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Archive for the ‘Brand building’ Category

We’re Bigger Than This

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Helping Colleagues See the Larger Story

Bad manners and ill-treatment make headlines in personal conversations at most of the companies I’ve worked for. Just like in our newspaper or aggregated news sources online. People often say they wish the newspaper published good news, but they would not read it if it did. Good news—things going right for a change—few have time or interest for that.ThingsGoingWell-3-03062015

Naturally this is so: stories of the people around us always take top billing in our conversations. Family, colleagues, neighbors, we love hearing what each other did and we love to relate a story about someone else, especially if funny or it has some emotional content that will get a reaction. It is the emotional content, whether funny, sad or repugnant that we really want to get across to each other.

It is our way of connecting: we want to stir a reaction.

It takes a concerted effort not to talk about the people who are not there. Leaders see personal interactions as an opportunity to steer interest toward something larger. But that larger thing is not the mission statement produced by the top brass or Human Resource, which is typically a lifeless bit of plastic. The real stories, the ones that make leaders out of ordinary citizens, are those stories where something of the corporate or group mission has made its way into and through an ordinary life.

One boss related a conversation she had with a far-away department. The department director praised specific people on the team and told of specific details that helped their group move forward. When our boss told this to the team in casual conversation, people blossomed.

We need more connection with larger mission—even if it seems hoky at the time. And we need less stories about how bad/abnormal/demonic are the people not present.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

The Lamp Repair Man and the Factory Owner

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How do business and passion mix?

A man had a small business repairing oil lamps. He repaired wicks or refilled lamps with oil—whatever was needed. He took his cart to different neighborhoods and called out for business: “Lamp repair” and “Fix your lamp.”

When people brought their lamps to the man, they would watch him trim or replace the wick, refill the oil and polish the glass. The man had a quick rhythm to his method: he sang a song softly that guided him through his process of checking each lamp. The man was unfailingly kind and full of joy and neighborhood kids loved to watch him as he worked. He would often say providing light was what he was meant to do.


One day a factory owner was home for the morning. He was feeling a bit unwell from celebrating late into the night after successfully negotiating deep concessions with the largest union at his factory. When he heard “Lamp repair” shouted outside and remembered his children exclaiming over the charms of the lamp repair man, he stood and picked up the lamp he had been reading by and made his way outside.

The lamp repairman took the lamp and quickly sang his song to himself as he checked it over. Then he trimmed the wick, polished the glass and handed it back to the factory owner since it was nearly full of oil.

“What do I owe you, Mr. Lamp Repairman?” asked the factory owner.

“Oh, nothing,” said the man. “That took no time.”

The factory owner would not have it.

“But surely your time is worth something,” he said. “Surely you have some small fee for checking and trimming and polishing. I own a factory and I must pay for every bit of my employees’ attention.”

“Well,” said the man. “I’ve found that I am most interested in how light works and what it provides. I love a well-lit page when I read and I am eager for good lighting for others. So it actually rewards me when I can get someone’s lamp working well.”

“But can you live on good feelings?” asked the factory owner. “Do your good feelings buy potatoes or flour? Can you pay your landlord with good feelings?”

“True,” said the man. “Good feelings don’t buy much in the open market. But good intentions find their way back. I have found that helping those along my regular route helps build my business. People return when there lamp needs repair because they know I’ll be fair and they know I’ll do my best to get their cherished lamp working. You give a little, you get a little.”

“I see,” said the factory owner. “Give a bit away free and then get rewarded with loyal customers. Good strategy.”

“Yes,” said the man. “It was a good strategy for many years. But today I am actually well-provided for. I’m not rich, but my wife and children and I have enough. I actually charge only rarely because I don’t need to and because I am interested in the lives of these customers who have become friends over the years. Children and grandchildren of long-time customers bring out their lamps. I am eager that they have enough light for the many books they read and drawings they make and conversations they have.”

The factory owner took his lamp and walked back to his home, thinking back to the work he did that started his own factory.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

February 25, 2015 at 10:14 am

How to Anticipate a Thaw

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Sometimes life mirrors fiction

My client needs a strategy for their online presence.

They know their presence appears text-heavy and pedantic, making them less attractive to the new audience they seek. My client’s online presence must quickly inform the querying audience why they should care, but this message needs to be packaged with a color palette and intuitive organization that say “Come in!” long before the audience gets to the headlines, let alone body copy.


All sorts of off-the-shelf tools can make that happen these days. WordPress has a number of themes that can invigorate tired old websites.

But what I’m interested in is the engagement-promises my client can make that are deeply true. The organization itself is on the cusp of change and their online presence is a first new thing to present a refreshed vision. As such, their presence needs to be aspirational (“Here’s who we want to be”) but also rooted in long-held values. Their new presence needs to reflect the hard-won, chiseled facets they have come to love—facets that may just present new ways forward.

When I get stuck writing a piece of fiction, I go back and see what my characters have already been saying and doing. And then I retrace their steps along a new trajectory. And that is exactly what my client needs.

This is a team effort situated in real life. And this team effort will retrace and map and begin to outline a new trajectory. This team hopes to generate a conversation that precipitates a thaw after a long winter. We hope this conversation will pull in those who have long been hibernating.



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

My New Mug is a Proper Communist

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Fresh from St. Petersburg



Oh—it has made a free-market friend.

Or is this some new annexation?

Or is this some new annexation?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

February 19, 2015 at 9:23 am

Why Academic Writing is so Boring

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Insider language bores the outsider

Researchers, scientists, academicians marshal their facts to a higher standard, but with their neglect of the emotive power of language they often speak only to each other, their parochial words dropping like sand on a private desert.

–Sol Stein, Stein on Writing (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1995) 11.


And please don’t equate “emotive” with flowery.


Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

When Truth Sounds Like a Lie

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And the lie that turns out true

Let’s make up a new term: the “aspirational lie.”

The aspirational lie is that thing that falls from your mouth before you can stop it.

  • It is not quite true—that’s why you almost didn’t say it.
  • But it is not quite false—something about it is true. Which is why you did say it.

That happened to me when talking to a writing class of business students. My professor friend let me come in and chat about freelance copywriting. She wanted her MBA students to see some different shades to how work gets done. In the course of our discussion we talked about how one prepares to write and about how one does the work.

I told one truth that sounded like a lie.

And I told a lie that turned out to be true.


The Truth That Sounded Like a Lie

The truth that sounded like a lie was that I make a bunch of stuff up for my clients. “How so?” wondered the class. It’s like this: the writer’s work is to think forward and then tell the story of how all the parts fit together. Whether writing a white paper, a journal article, an advertising campaign or refreshing a brand, writers do what writers have always done: make stuff up. They grab bits and pieces of facts and directions and fit them into a coherent whole. As they move forward, they gradually replace false with true and so learn as they go.

That is the creative process.

You fill up your head with facts and premonitions and assumptions. Many are true, some are false. But the process itself—and the subsequent reviews reveal what it is true. Writing is very much a process of trying things on for size and then using them or discarding them. And sometimes we used facts “for position only,” as a stand-in for the real, true fact on our way to building the honest, coherent whole.


The Aspirational Lie

We also talked about backgrounds and how one prepares to write. I explained how degrees in philosophy and theology are an asset to business writing. Yes: I was making that up on the spot. But not really, because I have believed that for some time, though had never quite put it in those words. Pulling from disparate backgrounds is a way out of the narrow ruts we find ourselves in. Those divergent backgrounds help to connect the dots in new and occasionally excellent ways. Which is also why we do ourselves a favor when we break from our homogeneous clubs from time to time.

Comedy writers do this all the time. I just finished Mike Sacks excellent Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers (NY: Penguin Books, 2014), and was amazed all over again at the widely different life experiences comedy writers bought to their work.

The more I’ve thought about the aspirational lie that philosophy and theology contribute to story-telling, the more convinced I am it is true. That’s because I find myself lining up facts and story bits and characters and timelines according the rhythms and disciplines I was steeped in during school. In philosophy it was the standing back and observing with a disinterested eye. In theology it was the finding and unraveling and rethreading of complicated arguments—plus a “this-is-part-of-a-much-larger-story” component.

Our studies, our reading, our life experience—all these help line up the ways we hear things and the ways we connect the dots. Our best stories are unified and coherent because of this.


Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Imagination, Guts and a Camera: How Does Story Work?

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Thomas Sanders: Only a few resist the story

Every marketer on earth wants their brand to be part of a larger, compelling story. That’s because story is irresistible catnip to those in the human condition. We want so badly to be part of a big story.

Watch for what happens as strangers quickly enter the story—or not.

It’s the moment of decision—join or not?—that makes this compelling and so watchable.


Via 22 words

Written by kirkistan

December 23, 2014 at 8:38 am

Ecotricity Collapsing Cooling Towers: One Memorable Brand Voice

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One gets the sense they don’t take themselves too seriously.

Old 2012 ad. Still cool.

Via: copyranter

Written by kirkistan

November 25, 2014 at 11:52 am

Don’t use that (brand) voice with me

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Brand Voice Should Invite Not Forbid

My friend Dimitri* asked leading questions.

They weren’t the impossible questions like “What is the meaning of life?” or “Why five toes? Why not four or seven?” where you could speculate together and combine ignorance.

No, Dimitri’s questions were contrived and assembled to manipulate your emotions and response. In conversation with Dimitri, you knew he was looking for some specific answer. But he would never tell what he wanted. He engineered his question so the one plain answer was what he wanted you to say. Then he could launch into a lengthy response. That game left us weary, frustrated and eventually vetoing most of Dimitri’s questions.

Lots of firms play Dimitri’s game: their communication is guided only by a desire to sell (which is, after all, the point of corporations and not necessarily bad). But when the only conversation a company will entertain is one that leads you to buy their product, that looks more like monologue. People veto those conversations and/or walk away.


No one wants to be reduced to a number on a spreadsheet or a statistic. That’s why the used car salesman with the plaid jacket is a favorite target in our culture. It’s also why manipulative sermons and boring lectures are easily dismissed. Of course, some brands are famously annoying, like the “Save Big Money” voice of Menards and we tune it out—except for when we remember it because we want to save big money.

There is more opportunity today to invite participation instead of hijacking it. And invitation, while harder because it requires thinking about someone else’s need or desire, has the advantage of building relationship.

Monologue and the preachy/lecturey voice have limited shelf-life.


*Not his real name. His real name was Smitty.

Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

November 24, 2014 at 1:22 pm

You Gotta Find Ways to Tell Your Story

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Don’t dumb down. Don’t be boring.

One client is a thought leader in her particular industry. She writes and presents papers around the world. In doing so she thinks brand new thoughts, adds to her credibility and drums up potential clients for her firm. She is disciplined about two timetables:

  1. Timetable #1: Industry Papers. She includes time in her schedule to research and write, which allows her to build out topics of interest to her customers. Those topics also interest editors of professional journals, so she maximizes her research and writing time to open up new venues to be heard as an expert.
  2. Timetable #2: Everyone is a Publisher. My client also understands that she is not just speaking to the industry-folks who crave the details she has synthesized. She is also speaking to a broader group of people—those who have a nominal but urgent interest and may benefit from what she has to say. This second, broader group of people drop their questions into the oracle of Google. My client hopes her investment in social media (her firm’s blog, Twitter, and Instagram accounts) will reach these people. She routinely takes papers she has published and breaks them up into smaller chunks that more easily relate to the rest of life.
We need your annotations.

We need your annotations.

But this second piece is less about research and more a journalistic/writerly function. This part is more about connecting the dots with the work and life and less about laying bare abstract research findings. She understands this second communication need has nothing to do with dumbing the topic down. In fact, just the opposite she employs her best writing to say things as simply as possible without relying on buzzwords and tribal knowledge.

Marketers of consumer products have long focused on Timetable #2. Academics and specialized industries have long focused on Timetable #1. How long before we all use Timetable #2 as the route to Timetable #1?

Remember: we are the gatekeepers now.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

November 17, 2014 at 12:01 pm

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