subconscious stimuli

My office has always been located in the downtown area of Salt Lake, despite my home being some 20 miles south in the suburbs. Sure, the drive is pretty familiar after 30 years, but one morning a few months ago I arrived at my office parking spot somewhat surprised. My mind had been preoccupied and I was amazed that I had driven the 20 miles without a single conscious decision about where I was going or what I was doing. In fact, I remembered absolutely nothing about my drive downtown. It was as if I had been teleported from home to my office without any effort on my part.

According to Shankar Vedantam, Washington Postscience writer and author of The Hidden Brain, my story of the drive downtown is a perfect example of how our subconscious minds can manipulate us without our awareness.

In a public radio broadcast, Vedantam relates how a ten-week test revealed differences between unnoticed visual stimuli. At an office beverage counter, an on-you-honor sign asked you to pay for whatever soft drink or coffee you consumed. In the first case, the eye-level sign was adorned with innocuous flowers. Subsequently the image of the flowers was changed to a pair of watching eyes. In the end, no one even noticed the pictures, flowers or eyes—and yet they had a dramatic effect upon behavior. Contributions to the honor system were much more likely to be made by those who were being “watched”, even though they were not real eyes.

Such is an example of our subconscious mind at work. The author explains that our hidden brain is a dumb system: that we act unaware, whether making decisions about driving a car or contributing to an on-your-honor cup of coffee.

The work of designers often operates within the hidden brain. We find the means to communicate to an audience about our message—both subtly and overtly—through the use of form, color and typography.

I have written beforeabout the minute nuances that shape a typeface and how it communicates unconsciously with everyone, regardless of your familiarity with the vocabulary of typography. The language of design suggests an object’s gender and reflects authenticity or its opposite: crass salesmanship. Design is the language that helps to define, or to signal value. It creates the visual clues that signal whether something is precious or cheap.

Enhancing perceived value is one of the primary goals of corporate design. This becomes very important if your product or service is not the low-price leader. Seth Godin recently commentedon his friend who wanted to buy Dr. Dre’s $300 headphones. Any audiophile will tell you that they sound like $39 headphones. As Godin points out, “But of course, that’s not the question. It’s not what sounds better, it’s what’s worth it.” And what it’s worth is subjective, depending on many factors. As the on-your-honor test showed, visual stimuli have a remarkable affect, even if you are unaware. And if it weren’t so, we probably wouldn’t be in business.

how branding stole christmas

According to NPR, you can now follow through with the empty threat waged at children worldwide during the holidays. “You’re going to get a lump of coal for Christmas.” A company called CoalGram is offering to ship a lump of 100 percent pure anthracite coal to the transgressor of your choice. And you needn’t limit it to naughty kids. The company suggests your boss who didn’t give you a raise, your boyfriend who forgot your birthday and the politician who is driving you nuts. Each specially wrapped chunk of coal will cost you ten bucks.

You can actually buy several wheelbarrows full of coal for $10. But of course they’re not specially wrapped and branded with the CoalGram logo. Ah, yes — the power of good design and branding. It just makes you wonder how far people will go. A new study in the Journal of Marketingsays people will go to great lengths to afford their favorite brand.

If you love Frosted Flakes for example and have eaten it since you were a kid, it’s probably because it’s meshed with a lot other experiences and memories, according to Joe Priester, one of the authors of the study. “You not only like Frosted Flakes, but you sort of consider it part of yourself, you probably think about it unprompted.” “Not having your favorite brand around is just like losing your good friend and can lead to a kind of emotional distress,” says Priester.

Your favorite brand of frosted flakes is probably Kellogg’s, but try as they might, “frosted flakes” is just a description, not a brand. Perhaps that’s why Kellogg’s has considered individually laser etching their logo onto each and every cornflake, just to make sure you know whose flake is on your spoon, and to avoid any unnecessary emotional stress.

I bought my first Mac in 1984. I even have it sitting on display, kind of museum-like—on the bookshelf. Even though Macs cost more, even if there’s a recession, I can’t imagine the thought of buying a Dell computer. Priester acknowledges my problem. “When you start having to cut back, it’s the brands that you’re really attached with, those are the ones you’ll try to hang onto as long as you can.” Would I buy a Dell with the exact same performance specifications as a Mac? No. Just like that lump of coal, it’s not packaged the same and it doesn’t have that Apple logo.

stupid questions

When we are engaged for brand strategy, our first step is the interview — which is typically one on one, between the client and myself. We always ask to interview the CEO, the marketing department and a few others. We start right off by asking stupid questions. We’re sitting in their offices and the company name is proudly displayed in the lobby or on the door and the first thing we ask is “Who are you?”

That question is followed by another, seemingly obvious question, “What do you do?” These are the kinds of queries that challenge assumptions in such a fundamental way they can make us sound a little naïve. The first thing that comes out may in fact, be obvious—but it can get deep very quickly. “Well, we’re Young Electric Sign Company, and we make electric signs—of course we also make non-electric signs, and we do lighting as well, and we also sell billboards, and we also manufacture electronic components and sell them to our competitors, and technically most of our signs aren’t really sold, their leased, and…”

Designers are known for asking a lot of questions. Whether a designer offers strategic services or not, for most, the starting point in the design process is to confront the norm in a given industry with stupid questions. Apparently, the practice is so common, that there’s even a joke about it. How many designers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Does it have to be a light bulb? As design author Warren Berger says, “When designers ask whether ‘it has to be a light bulb,’ what they are doing is reconsidering and re-framing a familiar problem in an unconventional way. In the case of the joke above, the problem of having to change the light bulb may be reframed as a need to bring more light into the room without constantly having to change the bulb. This, in turn, may lead to putting a window in the roof to let the sunshine in.”

Everyone can and should question the status quo. “We’ve always done it this way” is a stagnant answer. “What if I tried this?” and “Why do you do that?” can lead to new products and processes. The designer behind OXO kitchen tools begat an entire company based on questioning the conventional form of the potato peeler.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, questioning is one of the five skills of innovation, a fundamental habit of creative thinkers in all fields. But questions don’t end with the client. Good designers question themselves throughout the creative process. Why am I using this color? Why this shape, this material, this look? Should it be traditional or modern, simple or complex? Should it be bigger, smaller? Is this solving the client’s problem?

By asking stupid questions the designer identifies the audience and purpose and pushes the creative output to the highest level. It doesn’t make you a stupid designer to ask stupid questions. Bruce Mau, the audacious Canadian designer said, “The fear for so many people is that, in asking these kinds of questions, they will seem naïve. But naïvety is a valuable commodity in this context. Naïvety is what allows you to try to do what the experts say can’t be done.”

designers’ personality types

We all think of ourselves as different, but most people think artists and designers are categorically different. If it’s not appearance issues, such as clothes or hair, then it’s a designer’s outlook, personality or the way they think.

So what are the personality traits of a designer? Michael Roller looked into that. He administered the well-known Myers Briggs personality test to a group of designers and published the result. The test compares things like introversion vs. extraversion and feeling vs. thinking. Two big trends are clear: Nearly 70% of the respondents were “judging” types and 85% were “intuiting” types. That’s exactly the opposite of the general public, who skew towards “sensing” and “perceiving”.

As Fast Company magazine blogger Cliff Kuang says, “According to the test, those that “intuit” rather than “sense”, tend to focus on context and future developments, rather than simply the data at hand. Meanwhile, those that “judge” rather than “perceive”, tend to see the world in terms of discrete problems that can be structured and cracked, rather than as a series of casual, open-ended possibilities.”

We were all artists as kids. Not only did we create art, we were also proud of it. We primarily thought in a visual way. But somewhere in the middle of elementary school our focus began to shift from visual, spatial thinking to verbal, linear thinking. The end result is a very left-brain dominant society. Kit Hinrichs, partner, (until recently), at the international design firm Pentagram, said designers keep looking at the whole picture. “I think this is the reason why designers are so welcome in the boardrooms of corporations. Businesspeople have been kind of brainwashed out of solving problems in anything other than a linear approach. But sometimes, we need both sides of the brain to solve problems. Which is why I find that there are times I can go into a boardroom with guys who have degrees from 12 universities I could never get into, and help them look at a problem in a new way. Once the problem is described, the designer is more likely to say, ‘Well, did you look at this? How about doing it this way?’ It’s about not adhering to a set of restrictions that have defined how you think in business.”

Design Thinking is a methodology that takes the designers’ whole brain approach to problem solving into a proven and repeatable form that anybody can employ. You may normally think of design in terms of the completed object: the Web site, the chair, the building. But design has always been a process. It’s what you do—the action, not the end result.

Here’s how you can apply the designers’ process, even if you don’t have the personality of a designer.

  1. Define the problem. Make sure you’ve defined the correct problem that needs to be to solved.
  2. Research. Become an anthropologist. Get out of the office to observe and learn.
  3. Ideate. Brainstorm about lots of options. Don’t pre-judge suitability.
  4. Prototype. Design always involves iteration. Try it one way, try it another. Evaluate and refine until you think you’ve got a solution.
  5. Implement. Plan it and execute it, but don’t plan on perfection. Better to have something than nothing.
  6. Learn. Gather feedback, measure success and keep innovating.

ingredient branding

This spring I bought a road bike and spent the summer pedaling my way to health and happiness all around the valley. I tested several different makes and models before reaching a buying decision. Different factors played into the final selection. I had never actually heard of the bike brand before (Time, made in France), so I strongly relied on the opinion of the retailer, but I was already familiar with the manufacturer of the bike’s major components—Shimano.

The Japanese company Shimano, is known for supplying the cycling components to many of the finest bike makers in the world and is an excellent example of ingredient branding, i.e. an essential ingredient or component of a product that has its own brand identity. Chevron’s Techron, NutraSweet and Dolby are other examples of ingredient branding. Each are essential ingredients of the end product and each possess its own independent identity, marked by its own logo.

Because of its unmatched achievement, the most well-known example of a successful branded ingredient originated with an ad agency in Salt Lake City. Before Dahlin Smith White suggested the tagline, “Intel Inside”, no one knew—or for that matter, even cared what kind of microprocessor was inside their computer. With the help of DSW, Intel became the first PC component manufacturer to communicate directly to the computer buyer and eventually became one of the top ten known brands in the world, in a class with Coke, Disney and McDonalds.

Ingredient branding is most useful when it is aimed beyond your immediate customer to a downstream stage of the value channel. For example, Intel’s immediate customer may be Dell Computer, but by communicating directly to the computer buyer, Intel can pull their product through the distribution channel.

A more limited application of ingredient branding is seen in any product or service named, identified and marketed as a distinctive part of a larger brand. modern8 asserts the trademark on its own strategic methodology, the Perception Branding 5D Process™, to bring attention to, and distinguish the service from our competition. Shimano, Intel and even modern8 enhance the value proposition and points of differentiation for all products and services using ingredient branding.

branding & social media

Recently modern8 has been experimenting with social media networks Twitter and Facebook. (Subscribe/join below.) From a brand strategy point of view, the most valuable aspect of these new media is the interaction between the brand and the customer. Successful brands maintain a dialogue with their customer and social media make it easier.

Good brands have always listened to their customers, but instead of a top-down system where the brand solely determines what to provide, the customer is now helping shape the products and services.

Nike has involved the consumer in a phenomenally successful integration of running gear and technology in their Nike+ communities, where thousands of runners track and post their running statistics using their smart phones and connected Nike products.

Tucker Viemeister says the field of brand strategy needs to change, because the customer is changing. “Branding is no longer about internal focus for consistent product broadcasting—now brands are a team effort. Future brands will be more like ‘cloud computing’,… or ‘open source’, using a concurrent input of different agendas, approaches and priorities—with little centralized decision making. Brands of the future will be both more personalized and more communal. New brands will be virtual clouds of symbols, products and places, with customers using digital technology to build open source experiences.”

design thinking: developing innovation

Innovation has been recognized as survival strategy in today’s business climate. In the newest issue of Business Week magazine, an excerpt from a book by the CEO of the design firm IDEO, points out that the need to innovate is nothing new—but how to accomplish it, is new—design thinking. When I started my design business nearly 30 years ago we didn’t talk about design thinking. (In fact, we didn’t talk about much of anything outside of the arcane methods that were required to get something created and printed at the time.) Since then, the influence of design in the business world has grown dramatically.

The methodologies of the designer: brainstorming, mock-ups, user observations, storytelling and scenario building are all useful in building innovation. Tim Brown of IDEO says it is time for this type of thinking—design thinking—to migrate outward and upward into the highest levels of corporate leadership. Business leaders seeking innovation need to adopt the methods of the designer, just as designers are broadening their scope from just creating “things”, to the shaping of services, experiences and organizations.

Designers typically approach problem-solving somewhat differently. They’re more intuitive and emotional, and less logical and analytical. Instead of going A > B > C > D, designers may start at Q > D > K and end up at P. The logical thinker hires market researchers to describe how the world is; design thinking describes how the world could be.

David Butler, Coca-Cola’s vice president of global design, applies design thinking way beyond the design of Coke’s brand. “I love big, giant, enormous systems, no matter what they are,” he says. “In the past, design had been focused on straight forward problems: Come up with a drinking vessel, say. But now it was being asked so solve multipronged problems: How do we get clean drinking water? We’re moving from linear problems to wicked problems.”

Brown concludes by saying, “The design thinkers I have described here are not minimalist, esoteric members of an elite priesthood. They are creative innovators who can bridge the chasm between thinking and doing because they are passionately committed.”

position brand strategy

Back in the early 1980s, a friend of mine in the printing business loaned me a book that I never gave back. The book is the now-classic, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout. I didn’t give it back because I didn’t want to. I felt like I had to hang onto this simple volume that so profoundly changed my point of view (as well as a half-million others). One reviewer said, “If you can grasp the simple truths in this book, you’ll understand what 90% of marketing people don’t: it’s the customer, stupid”.

What Trout and Reis pioneered 20 or 30 years ago is now a universally accepted (and most would say, the most important) discipline in brand strategy. Brand positioning literally means to “position” your brand in your customer’s mind. The spot you want to find is the strongest position you can claim relative to your competitors. Finding that position means you must, of course, understand who your customer is—your target market—and how they behave.

In business-to-business marketing, it can be difficult for a large, complex, multi-product, multi-service company to find a common denominator. It’s easy to find companies that failed the effort. Just read their position on the home page of their Web site. Is it more than empty phrases? Is it just a lot of “hot air”? Even more enlightening may be to read the position of one of your competitors. Does it sound a lot like your own?

In Marty Neumeier’s book, Zag, he asks “What makes you the only…”. He says complete this sentence: Our brand is the only _____________ that ____________. In the first blank, put the name of your category (sign company, reading glass distributor, medical clinic). In the second blank, describe what makes you different (that has multiple offices in the West, that combines fashion with function, that is locally owned). If you can’t keep it brief and use the word “only”, then you don’t have a “zag”, or a defendable position.

Once you’ve figured out your position, you don’t change it. It’s not like an advertising campaign or even a tagline that might change every few years. In the words of Philip Kotler, in B2B Brand Management, “A brand can only have one true position. An effectively positioned brand communicates its core values to all stakeholders, internally and externally. Positioning a brand is not a tactical activity but rather a strategic process aimed at creating a sustainable competitive advantage.”

my city is better

I was reading tweets in modern8’s new twitter account, when a link caught my attention regarding the city of Melbourne’s adoption of a new brand identity. The article indicated that the Melbourne brand suffered compared to Sydney’s, the better-recognized Australian city. The effort to raise public perception of Melbourne was reflected in a new logo for the city.

Of course, the whole of idea of cities branding themselves would have seemed preposterous 10 or 15 years ago. Not that cities haven’t always had a brand–because brands exist whether you manage them or not–but now we’ve got cities applying the principles of brand strategy, once reserved for commercial products and services, to the very neighborhood in which you live.

It may seem odd at first, yet cities are competitive just like that brand of cereal you had for breakfast. Cities compete for residents, tourist dollars and corporate location decisions. It only makes sense to manage municipal perception so you can affect the behavior of your target audience.

Salt Lake City’s new mayor, Ralph Becker, dumped the logo his predecessor, Rocky Anderson, had used on everything from business cards to meter maid vehicles. Becker returned to a previous seal-like identity featuring an image of the historic City and County building–in my mind, a vast improvement over the amateurish skyline logo used by Rocky.

I suspect neither Rocky’s or Becker’s identity was implemented with any strategy behind it–that is, asking what kind of message the city wants to send with its identity. Clearly Melbourne was striving for progressive modernity in its mark, rather than traditional, homespun values. For Salt Lake, it would be an interesting exercise to do the research and strategy and reflect it in a new city identity. It might be a challenge though, because the city is often divided along cultural and religious lines.

Other local municipalities have sought to improve their brand. South Salt Lake has recently engaged a firm to help the image of their city and distinguish it from their neighbor to the north. The shared name in fact, led to discussion on whether South Salt Lake should consider a name change. I’ve always liked the look of Murray City’s logo, created a few years ago, though it references smoke stacks that are now gone and I can’t help but wonder about the appropriateness of the reference.

While we have yet to be asked to brand a city, we’re confident we can.

brand stories: beyond marketing

The thought of public speaking makes them weak in the knees. They prefer to stay in the background to avoid having to risk embarrassment. They don’t like going out of their comfort zone. Sound like anyone you know? Or perhaps a brand you know?

Brands, like people, can suffer from social anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, by their very nature, brands are supposed to be in the spotlight, speaking to the public everyday. Every chance a brand gets to show its personality is vitally important, yet many brands waste the opportunity by hiding who they are behind boring facts.

In contrast, the very best brands let their unique personalities shine through. They get out in front of the crowd unashamed and unafraid of how others will judge them. They understand that all of their weaknesses will be on display, but they also have unwavering confidence that their strengths will completely overshadow their deficiencies. Most importantly, they are prepared with a brand story to tell; one that is much more substantial than their most current advertising campaign.

A story is not only the best way of earning an audience’s attention, but its heart as well. It breaks down barriers, allowing people to understand you and forgive your weaknesses because they can see how your story relates to them. More than this, an established story is memorable and should encapsulate what the brand ideals are, and should be the blueprint for how the brand is marketed.

The real secret is choosing the right story for your brand. Just like any person, a brand can have any number of stories that defines it. These stories can range from seemingly insignificant, to monumental. Last year we were engaged by the School Improvement Network for strategic and creative services. During the 5d Process we realized that they had the perfect story to tell, and suggested they place it front and center on the new Web site we created. Their simple story of how two teachers started what would become a very successful company makes a powerful connection with their target audience, the education community.

The reason this story is important is because it’s sticky. Those who read it will come away with an impression of the company based on that story, and will bring that perspective to all other communications with that brand.

Chip and Dan Heath, authors and columnists for Fast Company magazine, expounded on what makes an idea (or story) sticky, and it’s a lesson that all brands can benefit from: Like School Improvement Network’s story, it is simple (current training wasn’t effective), unexpected (the need was filled by two public school teachers), concrete (they fixed it by taking matters into their own hands), credible (supported by research-based best practice), and emotional (the results are better teachers, and a better education for children). Not all stories have all these elements, but the more they have, the more effective they are.

Admittedly, finding that “sticky story” to stand out and connect with your audience amid so much clutter, may be daunting. For every good story out there, there are dozens of completely forgettable ones. All the more reason to put the extra effort into finding and telling a good story. If good brand story is worth having, it is worth working for.