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Keeping secrets, pop art, brands branding

How Do Customers Find You?

(And why do we have such a hard time talking about it?)

Today I had wanted both to read about and then share some information and experiences that people have had about how customers discovered a business or a brand.

I found hundreds of “helpful” articles on knowing your customers (i.e., use our agency, please!) and about marketing in general. Knowing your customer is, of course, extremely important, and knowing what they want is equally crucial. But that’s not what I wanted to know. Continue reading

first laptop

Brand & Entrepreneur: Will They Love It?

An entrepreneur has to worry about a hundred different technicalities before going to market, but the most important question isn’t technical at all: Will they love it?

WITH STARTUPS, TWO big questions keep their founders up at night. “Will it work?” and “Will it make money?”

Although these are far from being the only questions to preoccupy the entrepreneurial mind, they are important ones. A startup is usually the brainchild of an individual or a close-knit team that comes across a solution to a problem. In fact the first questions that get bandied about usually begin with “What if…”

  • What if there were a way for everyone to use a computer wherever they were? Toshiba.
  • What if there were a way to promote the automotive industry and protect the environment? Tesla.

But Toshiba did not make the first laptop, and Tesla Motors did not invent the electric car. The first laptop (or better said, portable computer) was the Portal R2E CCMC designed and invented by François Gernelle in 1980. Toshiba’s first clam-shell laptop came along in 1985 after a few other versions were tried. Why do we remember Toshiba and not Portal R2E CCMC?tesla and musk, entrepreneur

The electric car sprang from the imagination of Scottish inventor Robert Anderson in 1832. Later in 1891, William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, built the first successful electric automobile in the US. The first commercially available electric cars came only 106 years later with the hybrid Toyota Prius (still available) and several thousand electric-only cars from such names as GM, Honda, Ford, and Nissan, although most were discontinued in the early 2000s. Tesla launched its Roadster in 2006. And while thousands of consumers are happy with their Prius, when people say electric car, they think Tesla.

Gernelle and Morrison had both hit upon the right ideas and had the right technological resources around them to put them into action. But the two are almost completely forgotten by history because they neglected one huge factor. One essential component that might have secured their respective places in posterity.

No Brand. No Recall.

A brand is, at its most elemental, an identity. This is where many entrepreneurs and startups get sidetracked with branding. Many people would like to believe that branding is about commercialization and sales. That when you start thinking of branding, you are thinking about ways to trick the consumer public or customer base. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. A brand is as essential to a product or service as your name is to you.

If you meet someone at a business networking event, he or she might give you their card and ask you to call. That is an act of branding. By handing you a business card, you can identify this person you met and distinguish him or her from the thousands of others you may have met in your life. Moreover, this person (let’s call her Sarah) tells you a little story about her business – it is a virtual office service. Then maybe she told you a funny story about a client who thought she was a hologram. Laughter. And another act of branding has taken place. Now Sarah is a living brand. You will remember her at least in part because she established an emotional bond with you – you laughed.

Do the Drones Fly?

Launching a startup and getting it to market is a huge undertaking for any entrepreneur. You have to make sure the app is properly coded and working, the shoes are well cut and sewn, the drones fly, or the coffee does not taste like battery acid, depending on what your startup is going to do. There are myriad details and technicalities that need to be sorted and tied down before launching your new product. If you leave out the branding, however, no one may ever be able to remember you.

Branding introduces meaning to your startup, a sense of its promise and purpose. You have asked yourself the What If question already; you have seen the problem that you are going to solve; but now it is time to articulate it. Giving your startup or product a name is an important first step, but being able to describe it, talk about its values and its personality will help people remember it. And that is eventually what will sell it for you.

apple and entrepreneur jobsFrançois Gernelle named his incredible innovation the Portal R2E CCMC. This was not wrong – every product needs a name – but he did not do himself any favors by giving it a name that sounds more like a spare part than a breakthrough in personal computing. The name you choose for your company (or for its products and services) should be easy to remember and reflect your business in some way. This is obviously not always true – Steve Jobs did not pioneer anything in the fruit industry. But if you give your product a whimsical name, you will have to work all the harder to connect the concept with its execution for your consumers.

Once you establish the name, the “Gernelle Portal,” for example, you then need to go to work to imbue it with the other brand values that set it apart from the others. The best way to do this is to tell its stories. With a new or innovative brand or product, something that has never existed before, the stories will have to come from the imagination. You can tell the stories of how your Gernelle Portal will change the way you live, the way you work, and how you enjoy your life. Later, after people begin to buy it, these stories will be replaced by real experiences. Slowly the new brand will come to be associated with an idea – the idea of personal freedom or individual expression (as opposed to being tied to a workspace or an office). Now, no matter how much or how quickly the technology races past you on the way to becoming a Toshiba or a Mac, people will still remember your brand. You will have established yourself as the Gernelle Portal. And the R2E CCMC will have been left at the back of the shelf.

Next to the R2E CCMD.

Tough Questions

Many entrepreneurs, when they are asked why consumers should buy their products, are stumped by the question. It seems like a harmless (and somewhat really important) question, but more often than not the entrepreneur has not thought through the answer. The product might be a clever or even an ingenious idea, but how does is benefit the consumer? And what should we feel about it?

When you get the branding right, the answers to these deceptively simple questions become second nature. The brand is the identity, and the whole reason that you wanted to bring this new gizmo to the public is because it has a real purpose – it saves lives! It saves time! Or, it is just a lot of fun! Whatever the purpose of the brand, it is part of its identity. The purpose, then, also carries a promise. One example of this could be a game app for android phones. If its purpose is to entertain us, then the promise is that it always will. Never mind that there are millions of game apps available to download. The brand is about you and your product, not how you compare with the others. Once the branding is done, then we will turn our attention to how differentiate it from the masses. entrepreneur

Answering the question about feeling may be more difficult. But think of other games you may have played in your life. Candyland? Childhood. Super Mario Bros? Nostalgia. Tetris? Boring. Angry Birds? Annoying. The first register that will affect your choices in playing games will be emotional, not rational. If you are coming out with a new game, how do you want people to feel? Excited? Suspenseful? Happy? Anxious? Or any of dozens of other emotional registers. The tone you adopt in talking about your new game will help create that emotion in the consumer. Later, of course, this will be taken over by actual experience, and (assuming you have written a good game) it will do a lot of the work for you. entrepreneur

Starting a new venture, as an entrepreneur or startup team, is an electrifying experience. It puts your creativity, technical expertise, organization, and business acumen to the test at all times. And while getting right and getting it sold are two important goals, getting it loved should come first.

Because when they really love your brand, they will buy and buy and buy.









Steampunk Typewriter.

Winter of Our Non-Content

No reader wants good contentWe want good writing!

Reading the paperONCE UPON A time, our days began by reading the morning paper. content

Everyone had his or her own way of reading. I used to get the International Herald Tribune every morning when I lived in Paris. I read the headlines on page one and then I opened and flipped it to the back where I read the columnist of the day: Dave Barry on Tuesdays, Art Buchwald occasionally, and (my favorite) William Safire on Fridays. After that, I went to the arts section, and finally back to page one to see what the bad news was for the day.

The order of my reading habit was formed by a few different things. I had a need to know the Big Picture so I scanned the headlines first. I loved to read the columnists so they claimed my first focused attention. I wanted to do something on the weekend so the arts section informed me. And then, in the end, I went back to the beginning and read through the whole thing. The process usually took about two espressos and three Gauloises blondes. Time invested: 30-45 minutes.

In the prehistoric pre-Internet era, the daily paper was my chief source of information and reading entertainment. Television was also there, but I was a reader more than a watcher. And while this morning habit was deeply ingrained, on some days I threw down the IHT after about 10 minutes. On some days the headlines would be dull, a substitute columnist would appear, and nothing was going on that held my interest. On such a day, I usually would get to work early…

Jumping ahead to today, it’s the same thing, only different.

I still spend about half an hour on my news and reading, but I have countless choices for sources. Instead of my paper that was limited to about 38 pages (that’s a guess by the way), I now have everything that has been written on earth as of this morning. So my morning coffee sees me whizzing past Facebook and LinkedIn, making incursions in several news sites, setting up a bivouac alongside a few bloggers, and finally slipping around the corner and back to Facebook to see if anyone liked my new profile picture. It is a flurry of clicks and scrolls and shifting attention. On most days, I am lucky if I come away knowing anything more than I did before booting up.

And I miss William Safire.

Herein begins our discussion of “content.” Content is the stuff that either grabs my attention or does not. It is then either worthy of my time or it is not. It might be a photo or a video, a big headline or provocative title, or a short, Twitter-style, 140 characters of pith or drivel. When I compare it to the leisurely days of reading the IHT on a sunny balcony in Paris, I am confronted with a particular irony: I have so much information that I never get enough information.

The IHT, within its printed limits, had to be good quality writing. Why? Because I could choose to buy any of 26 other papers instead, and it was in their interest to keep me each day. Once I bought it or subscribed, I was stuck, and I read what I had in front of me. Online, however, with everything available, I am much more discriminating. I will not spend more than a nanosecond on something that has a whiff of boring or irrelevant to me. And if something looks good, I will skim it and move on to see what else is good. In plain speech, I just do not have time to read everything. No one could.

Moreover, the IHT had something that the Internet does not – an editor-in-chief. A newspaper was good or bad according to the skill of the editor in curating my reading choices. The web is just a free-for-all. I pick and choose on my own content (despite the efforts of algorithms and bots that try to steer me around). This is an absolute boon to writers – no matter what they write they can publish it – and a curse to the reader who may not have the time or inclination to form a reasoned information habit online. No practiced hand is there to separate the wheat from the chaff. I end up chewing on a lot of chaff.

Clean Copy

Good content is good writing.

Leaving aside the viral videos and cat photos, the best content on the web is the well-written article, long or short, informative or funny, truth or alt-truth. Grammar mavens like me will bounce away from sites that do not edit themselves well enough to make their content readable. What we read online must be so much better than what was printed on paper, and this is precisely because we can run away from it so much faster. Our competition is there, lurking on another tab, waiting to swoop in and steal our attention.

We also must define what is meant by “better.” Writing for the web is slightly different than for print. A copyrighter must be aware of keywords, cross-referencing, and imbuing each line with the temptation to read on. Whereas journalism majors will have learned about the “pyramid” style – writing the story in order of importance with the least relevant information being near the bottom so an editor could chop it off if needed – web writing must hold your interest from top to bottom. Even at the end of the article, there must be something that tempts you to click on and over to something nearby and keep on going.

Things websites have in common with Las Vegas:
They will never let you leave if they can help it.

One of the metrics that is used to measure the “success” of the website is the duration of the visit. If you are in and out in a flash, your visit is not regarded as valid. It’s a bounce. If you stay for one article, let’s say two to three minutes, you start being interesting. What keeps people on the website is compelling content, good writing, interesting stories, and a good dose of humor.

With all the competition and background noise buzzing online, your brand’s content is hugely important. If consumers bounce away from your home page because they were lulled to sleep by your droning content, you will have a hard time getting them back. They will consider your site a Sleep Zone and avoid it. This redounds, obviously, to the severe detriment of your brand.

content machineAnd we call it content, which makes it sound like a sack of potatoes or so much meat through the grinder. I am constantly asked to “provide content” for the brands I work with. But to me, this word demeans the process and the product. What a brand needs is a story. A gripping tale to get caught up in. There are many stories to be told – even including the story of why you want to leave your email address and join a mailing list. Every written word about your brand should aim at achieving an emotional connection with it. This is not a sack of potatoes – it is the aroma of home-cooking wafting in from a family kitchen. That familiar scent will lead you to follow it into the kitchen and begin to imagine the taste, to dream of the meal, and to whet your appetite until nothing else but Gratin Dauphinois will do.

And like all good stories, it must be clean and clear. It must not only be easy to understand but also alluring and seductive. It must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like Uncle Aristotle taught us. A story must satisfy the need for posing a conflict, facing it, and bringing it to a resolution. These are not prescriptive guidelines, of course, but they do describe the way we get involved in the stories we read. The best ones captivate us fully.

But Aristotle was also very alive to yet another aspect of storytelling. If it is great, if it is art, then it points away from itself to something much more fundamental: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

This is a message for brand storytellers everywhere. The more we talk about the brand in direct terms, the less people will be enchanted by it. Another ancient grammarian whom I admire, Servius, warns us that “ars poetica est non omnia dicere” or the art of poetry is NOT saying everything. What is not said is of greater importance sometimes than what is.


René Magritte, Les Valuers Personnelles

Branding: It’s Only Human

Do you talk to your cat?

As humans, we tend to endow human qualities to a wide range of unlikely things. We give our pets names and we attribute to them the ability to think and understand us. We talk to the dog and the cat and the fish and the fern and allow ourselves to think that they “get” us. In fact, many pet-owners will say that their pets get them more than humans.

Our brands “get” us too!

Our brands feel the same way we do about child-labor (Nike), about ethical sourcing (Starbucks), about speed and elegance (Maserati, Alfa Romeo), about families (Apple, BMW, Heinz, Disney, McDonald’s, and many more). Our values are reflected in our brands and we choose our brands for their values.

This happens for the simple reason that a beloved brand (for us) enters into our DNA. It becomes a part of our identity, and while it is always possible to change this identifier, we only do so in changing ourselves. The change can be subtle as in a shift away from Nike to Puma, or it can be dramatic as in deleting a cigarette brand when we quit smoking. In the first case, it is a matter of our personal style and the statement it makes, in the second it is much more about deep-seated value decisions about your life. Marlboro cannot be part of your identity anymore if you have become a non-smoker.

On the other hand, people who quit smoking half-heartedly keep their identity in tact – and usually become backsliders.

Most people contain a number of brands within their personality mix. We do it in order to establish an identity both to ourselves and to the world at large. Since I am and have always been very sensitive to brands, I will use myself as a test case.

My Brands

When I am shoe shopping – which does not happen more than once a year or so – I do not go out with the intention to shop randomly until I discover what I want. If it is a new pair of sneakers, I look for Pumas. If it is work shoes, I favor Italian brands. In the first case, it is a quite specific brand. In the second, it is a specific category.

It might sound heretical to say so, but there is no quantitative difference among Puma, Nike, Converse, adidas, Reebok, or any of 20 other brands. Most have features to distinguish them, but before I leave my flat to head out to shop for them, I have already made my brand choice. I like Puma.

Why? God knows!

In my experience they do not last for more than a year without coming apart. They are less common and therefore harder to find. And they are priced at a premium compared to others. This is not a value for money choice – it is a clear brand choice.

A number of things go through my head – I like Nikes and they were among my first sneakers that I chose myself. I like how they look and feel. But I am annoyed that they are everywhere. I don’t like Reebok – the association I have with Reebok is that of a secretary walking to work with heels in her bag (that used to be a thing). And I like New Balance generally, but the name bugs me. I like Puma because it is none of these things. It seems like it is all about style. It’s about me. So my choice – in this little bit of stream-of-consciousness, which is automatically felt and never clearly articulated unless pushed to do so – is already made.

I once bought a pair on holiday because I needed a new pair (the old ones were shot) but did not find any that fit me well. But I bought them anyway and wore them for about six months while they actually hurt my feet each day.

Puma for me was an identity. It was not pushing sales down my throat. It was not about organizing contests and ten-mile runs. It simply is. And because I feel that way about the brand, I immediately filtered out the many others and concentrated my search on them.

Another of my brands includes a Mont Blanc Meisterstück pen, a brand that has been close to me for many years. I use the Mont Blanc for signing “important” documents. It is a personal ritual and part of my own brand. I also contain Alfa Romeo cars in my personal brand. Although I currently do not own one, I have had two in my life, and they are “my” car and thus a part of my brand. I will very certainly own another one again!

A few other brands – in no order – include:

Why would I include a city in my brand? For many people, their home towns are an integral part of their brands. The place where you grew up or spent your formative years becomes an integral part of your branding. For me it is Rome, Italy, even though I have lived in a number of European capitals and other countries and cities over the years. Rome is my brand without question – it is the one place that I love without needing to justify or qualify with reasons. This does not make Rome a “better” city than Paris, London, Munich, Belgrade, or Shanghai.

It makes it my city.

In all the examples above, the brands that are part of my identity are those that have had a lasting presence in my life, by my own choice. Pasta De Cecco, as another kind of example, is a remembered brand. It is unavailable in Belgrade where I am living today and I have not been able to buy it in years. But I remember how much I liked it. I can picture its logo and brand identity. I associate it with excellent pasta. And again, it may not objectively be better than Barilla or Buitoni or Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, but it is my pasta brand.

The brands we love communicate with us on a much more intimate level than those about which we are indifferent, only just “like”, or have ambivalent feelings. Looking at Place Branding (also called Nation Branding), we can break down the reasons for which Rome continues to be my brand. It appeals to a number of deep emotional triggers – nostalgia, familiarity, consistency, and trust. In Place Branding, one could use the same triggers to alter my personal brand by communicating heavily in all these areas regarding Paris, for example. It would not be a direct appeal to me – because the agencies working on Paris as a brand do not and could know me – but to the same base phenomena that attach me to Rome.

The brands that comprise me, moreover, need not be static.

Newton’s first law of motion is in play here. It is commonly stated as: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”[1] In our context, it means that I will happily stick with my own personal brands until another one of sufficient impact comes along to bump the old ones out of the way.

Some will try. Many will fail. But some will get through!






[1] “Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus illud a viribus impressis cogitur statum suum mutare.” Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Sir Isaac Newton, 1687.


Questions about your brand? Want to launch something new? Contact notapipe brand consulting today and we will assess your situation, give a frank appraisal, and real ideas and usable suggestions about how we could work together to make your brand the best it can be!



Here are 5 Good Reasons to “Like” Our Facebook Page

There are always a million reasons NOT to like a Facebook page.

They are sometimes annoying. They sometimes are full of advertising. They can be an obligation (especially if it is your brother-in-law’s page about used lawn furniture).

But here are five GOOD reasons to like our page! Continue reading