lunch or a post-work martini. It is the very definition of old-school with its white-coated servers, career bartenders who know their classic cocktails, and wood-paneled rooms perfect for a private lunch.
My parents and I made our annual pilgrimage last week on a typically chilly, cloudy day. We camped out in one of the little wooden rooms for a long lunch, then wandered through some downtown buildings — we’re always on the lookout for architectural details — and finished up shopping for cheese at the Ferry Building. Food, wine, and architecture make for a perfect day!
I’m not always a fan of tradition in a larger cultural context, but I enjoy family rituals like this which provide a comforting touchstone and a connection to personal history.
I have always found the desert Southwest immensely calming. I assumed it was simply the comfortable feeling of being back in my childhood home — it never felt right when I lived in states without mountains — but on my last trip it occurred to me it could be the desert itself.
There is a reassuring constancy to the endless expanse of sand, with its soothing, monochromatic palette. The sheer scale of the desert slows down time — it can take hours to approach and pass a mountain. Plant growth can be imperceptible year over year. The weather doesn’t change for months on end. Here, past and future blend together in an unchanging, infinite time stream. And, the desert thrives in the most unlikely ways; its inhabitants are a testament to the ingenuity and persistence of life itself. Creativity abounds, hidden in the minute details of a seemingly barren landscape.
The desert endures, and I find hope and comfort in it.
Packaging for Dummies
I love this feature in my newest Boden catalog – sticky tabs to flag items you like instead of having to turn down page corners. Arriving days before Valentine’s Day, its messages of “Mine” and “Love” also subtly (cleverly?) call to mind candy conversation hearts.
Putting on my marketer hat, I’d add a tab labeled Gift. Even if the shopper doesn’t end up purchasing any gifts, the prompt nudges them to think about friends while browsing and share Boden items they might like. And, on a personal note, I’d feel less frivolous about shopping if I could convince myself I was also shopping for my friends!