We’ve got a small koi pond in the back of our house, just off our deck. It’s modest, but pretty, and a good place to sit and think. There’s a waterfall, and heavy rocks around the sides that keep the liner in place.
There are lots of plants – hostas, ferns, Japanese Maples, cat tails – around the pond too.
And today I noticed one was missing.
There’s one big, flat rock at the bottom of the stream where the water returns to the main pond. And that rock has sort of a crease in it, a little seam that, over the years, had collected maybe two tablespoons worth of dirt.
About five years ago, I was amazed to see that a small plant had taken root there. A seed must have just fallen in the right place and found the dirt. I figured it didn’t have a chance.
But it surprised me. Over time, this tough little plant grew. I don’t know how, but it got taller and taller until it was a stalk about a foot high.
And it came back, year after year.
After awhile, I was kind of rooting for it. Even kept my kids away from it, as I watched it just tough it out.
Way to go, plant!
But today I noticed it was gone. It hadn’t made it. And it wasn’t for lack of effort.
I think, sometimes, that sheer force of will can only do so much. It simply wasn’t in the right place. It grew and grew and used up every possible bit of resource available to it – every bit of nutrient in that sprinkling of soil.
I wondered, if that seed had happened to fall in another place, that little plant might be a soaring tree right now. It had the will, that much was clear.
But it couldn’t root deeply enough. Where it was simply didn’t have what it needed. So despite all of its effort, it was gone.
I think that happens to people, and businesses too. We all want to dig in where we are, and stay the course and rely on our hyper-Puritanical efforts, believing that we can will our way to success through just about anything.
I think this is, in part, because we don’t care for change.
But even if we succeed to a degree over the long slog, if we’re in the wrong geographic place, or in the wrong market, we will, at best, only survive.
We will not thrive. No matter how hard we try.
Which is good to know.
So take a look at what you’re doing, and where you are. An objective look.
Are your relationships working? Is your business working?
Are you surviving, or thriving?
Don’t beat yourself up; you’re doing all that you can.
Maybe you just need to assess where you’re doing it. Are you presenting it to the right people, or from the right place? Does your environment have enough dirt, and nutrients, and resources to allow you to root deeply and grow continually?
If not, make the hard change. Now. Don’t wait.
It won’t be as hard as what your doing now, against the perennial headwinds.
And then you’ll start to thrive. I guarantee it.
So what are you waiting for? Go!
My wife and I were siting on the back deck this morning, having a cup of not coffee when my 2 girls burst through the door, laughing and chattering like kids are supposed to, especially on a Saturday before the last week of school.
“Daddy, we’re riding unicorns!”
And off they went, trotting and skipping and laughing and keeping in a small circle around us, always within earshot.
Jen was flipping through a magazine. I was watching the restless north breeze rattle the leaves on our big maple, and thinking about planting pumpkins and wondering where I want to be and what I want to be doing in the Fall.
It’s been quite a push at work lately, Lot of 10-hour days that seem to carry over into my nights. Not much time to blog, as some have you have, apparently, noticed. Many thanks for the reminders, by the way.
Anyway, after awhile, Jen, my lovely bride, leaned over and said “Do you need a broom?”
Which is an odd thing to ask, I think. Unless you’ve just spilled something, which I hadn’t.
“A broom?” I said.
“I got an extra one at Target for Mita, but she already got one.”
“Oh. What kind of broom?”
“Just a cheap straw broom – you know a regular broom. Nothing special.”
My unicorn riders had drifted closer.
“Well,” I said, “I guess we could use it. Maybe keep it around to knock the snow off the cars in the winter or something…”
“Or me and Olivia could ride it like witches!” piped up Gabs, our youngest.
“Yeah!” said Olivia, “That’d be Fun!”
And off they went again.
Jen and I shared a smile, and said nothing else.
Honestly, I was a little embarrassed inside.
I could hear birds chirping, and a lot of laughter and screaming from two happy unicorn riders, now out on the lawn somewhere.
And I knew where I wanted to be in the Fall.
The Islanders never had a chance – not really. When I first heard the news that moving was a possibility, the only mystery left, to me, was where they were going – not if. Brooklyn, as it turns out. And while I’ll argue that the politicians who failed to understand the tremendous opportunity presented to them by Charles Wang and Scott Rechler were simply the tipping point; honestly, it was already a done deal. Hockey – as a sport – lost.
And it wasn’t because the Coliseum (AKA, The Mausoleum) was getting a little long in the tooth. And it wasn’t because the Islanders hadn’t put a consistently strong team on the ice for awhile. And it wasn’t because there weren’t enough shops, or parking or public transit. All of that may have contributed, but none were the actual reason.
So Why? It’s actually quite simple:
The good folks who’ve run the Islander organization have for a number of years simply failed to understand the core of their Brand which is not, as it turns out, ‘The Islanders’. Actually, the core of their brand – and listen up here, NHL – is the sport of Hockey.
Here’s some backstory, and yes, for me this is a little personal:
I started going to Islanders games as a kid, and I fast became a fan. Hardcore – I knew everything about the team. I followed them in the papers. I knew what Billy Smith would do to you if you got in the crease, I knew Dave Langevin never got enough credit, that Wayne Merrick could skate faster and more elegantly than a figure skater, and that Mike Bossy on the right side of the blue line with less than 30-seconds on the clock was a very good thing.
We didn’t have cable, so I was the kid listening breathlessly on an old radio to that Stanley Cup game – yes, that one – and then whooping and hollering and tearing around the house all by myself when I heard “Tonelli to Nystrom…he scores!!!!!”
Yeah, I was into it. Passionate.
In the Seventies (before the Cup run) and Eighties, when the Coliseum was even less friendly than it is today, the fans were rabidly enthusiastic and the place always sold out. In fact, I remember the only grumbling was that there was no shot clock, and everyone else in the NHL had one. You see, the fans back then were hockey fans; they understood the game. The entire crowd watched the puck with such intensity that people would cheer before the goal light went on, and boo before the ref blew the whistle. They knew the game, inside and out, and management even took ‘valuable ad space’ in the program to explain Hockey 101. Smart move. And the fans instilled their passion for the game into their kids (myself included), so from a marketing standpoint, they were seeding a future generation of loyal customers.
Back then, there would have been riots if even changing the seats – much less relocation – was even suggested. Sacrilege.
But after the Cup run ended, things started to change. And not for the better. Sure, they got a shiny new scoreboard, and the shot clock to boot, but something else happened too. In the inevitably lean years following The Run of of four Stanley Cups in a row, a bad decision was made.
What was it? I wasn’t at the meeting, but I guarantee it was one of those ‘bottom line’ justified initiatives that sound like this: ”Get money in at any cost. What do the fans want? What will they buy? The world is changing, we have to keep up”. Yada Yada, insert corporate jargon here, Yada. Ad Nauseum.
And so it began. Plaster the place with advertising – leave no wall uncovered. Keep everyone revved up and distracted. Loud rock music supplanting the fan-favorite organist. Lasers. Ice Girls with Bare Midriffs shooting T-shirts into the crowd from atop the sacred Zamboni. TV timeouts filled with silly on-site promos. Stores every ten feet pushing overpriced, uninspired crap made as carnival prizes and stamped with the Islanders logo.
The game became the sideshow, and the marketing circus took center stage. Nothing about Hockey as a sport. Anything for a buck. And a path to failure.
Here’s the Key: When you place a primary focus on anything other than the thing that makes you different and desirable (i.e.your Unique Selling Proposition (USP) that lies at the heart of your Brand) then you set yourself up as a parity product. And for eventual failure.
What’s a parity product? Think toothpaste; it all works about the same, even though marketers try and claim otherwise. So, ultimately, there is no product differentiation beyond price – not really.
And that’s what the Islanders did: The took the focus away from the game, and placed it instead on the sideshow in a desperate attempt to make a quick buck. And the problem with that? You can get that same, soulless sideshow anywhere – concert, circus, other venue – no matter. But you can’t get hockey just anywhere – and that’s where they blew it.
The point of smart brand marketing is to accentuate your offerings, not dilute or displace them. The danger of making your quick-buck offerings primary, and your actual USP an afterthought, is that you run the risk of becoming a parity product. Also, and perhaps more importantly, you do not continually develop a tight and loyal fan base (and I mean that in the truest sense of the word – not the Facebook sense), but instead you attract a fickle audience that may simply appreciate you for your entertainment value, and drift to newer things very quickly. It’s a critical mistake if you’re in it for the long haul – and you should be.
In the Islanders’ case, they trained their new ‘fans’ to appreciate not hockey, but instead the fun of ‘a night out’, along with all of the glitz and shiny baubles. And when it came right down to it, when they wanted to move the team, it just didn’t matter. The majority of the new ‘fans’ – the ones that came for a night out, instead of a hockey game, didn’t put up much of a fight.
And why would they? They could get that same ‘experience’ in other ways. They didn’t need hockey for that, even Islanders hockey. Sure, they might miss it if the Islanders left, but they were only there for the show anyway. It reminds me of the end of the Truman show, when the viewer shrugs and says “Hey, what else is on?”
Best Buy and Local Movie Theaters, Take Note:
The lesson above applies to you, too. How? When one used to go to the movies, it was a special night out. Popcorn and trivia and the anticipation of a Great Escape for a few hours – that’s what the movies were really selling. But when I went to the movies last week, I had to sit through a block of about a dozen tv commercials – the same kind that I ignore at home. And because of that, the experience became less special. In this age of giant flatscreens and Netflix, the movie theaters had better be aware of their need to keep a night at the movies special – that’s their USP and Brand Core – and not dilute it for a few extra bucks of revenue.
And Best Buy? Bought something there last week, and when I got to the checkout (after a long wait), when I tried to pay by credit card, I had to run through an offer on screen to apply for the Best Buy credit card. And when I declined, I had to run the card – and go through the entire process - again. So while Best Buy fights against showrooming, in their sad attempt to make the quick buck, they left me remembering only a bad experience. I thought ‘Well, I could’ve stayed home and ordered online.” instead of thinking about the great professional service, product knowledge and instant gratification I had otherwise received at Best Buy – which is, arguably, their USP, and raison d’etre.
The reality is this: effective marketing and branding practices that build marketshare over time are not always glamorous, nor are they flash-effective in terms of revenue. For some businesses, it is a reality check. Ask yourself, is there enough substance at your business’ core? A true USP that speaks to unique value within your business niche, and that your customers can’t get anywhere else? If there’s not, then that’s where you should start.
If you’re concerned about this, that’s good: you may have to go back to the basics a bit, and reassess your core value to the people you really want to reach. When you tighten that up, your high-value clients and customer base – the ones that truly need and appreciate you – will be that much stronger. Plus you’ve re-established your USP - and that will serve as the foundation for your marketing and communications efforts.
Focus on the basics first. And always. Then refine them. It’s hard work. It flies in the face of what a lot of marketing and branding companies are selling, when they say they can spike your metrics quickly. They’ll cast a wide, sugar-coated net, but It’s not a long lasting solution, because it makes you a parity provider. Don’t do that.
Define or redefine your value. We do that at my agency, LGM creative, when we say that we don’t “build” brands, we unearth them. It’s in our tag “Understanding. Then Branding.™”. We go deep to look for the core value in a client’s business – even if it’s not sexy or boring, it’s your important thing. You can always clean it up and present it as sexy later, but that’s where it all starts. And remains.
Remember, true fans – the loyal die-hards that dig what you do best and love your for it – are your Brand’s best friend. They’re your Ambassadors. They’ll stick with you. They’re the only ones you truly need.
Don’t sell them – or yourself – out.
And whatever you do, don’t train your customers not to care.
What keeps us from getting what we truly want? In my case, it’s flen. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. What’s flen? Technically, it’s the crusty stuff at the top of a ketchup bottle – at least according to Rich Hall, the comedian who coined the term. How does overly viscous ketchup keep me from getting what I want? Allow me to explain…
This past Saturday morning was perfect. It was cold, gray and rainy, and I had both my daughters all to myself. No art class. No birthday parties. No nothing – just me and my girls on a rainy Saturday morning, hanging around in our pj’s getting ready to have breakfast and watch a video while all snugged up on the couch.
I made a bunch of scrambled eggs and toast for the three of us, and we were ready to settle in for breakfast and start the movie. Being in a rush to do nothing, I got everything set in the living room and went back in to grab a cup of coffee – decaf, mind you – and noticed that the ketchup bottle was on the counter.
Actually, because here in 21st century America no condiment can be too large, it was more of a tub of ketchup. And it was the kind that sits on its cap so that gravity keeps product – and profits – flowing.
Anyway, I hurriedly put it on the top shelf of the fridge and a blot of ketchup from the top somehow got between the cap and the shelf.
But I was in a hurry. I’d get to it later.
Instead, I kind of forgot about it. And because it was on the top shelf, and too high for my wife or the kids to notice, only I could see it. So it was up to me.
Later in the day, I went to get some milk and carefully worked my way around the now sticky spot, which was right up front. I managed, and when I put the milk back in, same thing.
Of course, I could’ve just wiped it and been done with it.
The next morning, I went for the milk again. Same thing.
‘Y’know,’ I thought ‘I should just clean that and get it over with.’
But I didn’t. I don’t know why. Later that day, I needed to get some juice from behind the milk. The fridge is pretty full, so I had to carefully slide things around on the shelf to get it out.
And I was careful to avoid ‘The Spot’, as I’d come to think of it. You see, that little thing that I could have done quickly and been finished with had somehow grown in my mind. It had a new level of importance now – it was something else.
It had evolved from an easy fix into something larger. More onerous. More abstract.
It was now, psychologically, something vaguely negative, and thus something that I was avoiding.
And as the heft of its negative presence in my life grew, I began, I think, on some level, to accommodate and accept the inconvenience of it.
Honestly, on its most basic level, it was still just an unfortunately positioned spot of ketchup. A bit of Windex and a sponge and it could have gone away.
But that’s not the way things work for us, is it?
I think that the smallest things become – with time, inaction and acceptance - larger things.
Barriers to progress.
And I’ll wager that these small things that somehow become magnified way beyond their reality are the very things that really stop us from doing what we should be doing.
It’s the classic term paper that needs to be handed in on a deadline, yet we wait and wait and put it off until it keeps us up at night like a big beast in the jungle (thanks there to Henry James), growing and growing by our own inaction until it becomes almost too large to tackle.
And sometimes we don’t. Which can lead to regret. Which can snowball.
And that’s a dangerous thing.
No, it’s never the Big Bad things that ultimately get us, not really.
Instead, it’s the little things that we put off – the seemingly innocuous things that, for some reason we don’t address, again and again and in doing so give them a sort of power until we don’t want to face them because they seem to be too large.
It’s insidious, and it’s true.
So my advice? At every opportunity take action. Because even the smallest things grow.
And get in the way of our lives.
There are no big decisions – they’re all small. We just have to make them.
And our lives are not Big Lives. Just the accumulation of thousands of little decisions – and little actions that push us to where we eventually wind up.
Good or Bad, is always Our Choice. And we are Always responsible for the way things turn out.
I’m gonna go clean that spot now. It’s gotten large enough.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between A Capitalist Economy and a Capitalist Society.
The former is a pretty solid economic model that subscribes to things like a free market economy and the laws of supply and demand. And it is in it’s purest form, I think, a pretty good economic one, as it rewards hard work, good ideas and risk taking.
The latter, however, I think speaks to a Societal model that describes every aspect of one’s existence in terms of material valuation. It constantly asks, ‘Can I make a buck on it?’ It asks ‘What’s it worth?’ – and only understands the value of something solely in materialistic or monetary terms.
It’s an outlook that has become pervasive in our culture, and it’s quite troubling. The inability to see, understand and evaluate anything – a song, a painting, an emotion or personal success – beyond terms of monetary value is in direct opposition to what it means to be truly human – a considerably deeper, broader and more meaningful state.
It is, I think, the end result of a marketing culture that equates happiness with stuff, and it has found a ground - made fertile by the dissolution of family, religion and human values – in which to grow. It’s troubling to me as a father, and husband. And human being.
And it fuels me as a writer.
But, for a long time, I have, perhaps, lacked the courage to speak about this beyond conversations with friends, family – even strangers – all of whom, curiously, are in complete agreement with me. It can be a dangerous business for someone who works in advertising to question the broader ethical impact of marketing, yet I find it oddly compelling that I can have this very same conversation about ‘the way things are’ with anyone, anywhere, and I always find that we’re all on the same page, yet we never seem to get anywhere – possibly because most of us spend our days treading water.
But you can only do that for so long. After awhile, you either get tired and drown, or you swim for the shore. And make it.
I think it’s time to talk about it, and to do something about it. Having quit coffee some 24 days ago now, I think it’s time to move on to some other topics. I’ll be blogging about some of them here, and hope that you’ll all continue to read along. And speak up, too.
I’m going to start that swim now…
This morning before work, I went on my first ride of the season – biking, that is. Last year, I didn’t bike very much, but last year was a hard year in a lot of ways. In retrospect, maybe I should’ve biked more.
Anyway, it’s a crunch week at work – crazy, really – so when I woke up this morning and felt a warm day, and saw little breeze, it seemed like a no brainer to go sweat for a bit. So I did.
All things being equal, it wasn’t a bad first ride; apparently, my devotion to Kettleworx is paying off. But in years past, when I rode in the mornings, it used to always be with a cup or two of coffee in the system as fuel.
Today was the first ride without. And I figured it would be tough.
Funny thing was, it wasn’t. I told myself as I started off that I’d take it easy – no world records today. And, actually, I kept that approach throughout the 18-mile loop. I’ve been ‘taking time to smell the roses’ a bit more lately, and today was no different. I felt that I was keeping up a good pace, but I was certainly noticing all kinds of details.
The smell of flowers, and of cut grass and soil by the vineyards. The way the light threw shadows across the road. The flat stillness of old asphalt when there were no cars around, and the sun hit it just right. Heck, I even rescued my first box turtle of the season.
I wasn’t slacking – far from it – but I was enjoying things that, in the past, I’d sped by. The little, and important things. Was it just due to coffee in my bloodstream? Not wholly, no. But it was due to the lifestyle that required that type of fuel, and blurred perspective.
It was actually pretty productive – copywriters work everywhere, and I’m no different. Came home with 4 new concepts for 2 different clients. Plus an idea for a short story (the writer never sleeps, either).
When I was speeding through life, this rarely happened. Always push push push.
Funny thing was,as I arced into my driveway, popped off the saddle and checked my time, I was right there with some of my best. Ever.
Just a few minuted ago, I caught my 9-year old daughter awake in bed – and still reading – at 10:15 at night. Yes, we have bedtimes, but she’s a little like me – night owl, late reader.
Must be genetic.
Last night, same thing, though she’d come into the living room around 9:30 to ask about ‘sleep strategies’, as she puts it. Ways to fall asleep. And I suggested that instead of reading an exciting book, she try a boring one. In fact, there was one she’d tried the prior night that she said was boring.
So off she went. I heard the flashlight wind. I saw lights under the covers. And then, a bit later…
Which eventually went out. But tonight, she told me something worth remembering:
“Daddy,” she said, snug in the covers and with a little light in her eye, “Y’know, I think I learned something.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“I found out there’s some books that you have to get through the slow boring stuff, but then it gets really good in the middle – and the ending’s always really great.”
I got a little misty. And a little hopeful.
“Y’know,” I said, “I always find that the books that start out really fast, and that I fly through, they’re the ones that I can never remember a little bit after I’m done. But the other ones, they’re the ones that I remember best. The ones that mean something.”
She didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, “Yeah, I think you’re right. Goodnight Daddy. Love you.”
“Love you too, kiddo. Proud of you”
And if you missed the lesson, just read it again.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. The other day, while getting up to speed on agencies I’d be meeting with, I watched Gabe Zichermann’s intro video. Gabe’s the CEO of Gamification and its creative arm, Dopamine; they’re creative shops based, in part of behavioral marketing from a gaming standpoint. I met Gabe and we had a nice chat – he’s a nice guy and they seem to have a good thing going, but what stayed with me more was what he’d said in his video.
To paraphrase, he said that the ‘dopamine response’ – or pleasurable feeling as a reward for action, to put it very laymanly (look, I’ve birthed an adjective!) – takes place maybe once a day, or more likely once a week – or even year – in our working lives.
But video gamers experience this dopamine response hundreds of times an hour!
That’s, in large part, what makes games so immersive, and even addictive. And also leads to a different kind of fluid intelligence over time that allows one to adapt more quickly in certain, high intensity/short learning curve situations than those who have a more traditional intellectual background.
What stayed with me more, however, was the concept of the dopamine response -which I’ve learned is very similar to the caffeine response, as interpreted by the body (there’s more to that, but I’m a writer, not a scientist, damnit!).
Anyway, in my new perception based on a severe lack of caffeine, I’ve noticed that my behavior has, indeed changed. There are some things that I’m doing far less, now, and other things that I’m doing more of. Truly, my behavioral patterns have shifted in response to whether or not I associated that activity with a cup of coffee in the past.
Which, taken another step, makes me wonder if I actually ever really enjoyed those activities at all?
In other words, was I experiencing a true dopamine pleasure response from the activity, or did the caffeine simply magnify a more minor response, tricking me into thinking that I enjoyed whatever activity it was more than I really did?
The ramifications of this, of course, are huge if you think about it. And I do, because I have more energy and far more focus now than I did 3-weeks ago when I was still taking in a pot or more a day.
So, thinking about it, it sort of makes you question everything. As I mentioned in one of the first posts, my primary fear was that I wouldn’t be able to write well and, even more importantly, that I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. Serious stuff for me.
Fortunately, I still do enjoy the writing just as much, and I think that the words (most of the time – not in this blog necessarily are better, because the thinking behind them is.
But larger issues exist if you unwind that intellectual thread. What other things that I used coffee for to not just enjoy, but maybe even just get through are now affected? For me, that’s the trick of it; distinguishing what parts of my life were true dopamine responses, and which were simply false, caffeinated burst of speed masquerading as real enjoyment – the fauxpamine response.
It’s a good question with no easy, or immediate answers. But the good part, now, is that as I ask the questions, I know the conclusions I reach will be true. And clear.
As some of you know, quitting coffee wasn’t the only part of the challenge I’d chosen to undertake some 20 days ago.
Actually there’s quite a bit more to it. In fact, it includes everything from eating better (I’m now about 80% Vegetarian in terms of total intake), getting 8.5 hours of sleep a night (not so much, but I have moved from six to about 7.5), and a host of other things, all of which are designed to give me more energy, and more focus as I discipline my self to both set – and achieve – some pretty lofty goals.
The other thing was no alcohol.
Now, I’m not much of a drinker – wine with dinner a couple of nights a week was pretty much the extent of my drinking. And, to be honest, coffee, for me, was far harder than any of the other challenges. In fact, I stopped drinking when I quit coffee – same day. Not forever, mind you – the challenge is only supposed to run for 30 days. That said, I don’t see myself going back to the up/down seesaw of living wired on caffeine anytime soon, so don’t worry.
And, quite frankly, I didn’t miss alcohol one bit. Not a problem.
But here’s the thing – and the confessional part of this post:
Yesterday, after our meetings in NYC and before catching the bus home, my colleague Dan said, “Hey, you wanna grab a beer?”
And, quite frankly, it sounded good – even fun.
“Yeah, sure.” I said.
Two simple words.
And so we did – actually have a couple and, to be honest, a pretty good time (I won’t mention the 17-block sprint up Third Avenue to catch the bus here…we were, uh, late…)
But here’s the thing: today, my wife’s relatives showed up from out of town and wanted to meet at one of the wineries here. She wanted to go, I’d mowed the lawn, and when we got there, wine was poured. I had a glass.
Here’s the important thing: It is far easier to wholly commit to something than it is to partially commit to something.
And, in keeping with that, the minute you break your commitment – even in a seemingly small and innocent way – it makes the next opportunity to break it that much easier. It’s the slippery slope.
And. before you know it, you’re back where you started.
Which is decidedly not where I want to be.
I think that there is tremendous power in full commitment to a decision. A particular path, or course of action.
Something about fully committing seems to summon up unexpected and additional resolve, and magnifies the rewards almost immediately.
And this doesn’t just apply to one’s lifestyle, I think. Instead, I think that it applies to whatever it is you truly want to do.
Total commitment, I’ve realized, is the only way to get what you want, and where you want to be.
And concessions are never minor.
So what happened?
I got home, had a salad for dinner and recommitted.
And, I’ll wager, that the life lesson I learned far outweighs my slip up.