Category Archives: Context and History

IBM on Brand by VSA

I’ve written about IBM for a long, long time, including two books about the company. I’ve been affiliated with VSA Partners, a branding and design firm, for the past few years.

This is a short film VSA produced about IBM’s approach to branding, featuring the current steward of that brand, IBM’s Jon Iwata. I think Jon perfectly captures the culture behind IBM’s brand.

Interestingly, that approach to branding has led IBM to create “branded content” throughout its history, ranging from its old THINK magazine to books, websites and YouTube videos today.


Lean In? For Facebook, More Like “Duck!”

Will Sheryl Sandberg’s new book help Facebook, or hurt it?

This is always an interesting question when a high-profile executive writes a book, amplified exponentially when the book is accompanied by a media blitz that rivals a new Star Wars movie. In the coming weeks, Sandberg and her book, Lean In, will be promoted on 60 Minutes, in a 40-page spread in Cosmopolitan magazine, in Time magazine and on Good Morning America. It’s already gotten coverage in every major media outlet and seems to be the subject of about one tweet every 15 seconds.

The book, from what I can tell, is not about Facebook or its insights. It’s not “on brand” with Facebook. It’s not intended to help Facebook. Whether intended or not, Sandberg’s book is about to make Sandberg not at all famous for whatever her role was in co-building Facebook, and very famous for trying to start a new feminist movement.

From here on, Sheryl Sandberg will be famous for being Sheryl Sandberg.

This carries some risk for Facebook, as well as Sandberg. She’s already getting quite a bit of blowback in the media. A piece in Slate is headlined, “Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ Circles Completely Miss the Point on Workplace Maternity.” In The New York Times, Maureen Dowd belittlingly called Sandberg a “pompom girl for feminism.” The criticism keeps coming, and the book isn’t even out yet.

So Sandberg is proving a point about content and brands: Creating compelling mass-market content is a terrific way to get a lot of attention in today’s media landscape. But that attention doesn’t always help the brand or company, especially if it doesn’t seem linked to the brand’s purpose or the company’s broad goals.

Probably the most influential book by a sitting CEO in the past 50 years was Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive. It was not a dry corporate pseudo-marketing tome. It was part autobiographical, part management treatise, part inside story of one of Intel’s worst management decisions. The book made Grove more famous but also dovetailed with Intel’s image and philosophy, giving both a boost.

Most CEO books suck. (Sandberg is Facebook’s COO, but close enough.) They’re dull and too obviously self-serving. At least Sandberg didn’t do that. Hat’s off to her for writing something compelling enough to attract so much scrutiny, and for becoming famous for it.

But it’s a good bet that this won’t help Facebook, and that Sheryl Sandberg’s future and Facebook’s future probably won’t be one in the same.


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Three Ways Music’s Past Informs the Future of Books

Digital forces are changing publishing faster than Bruce Wayne morphs into Batman as he slides down the Batpole. (Yes, that fast!)

But you don’t have to be a genius to figure out how this is going to play out. Just look back on the music business a decade ago, around the introduction of the iPod. That history puts a lot of perspective into today’s news — and suggests what might happen in branded content.

Barnes & Noble retail revenue dropped 10.9%: Can you say “Tower Records?” Look, I love Barnes & Noble, as I adored Tower Records in its heyday. And I have nostalgia for the days of going into a store and feeling tangibly surrounded by music. I’d hate to see that disappear for books. But it will.

I started buying digital music and stopped buying CDs, as did millions of others. I’ve now stopped buying physical books, preferring digital. As will millions of others. People still buy CDs and they will still buy books, but not enough to keep open megastores on expensive real estate.

Brands considering putting out books need to think digital and how to get noticed on e-book sites — not how to get on shelves at B&N.

Fifty Shades of Grey, which started as a self-published e-book, kicked butt in 2012Oh, and then there’s the book on the history of TV dramas that started out self-published and just got picked up by a Simon & Schuster imprint. These things mean that do-it-yourself, viral books are the future and the big publishing houses are toast, right?

Well, that’s not really what the music industry showed us. Remember when we all thought record labels would quickly become irrelevant and we’d be listening to obscure bands we found on the Web? The story ended up being more complex. Music is now a rich mixture of big-label acts and artists who make songs on their MacBooks and find an audience through social media. The labels can back marketing campaigns and big tours and still play an important role in giving us our Lady Gagas and Rihannas and Taylor Swifts.

So if past is prologue, major book publishers will go through a lot of changes and pain, but they will emerge as an important filter and promoter of mass-market authors.

For brands, that means that while self-publishing can work, you could probably do well to hook up with a publishing house — for now, and for the future.


E-book readers like the Kindle are losing out to tablets like the iPad: That means that books could be something different than they’ve ever been. E-readers delivered a book-like experience: text only; a one-way conversation of the author talking to you; no interactivity. A book on an iPad could be packed with moveable graphics and videos and links and additional information, and could allow readers to rearrange the story or add material or who knows what.

But we also thought that would happen to music. Todd Rundgren, Aerosmith, Prince and others experimented with letting fans remix their songs or get pieces of songs or suggest stuff. By now we know that just a small percentage of people want to do such things. Most just want to press play and hear a song.

Message for brands: There is an opening now for trying to create the “new” book — something that takes advantage of a tablet’s connectivity. But in the end, most people will still just want to read a good story.

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As the Crowds Get Less Wise, an Opening for Brands

The honeymoon with the wisdom of crowds is pretty much finito. And that opens up an interesting opportunity for brands to do some public good.

This isn’t to say that crowd-sourced online ratings are dead. But the relationship has certainly gotten complicated.

When the Web first burst onto the scene in the 1990s, excitement took hold for a new kind of democracy. As Rich Barton, the guy who started Expedia and Zillow, once told me: “Everything that can be rated, will be rated.”

Before the Web, if we wanted to know whether a book or restaurant or barbecue grill or dentist was any good, we’d either have to rely on experts (a newspaper, a guidebook) or word of mouth from friends. The Web, though, let anyone rate anything. And while any individual rater might not be credible, the idea was that a lot of raters in aggregate would give you a pretty accurate assessment.

We bought into this, big-time. Amateur reviews on Amazon started to have a big influence on a book’s sales. TripAdvisor could make or break a hotel. And then the big dog moved in: Yelp turned into a powerful force in every community.









As eyeballs moved to those sites, expert reviews withered. The media cut back on book reviews. Guide books lost influence or disappeared.

But, as always, power corrupts. And the crowds have been corrupted. Last month, Yelp started publicly shaming businesses it catches paying for fake reviews. Within a couple of years, 15% of online reviews or ratings will be fake positives paid for by the reviewees, says Gartner Group. That’s enough to skew the aggregate, calling into question the crowds’ wisdom.

Now you’ve even got Lifehacker writing about how to figure out what reviews to trust.

If this trend continues, as Gartner predicts, ratings sites will get increasingly corrupted. At some point, maybe soon, consumers are going to get sick of it. And then they’ll look, once again, for the voices of credible, proven experts.

This could be a really interesting play for the right kind of brand with the right kind of incentive. Old media has spent the last decade laying off expert reviewers. They’re not likely to bring that back. But a brand could pull this off, and generate a lot of good will.

Let’s take business book reviews. Mainstream media used to do a lot of them. Now, publishers will tell you, it’s almost impossible to get reviews for anything but blockbusters from the likes of J.K. Rowling. Business books rarely get written about.

It might be interesting for a brand to hire a journalistic editor and start a serious-thinking on-line business book review site, featuring credible and authoritative writers. What kind of brand? Maybe one that would benefit from a better-informed business community and would want to be linked to concepts like thought leadership and journalistic narrative. A bank like Citicorp? McKinsey consultants? General Electric?

Apply this thinking to anything we’ve been leaving to the crowds: restaurants, hotels, doctors, toys, college professors. The right brand could become the expert we all appreciate having around.

There is precedent in history, and a great example is the Mobil Travel Guide. Mobil funded experts to write reviews of travel destinations, and the guides became trusted companions. Mobil was just the right kind of tangential brand to pull it off: It benefited when people drove and bought gas, but it had no direct benefit in which hotel they stayed at. Mobil played that perfectly.

Here’s to hoping some other brands find new ways to rise above the crowds and bring some expertise into the game.

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Sandy, Ickiness, and “Deadline Branded Journalism”

Here’s one reason why brands should embrace journalists: Good journalists have learned how to be current in ways that feel relevant and welcome — as opposed to icky.

See, when marketing types try to be relevant, they too often come across as more inappropriate than when your drunk best man structured his toast around the story of that time you made a sex tape with two co-eds and a fruit salad.

My old friend Stuart Elliott wrote a New York Times story about exactly those kinds of screw-ups in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Everybody on the east side of the U.S. was absolutely fixated by the storm early this week, and brands wanted to snag a little piece of that interest. But especially in a time of disaster, there’s no room for any message that sounds the least bit self-serving or insensitive. Stuart details a number of such flubs, like this one: The Adler brand urged shoppers on Twitter and in e-mails to “storm our site” and obtain free shipping by entering “code Sandy at checkout.” Adler ended up having to apologize.

Nonetheless, it’s smart for brands to try to be current. I recently stopped by Forbes to talk to Lewis Dvorkin, who is building a platform on for branded content, called BrandVoice. Brands pay to blog on, and the content gets mixed in with all the other Forbes-created content — though BrandVoice pieces are marked as such. For a BrandVoice story to get attention, it has to be good on its own merits — as good as Forbes’ journalist-written pieces.

So what works in getting attention? “Being current,” Lewis immediately said. Stay close to the news, and the stories will get more readers.

But really — brands are terrible at this! If they try to stay close to the news, they often stumble like Adler. And then on the flip side, brands seem like they are news-blind.

In checking several times this week, I never saw one BrandView story rise to Forbes’ most-read list. Two of the most active brands on Forbes’ BrandView are Oracle and SAP. It’s hard to find a relevant story in their buckets. On Oct. 31, while much of the Northeast cleaned up from Sandy, Oracle ran a post from its president, Mark Hurd, titled, “What CEOs want from CIOs.” At that point, on that day — who cared!?

Journalists who have worked for newspapers or news magazines instinctively hunt for relevant angles on a big story, always keeping their audience in mind. The trick is to always know the bigger picture  and filter current events through that.

A simple example: Let’s say a reporter covers real estate. She always has in her mind the big trends and issues that people care about — like housing prices, foreclosures, interest rates. She’s learned those issues and has some expertise in them. So when Sandy hits, she immediately writes about how the storm will impact those curent issues, addressing the topic in ways that matter to readers.

If a brand acted more like a journalist, it would filter current events through the kinds of things it knows about — and match that up with what people care about.

Cape Bank in Cape May, N.J., might inherently know a lot about the history of how a major storm impacts a seashore economy. If it thought like a journalist, it would quickly put that knowledge into words or videos and get its wisdom out to the public, perhaps as an op-ed piece or blog or  video. To hit the right note, the piece could not at all try to promote the bank. The idea would be to share knowledge and help people. By doing so, the bank could seem smart and caring, not to mention quick on its feet.

Let’s call it “deadline branded journalism.” At the moment, it’s either hard to find or badly done. A smart brand might exploit that opening.

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So Sorry About Newsweek, But Print Isn’t Dead…Yet

We were greeted today by the sad but inevitable report that Newsweek will cease to be a print publication. Sad because Newsweek was once a terrific magazine (I was a big fan in the 1980s and ’90s). Inevitable not because all print magazines are doomed, but because Newsweek panicked and remade itself into something that wasn’t anything like Newsweek, killing its own brand. Doh!

All print magazines are not doomed. Just certain kinds. Well, and Newsweek would’ve been one of them sooner or later. But still…

There are two a pretty simple lines of demarcation. This is important for brands to consider if they want to get into publishing.

The first is between text magazines and designed magazines.  Text magazines are typically newsy magazines — Time, Newsweek, The Economist, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, The New Yorker. As I wrote in the previous post about books, we’re getting used to reading long-form text on electronic devices. Now that that’s happening, there’s almost no good argument for reading on paper — unless you’re someone who just doesn’t want to read on a device, the way some people don’t want to floss their teeth.

Designed magazines are something else entirely. They are, at their best, beautiful packaged experiences. Think of a great issue of Conde Nast Traveler, or Vogue, or even New York Magazine (which seems to be thriving). Yes, you can do all of these very nicely on an iPad. But great designed magazines take advantage of the medium of print in a way that many readers still find more pleasing than the iPad experience. The print publication does something the iPad can’t quite duplicate — it creates a cover-to-cover experience rich in context. And it’s an artifact that you can leave on a coffee table and share or return to again.

For however long print can do this better than devices, print will have a reason for being. And here’s a minor proof point: My old colleague, George Quraishi, co-founded a new print magazine about soccer, called Howler. (I have a story in the first issue.) There was no way a soccer magazine that looked like Sports Illustrated would succeed. Howler had to be a designed magazine — and it is in fact a beautiful, large-format eye-feast. If you’re going to start a print magazine these days, this is how to do it.


So, what’s the other line of demarcation? An obvious one: age.

Anyone over about 40 grew up reading magazines. And you know what? They still like a good magazine. And you know what else? They are going to be around for another 20, 30, 40 years. Baby Boomers alone number about 80 million. Not a bad audience to play to.

That’s the good news.

The bad news: People who grow up reading devices are not going to embrace print. At a recent magazine industry conference, Dr. Jeffery Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, gave this blunt assessment about the future of print publications: “Every time one of their readers dies, they’re not being replaced by a new reader.”

Brands are creating content, and a surprising number publish some kind of print magazine. If I’m right about these demarcations, then the dumbest thing a brand could do would be to publish a text-heavy print magazine aimed at younger readers. That’s the worst quadrant to be in. If you have to publish text for younger generations, put it on the web or in an app, but not on paper.

However, there’s still a sweet spot in the quadrant where designed magazines meet 40-plus readers. It’s a big audience and one that tends to have lots of money. Probably worth considering. Yes, create a digital version that lives alongside the magazine. But the print product could win you some brand love.

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Horses, film cameras, paper books…

This post is prompted by an unbelievably backward-thinking op-ed column published in today’s New York Times under the headline “Long Live Paper,” by a Tufts University professor, Justin Hollander. He in turn is responding to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s assertion last week that paper textbooks should soon be made obsolete in favor of digital books.

In his op-ed, Hollander goes on to dump all over digital books, arguing that paper is better. In other words, this old-school professor thinks that we should continue to give our kids information in a form that (a) most of them don’t like, (b) makes their school backpacks weigh 40 pounds, (c) costs a lot in production, shipping, storage and environmental damage, and (d) is a a medium of information that will be as precious and vintage as vinyl records by the time these students are adults.

Secretary Duncan is right: paper books will go the way of horses and film cameras. Print books won’t go away. But they will no longer be ubiquitous or essential. They will become premium versions of what was formally known as a book — something nice you might give your employees for Christmas. A personal library will become more of a keepsake, a decoration, a way to preserve and pass down a physical version of an intellectual life. But increasingly you’ll find no one pulls a book off the shelf and actually reads it.

Book lovers among us — heck, authors among us! — hate the idea of dying paper books. But that won’t make the trend go away. Each succeeding generation moves farther and farther away from paper media. The harsh truth is, if you want to publish something for old people, put it on paper. If you want to publish something for young people, put it in the cloud so they can see it on anything, anywhere.

In 2007, I interviewed Kodak CEO Antonio Perez in front of an audience at Dartmouth. He talked about his first tour of Kodak facilities after he took the job. He’d go to film factories, and gather a couple thousand workers, and ask them how many of them use digital cameras. Inevitably, just about every hand would go up. Perez didn’t even have to say more. The film makers showed themselves why their world had to change.









That moment is around the corner for paper books. I’ve written five books and am on my sixth. I don’t read books on paper anymore. I just finished Ron Chernow’s 904-page biography of George Washington by reading some of it on a Kindle, and much of it on my smart phone on the New York subway. The book was always in the cloud, synched to whatever page I last read. I found time to read it in spaces where I never would’ve carted the massive print volume.

This is good news for publishing and authors, because now I can buy and read more books. And it’s looking like that’s true for much of the book-reading audience — once they get into digital books, they buy more books than before.

A lot of CEOs come to us wanting to write a book. And that’s great. A long-form book makes a statement. It can be a deeply argued body of thought or a grand sweeping story — something you can’t do so well on YouTube or Pinterest. Despite all the technology out there, the written word remains the most efficient means for channeling what’s inside one person’s brain directly into another person’s brain.

But keep in mind that the book is changing. If you want to create a paper book, publish beautiful printed copies that can be treasured artifacts and reach an audience — still sizable, by the way — that can’t or prefers not to read a book on a device.

And know that you’ll reach a younger, more tech-savvy generation a different way — through digital copies in the cloud. Like it or not, kids entering grade school today will get to college and think of a physical book as an antique.

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Google Trends and the Dawn of Brand Journalism

Google Trends just unveiled a new tool for mapping the popularity of search terms. So I was curious about  what it might tell us about “brand journalism” and “owned content” — two of the terms often used to describe this marriage of credible content with company sponsorship.





Neither term even shows a blip before 2008. Interesting that brand journalism had a couple of brief spikes, then went dormant around 2010 and has re-emerged with staying power since 2011.

Owned content seems to have been introduced into the vernacular in early 2009, and has seen a somewhat steady rise in popularity since.

The tool can be revealing. I was messing around with it, and tried the term “journalism jobs.” My assumption was that the trend would zoom upward thanks to the constant drumbeat of cutbacks at traditional publications. Not so! The trend line curves downward. Fewer and fewer people are searching for “journalism jobs.” Could it be that people increasingly don’t even consider journalism jobs?

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Things We Like Today

— Four tips for building a YouTube audience, from YouTube’s head of content strategy, Jamie Byrne. The first one on her list can’t be emphasized enough to anyone creating branded: BE AUTHENTIC! If you’re posting videos you don’t feel passionate about, or that aren’t true and credible, the audience will see through it and ignore you.

— Print media’s historic equation between publisher, advertiser and audience no longer adds up. This story in the Columbia Journalism Review explains the history of that triangle and why it’s falling apart. “The enormity of the change in the relationship of publisher, reader, and advertiser means that we’d better pray for—and work for—the restructuring of journalism’s existing institutions.” Unfortunately, that’s where the article ends. How about some suggestions for that restructuring!

— Want to absorb a history of marketing and how it moved from shouting unsubstantiated claims to mass audiences to targeted marketing to social marketing to whatever comes next? Here’s an entertaining infographic for a quick overview…and here’s Ad Age’s year-by-year historical site.


— And here’s one we like because it’s so outrageously dumb. It’s a U.K. project called Interactive Newsprint, and it’s mission is pretty much what the title suggests: develop a way to print “buttons” that let the printed newspaper play audio recordings, for instance, or connect to the network and post a Facebook “like.” This strikes us as being about as sensible as a 1920s project called Motorized Horses.

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USA Today Got It Wrong: Print Is the New Web

Over the past couple of decades, management at news giant Gannett has displayed an amazing talent for discovering media trends that are about to be left behind.

This at least goes back to that big CD-ROM project as the Internet was breaking.

The just-unveiled USA Today redesign looks like another such moment.

The print publication is being re-made to look more like a web site. Yet we’ve arrived at a juncture when web sites are going to look more like print publications.

News web sites evolved in an age of PC and laptop screens, which sat on desks a foot or so away and were navigated by keyboards and mice (mouses?). That set-up seemed to discourage people from reading anything that ran long. Web front pages turned into menus and tiny photos, all begging you to click and keep going (in part because the ad model was based on CPMs).

But that’s a bastardization of how people read. If someone picks up a magazine, they don’t turn first to the table of contents, find a story they like, turn to that story, then go back to the table of contents to find another story, and so on. They sit down and flip through.

Kindles and iPads and other tablets allow just that kind of experience, and the learning from tablets is seeping into web sites.

Print publications like Vogue are discovering that the old way they did things in the magazine is actually the best new way to do things in digital. Flipboard founder Mike McCue — who has always been a step ahead of big trends — said at a conference a year ago that digital media would go back to the future.

“The soul of the website is the content, but we have narrowed it down to this little box, and someday that is destined to change,” he told the audience. “Interestingly enough, the solution has been right under our noses for decades – it’s print: magazines, newspapers.”

So USA Today seems to be moving backwards by making the newspaper look like the web. The right move now would’ve been to rediscover what made the newspaper so successful in the 1990s, and bring that forward to digital.

It’s a good lesson for any content producing entity. Print is the new web.

Oh, and as full disclosure, I worked at USA Today from 1985 to 2007. I saw it at its best, and I watched it fumble the changing post-Internet landscape. I still have a lot of friends there, so while I’m not convinced the redesign is the right medicine, I certainly hope it is — for the sake of some great people who work there.

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