Living economies

Friday I attended a talk by Hunter Lovins at California College of the Arts. She briefly touched on a point of view about globalization that struck me: You can’t have a living economy without a local economy — otherwise, you have an economy that is either killing or dying.

Think about that for a minute. In a global economy, your economy is either killing others or being killed. In order to thrive without destroying, you must have a robust local economy.

That’s not to say business shouldn’t benefit from global markets. But the foundation of economies should be rooted in creating sustainable value and resilience locally.

Taproot Foundation

Since 2004 I’ve been a volunteer for the fantastic Taproot Foundation, which supports non-profits by providing them with pro bono teams of consultants they couldn’t otherwise afford. Originally their service grants covered basics like logo design and website development, but have expanded to cover everything from databases to board training. I’m ready for a new challenge and have put myself back on the active list.

For my last project I was the strategy lead on a brand strategy and messaging grant for Building Futures with Women and Children. The heart and soul of Building Futures is supporting underserved women and their children who are facing homelessness due to domestic violence. Their mission had been challenged by continuing shifts in funding and they requested help finding a flexible, purposeful path through uncertainty. More urgently, they wanted messaging that would better reflect their remarkable success and how their services have changed over 25 years. During the 6 month project we delivered a comprehensive package of stakeholder insights from interviews, position options to help them explore their future, brand identity and strategy guidance, and messaging options to serve everything from press release footers to fundraising mailers. They were a joy to work with, and I hope our work helps them move forward confidently.

The work is incredibly rewarding, and I look forward to taking on a new project soon!

Brand Workshop

gc_workshopAs part of my current project at Kaiser Permanente, I recently facilitated a workshop to explore identity and vision for two KP innovation groups.

As a solo facilitator leading a packed half-day session, I was grateful for participants who weren’t intimidated by abstract, visual exercises – they comfortably and confidently set about imagining metaphors, placing dots, and drawing pictures. (Note to self: People like crayons!) The drawings were a highlight – in only 5 minutes, they created an amazing range of pictures and diagrams that distilled a nebulous concept into tangible forms.

I am incredibly lucky to be working with such enthusiastic partners in the service of a great mission, innovation in healthcare.

Earthquake mashups

Shawn Clover, 1906 + Today: The Earthquake Blend

This photo mashup series by Shawn Clover that merges images from the 1906 earthquake and San Francisco today is a fantastic concept, with stunning execution.

From the artist:

To put these photos together, I first create a catalog of historical photos that look like they have potential to be blended. Unfortunately most of these photos end up on the digital cutting room floor because there’s simply no way to get the same photo today because either a building or a tree is in the way. Once I get a good location, I get everything lined up just right. My goal is to stand in the exact spot where the original photographer stood. Doing this needs to take into account equivalent focal length, how the lens was shifted, light conditions, etc. I take plenty of shots, each nudged around a bit at each location. Just moving one foot to the left changes everything.

I am in awe.

What Do You Think?

Over the past few years I’ve seen many museums trying to create reflective, interactive experiences for visitors. This is an important effort considering the pressures on museums as they fight for financial resources in a downturn, not to mention mind share in an age of digital entertainment.

The effort is there, but often the interactive components are not integrated into the exhibits or the museum experience. At the Shanghai exhibit at the Asian Art Museum there was  a small lounge with a few activities such as the prompt pictured, but it was tucked away — nearly hidden — on a separate floor of the museum. Other times, “interactivity” is limited to sending a free postcard or posting a note on a wall.

The best interactive displays I’ve seen locally are at the Oakland Museum of California. My favorite at OMCA is the “Is it Art?” lounge because it addresses an age-old question with a wink. Visitors are lured in by comfortable seating, then challenged to consider their point of view and vote if various objects ranging from a Native American basket to a pink furry thing are “art”. And because you can see the vote tickets in clear plexi containers, you get a sense for the general opinion as well as your own.

Brand of Me

During a conversation at a conference, I mentioned I had created a brand strategy for myself as a job candidate. When asked, “Did you do stakeholder interviews?” I nodded, thrilled by his intuition, before realizing he was kidding. Almost before his words were out he grasped his misperception and we agreed that while it sounds odd on the surface, of course I would gather feedback from colleagues. Why wouldn’t I? That’s an important part of the brand audit process, no matter who it’s for.

Developing a brand is the more or less the same whether you are a Fortune 500 company, small business, entrepreneur, or job seeker. To be successful you have to know your core identity, competitors, audience, and value proposition, among other things, and then have a plan for how to communicate that consistently and compellingly. Each situation will have different angles and challenges, but the basic framework always applies.

My project was part of the Brand Strategy course taken in my final semester. The assignment was to perform a brand audit, starting with assessing the market, getting feedback about existing brand image, and then articulating a differentiated brand identity, personality, and position. We were encouraged to use a real-world project or even ourselves as the brand to make it immediately relevant and useful.

I chose the “Brand of Me” option which, admittedly, felt like a bit of a lark at first. But soon I realized how valuable it would be to apply a rigorous audit and strategy process to my career planning as I prepared to be among the first DMBA graduates. With a hybrid set of skills and a unique MBA, being able to clearly define my target markets, strengths, messages, and experiences would be critical. And, as many of us expect to have to create our own positions, having a long-term career strategy would be equally important.

In two years I had collected a mountain of frameworks, and I enthusiastically applied every tool I had to this exploration. For me, the key is not knowing what a tool might add to the process but doing it anyway to find out if it will reveal something new. Taking the time to explore seemingly redundant tools for mapping the transition from “here to there” helped me identify common threads, triangulate missing information, and find the most effective visualization. I relied heavily on visualizations in an effort to align the tools with the subject, since a key part of my value proposition is the ability to synthesize and visualize information.

The most valuable learning came in the process itself. Not every tool was useful and some had to be altered or even invented, but continuing to iterate and sketch led me to insights in unexpected places. Some tools took me down blind alleys — all versions of mind maps and ecosystems, normally some of my favorites, did not produce new information. The greatest insights came from a timeline, which I originally intended simply as a graphic about my career rather than as a strategy tool. However, the process of mapping my past positions, activities, and learning revealed the future as well. The timeline gave me a structure to plot out interim and end goals, plus the adjustments needed in activities and learning to reach them. The effect was similar to a ERRC (Eliminate, Raise, Reduce, Create) grid, but with a chronological dimension added.

Observing the varying audits presented by my classmates illustrated that while all brand strategies share a framework, there are not “5 easy tools” that will provide optimal insights for every brand. It takes diligence and a curious mind to adapt the process to each unique situation, but brand strategy can be applied to any professional endeavor, even career planning.


Article originally published in the DMBA 2010 student annual

Branding Higher Education

At an event at UC Berkeley, I lucked into a keynote by Rich Lyons, Dean of the Haas School of Business. He shared the new strategic plan for Haas, and it was great to see brand strategy tools applied to higher education — and applied very well.

In a time when business school thinking is being blamed for the economic meltdown and there are countless schools and graduates fighting for market share, what does it mean to have an education from Haas? Why would you choose Haas over other schools? Why should you hire a Haas grad instead of a Stanford grad? This type of inquiry is exactly the basis for brand strategy.

From their research, they identified four “defining principles” of Haas:

  1. Question the status quo: We lead by championing bold ideas, taking intelligent risks and accepting sensible failures. This means speaking our minds even when it challenges convention. We thrive at the world’s epicenter of innovation.
  2.  Confidence without attitude: We make decisions based on evidence and analysis, giving us the confidence to act without arrogance. We lead through trust and collaboration.
  3. Students always: We are a community designed for curiosity and lifelong pursuit of personal and intellectual growth. This is not a place for those who feel they have learned all they need to learn.
  4. Beyond yourself: We shape our world by leading ethically and responsibly. As stewards of our enterprises, we take the longer view in our decisions and actions. This often means putting larger interests above our own.

They’ve done a great job. Reading these really conveys a story about who a Haas student is — you can imagine this person and how she thinks, and this image feels exactly right for a business program at UC Berkeley. Kudos!

What’s also smart are the plans for communicating this identity. In the best example, Lyons talked about writing an applicant recommendation form that would ask questions about the characteristics, e.g., does this candidate have confidence without attitude? Not only does this filter out many candidates, but each recommender — many of whom are top thinkers and executives around the world — comes away with a distinctly positive impression about the qualities of a Haas graduate. That’s an amazing brand reputation tool, in the shape of an admission form.

This level of work shouldn’t be a surprise when one of Haas’s marquee names is Professor Emeritus David Aaker, a founder of Prophet and one of the biggest names in marketing and brand strategy.

West Coast Green Coverage

This year I wrote about West Coast Green for Triple Pundit, a site devoted to green business news and ideas. Links to my posts:

“Green” Marketing Lessons from the eBay Box

Backstory about the development of the reusable eBay Box, tips from an intrapreneur involved in the project, and the importance of community engagement.

Madrone League: Open Source Sustainability Education

Hunter Lovins’ vision for affordable sustainability education that would be global, participant-driven, and collaborative.

A Look at Women’s Leadership in Sustainability

Wrap-up of a panel exploring how women lead and how that leadership style can benefit sustainability.

The Social Entrepreneurship Era of Burning Man

The Burning Man community’s values and innovation are generating social ventures that have potential to address global problems.

The Valuation Trap: How ROI Can Undermine the Case for Sustainability

While measuring outcomes helps sell sustainability initiatives, emphasis on quantitative proof can have unintended consequences.

On the Driver’s Side

Recently I had the pleasure of keeping my brother company as he drove a U-Haul across half of Arizona and California. After the endless desert dotted with horribly designed billboards along I-10 and the vast nothingness along I-5, our very boring trip was brightened by cute ads at a 76 station.

First I noticed the Children’s Guide to Splattered Bugs at the pump. It was so unexpected that it took a minute for me to realize the flip side wasn’t the same, but another fun sign, Loosen up While you Fill Up, offering much-needed stretching tips. The campaign tagline, We’re On the Driver’s Side, is a clever play on the gas tank arrow. (One could debate this on more political level, but superficially it’s great.)

I did some digging, and it appears this campaign is credited to Venables Bell, and they get props for creating something with just the right amount of levity to catch attention without being over the top. It’s cute, clever, and got me to pull out my iPhone and snap photos. Job well done!

Transit Art

I love public art, and this new series of surreal scenes on (and about) BART is charming.

A few weeks ago I snapped this poster of the little girl and the duck at my local BART station, wondering what it was. Other than the station scene, the poster offered no clues to the purpose or message.

Fortuitously, a Facebook friend posted a link to this article about the posters, which are whimsical stories created by Josh Ellingson. In each scene a child’s fantasy crosses over into reality — a boy with the undersea-themed backpack spots a deep sea diver with a squid, a boy with a toy rocket sees rockets zooming past through the window, and a girl with a toy duck passes a duck with a toy girl. While they celebrate the adventure of travel, in keeping with transit poster tradition, they are mostly just plain fun and avoid seeming like ads.

Transit art is my favorite type of public art because it adds much-needed lightness and beauty to what is so often drudgery. Years ago while commuting on a bus in Chicago, I saw an excerpt of a Mark Strand poem about a snowflake that affected me so much I was inspired to jot down the name and buy the book. (And I’m not even a poetry fan!) Recently on the Metro light rail in Phoenix I also spotted mosaic sculptures built into platform shelters.

There is currently a MOMA exhibit of London Underground posters from the 1920s-40s, including pieces by E. McKnight Kauffer (one of my favorites of the era) and László Maholy-Nagy. Unfortunately this kind of poster has largely disappeared, replaced by commercial ads, but sometimes we get lucky and find ones like the new BART series or the iconic national parks posters by the amazing Michael Schwab.

I hope to see more art like this popping up. The Bay Area has a tremendous wealth of artists and stories to tap into, and in these tough times we could all use more beauty and levity around us.