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.


NYT’s Ricochet: A New Wrinkle in Branded Journalism

Instead of a brand creating journalistic content, what if a brand could borrow and share some of the best content created by actual journalists?

That’s what Ricochet, an intriguing new tool from The New York Times, is making possible. The newspaper first unveiled the tool last year and used it internally, but this week NYT announced that other media companies — Forbes, Conde Nast, Time Inc. — will also use it. No doubt NYT will sell Ricochet widely, and it could become an important part of the way branded journalism works.

Ricochet allows a brand to buy an ad next to an online story. But the ad only appears when that brand shares the story through a specially-generated link. If others in turn share that link, they’ll see the brand’s ad, too.

If the Times writes a story about cloud computing, SAP — which, incidentally, helped develop Ricochet — can use Ricochet to buy an ad to run with that story when SAP shares it. So if SAP tweets the story or posts it on Facebook or its SAP website, anyone who clicks on it sees an SAP ad along with the story. Significantly, points out NYT’s R&D chief Michael Zimbalist, Ricochet guarantees that readers won’t click the story that SAP shared and see an ad from an SAP competitor.

Using Ricochet does something else: It doubles down on a brand’s support for a story. Yes, it’s sharing it. And now it’s also, in a way, financing it.

The best branded journalism doesn’t “sell” — it develops a market. Bicycle apparel company Rapha hired journalists and started Rouleur, a biking magazine. The magazine doesn’t write about Rapha’s stuff — it writes about hard-core biking. If it can help generate more bikers, there will be more people around to buy Rapha’s stuff.

So it makes sense for an SAP to encourage excitement about cloud computing. Or a Tourneau to celebrate high-end watches. A good way for brands to do these kinds of things is to circulate credible, authentic, journalistic content about the topics their constituents care about.

One way to do that is to create content yourself — a la Rouleur. But that’s not always easy and not in many brands’ DNA.

Ricochet seems to usher in a new era of brands being able to easily buy into legitimate journalism created by media outlets, and redistribute it in a way that lets everyone win. The brand gets to associate itself with market-building journalism; the journalistic organization makes more money so it can continue producing such stories; and the public gets content it likes and values.

It will be interesting to see what happens as Ricochet becomes more widely offered.


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Paid Content Has No Rules, So Behave

When institutions blow apart, the old rules give way to something that’s more like no rules. Which is pretty much where we are in journalistic branded content.

In that environment, brands have to be careful and behave, or they could find themselves losing the public’s trust.

The old structure of the media industry had its flaws. But when news and information flowed through traditional newspapers and magazines, trained journalists imposed a shared code of law, especially when it came to things like conflicts of interest, separating advertisers from coverage, and objectivity. Same with books and publishing houses, though book editors generally had a different set of standards from journalists.

If those institutions were gatekeepers, the gates have been obliterated by storming mobs. Instead of pitchforks, they’ve come bearing Web news sites, blogs, Twitter, self-publishing, Kindle Singles, etc. The democratization of media has been wonderful and eye-opening in so many ways, but there’s also this: Some in the storming mobs have a lot of money to spend and a motivation to use it in ways the old journalists usually squashed.

Case in point: the government of Malaysia. Last week, the story surfaced that Malaysia paid 10 media columnists – who wrote for outlets such as Huffington Post and National Review – to write pieces smearing an opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. With a hunger for content and less scrutiny of what they publish, Web news sites are particularly vulnerable to this kind of thing.

We’ve seen instances of Twitter abuse. Lots of questions have been raised about celebrities getting paid by companies to tweet about their products – with no disclosure about the arrangement. Rainn Wilson got called out for pitching del Taco on the sly.

Lately stories have surfaced about schemes to manipulate bestseller lists so books like Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness looks like it zooms to the top.

Who knows how much of this goes unreported and unseen. So the temptation can be great for brands to sponsor content in sneaky ways.

But then, getting outed is a bitch. Anything pro-Malaysia in any news outlet is now suspect. Any celebrity mention of del Taco will raise an eyebrow.

In this new environment, brands have to be guardians of their own credibility. The best way to do that is to be as transparent and noble as possible when it comes to journalistic content. Don’t try to trick us. Yes, a brand may get away with it, but if we do find out, the brand will lose our trust. That’s not worth it.


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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Pope Tweeting Part II: So What Happens to a Departed CEO’s Twitter?

As a number of tweeters have pointed out today, the Pope isn’t the first to lose his job so soon after opening a Twitter account.

But the Pope’s resignation brings up some interesting points about tweeting CEOs. Just a few weeks ago, I noted that the Pope, in creating a Twitter stream, was way ahead of most big-company CEOs. Twitter has become an important new medium, and like it or not, important leaders should be on it.

But when setting up a CEO on Twitter, it’s worth putting some thought into the relationship between the CEO as a person and the institution he or she represents, and how much those two should be intertwined. Because, inevitably, the CEO and institution will part ways.

Let’s take Pope Benedict’s situation. He made a huge splash when he (well, really, his minions) started tweeting in January, and the account now has 1.5 million followers. (Incidentally, he did not tweet his own decision to resign.) The Twitter account is clearly labeled as belonging to Pope Benedict XVI, with a little photo of him waving. But he chose to register the account as @pontifex. Pontifex is Latin for a member of the highest order of priests.

So now Benedict leaves. Hard to imagine he’s going to keep tweeting. (“Day one away from Vatican; need to buy some pants.”) The next Pope should absolutely tweet. The church could pretty easily make the transition by continuing to use @pontifex and attaching it to the incoming guy. No followers lost. And the Twitter account gets established as being a mouthpiece for the institution of the papacy — not an individual person in that position.

But at a company, it would seem strange to establish a Twitter account as, say, @geceo, as apposed to @jeffimmelt. If Immelt leaves, the account follows him, not the position of GE CEO. Immelt could continue tweeting, reaching his…well…just 8,127 followers. But he’d no longer be representing GE — perhaps dangerously. What if he went to run another company? Or ran for political office?

GE attempts to address the potential problem by putting this on Immelt’s Twitter page: “Chairman & CEO of @GeneralElectric. Building, powering, moving, and curing the world. GE Works.” Presumably, after Immelt, that label would go on the next CEO’s page. But the next CEO will have to start building followers from scratch.

Warren Buffett has one of the more popular CEO Twitter feeds, with 121,823 followers even though he has tweeted exactly once. Interestingly, his page is labeled: “Investor, Philanthropist, Omaha, Nebraska.” It doesn’t even say he’s CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. But Buffet is Berkshire Hathaway. So, again — some potential weirdness if or when Buffett retires.

I don’t know if anyone has a rock-solid set of rules for this yet, and I can’t think of any disasters so far resulting from a renegade fired CEO tweeting. But this seems like an issue that should be on the table in any conversation about starting a CEO on Twitter.Image

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What CEOs Can Learn from Stephen King’s “Guns”

Every CEO should pay attention to the success of Stephen King’s Kindle Single, Guns. It points the way to a new form of communication with the public for brands, companies and thought-leaders.

Kindle Singles have quickly turned into an interesting platform — unlike any before it. launched Kindle Singles two years ago, in January 2011, just as electronic book reading was really taking hold. (In its latest earnings report, Amazon said that e-book sales have become a multi-billion dollar business for the company.)

Singles generally range from about 10,000 to 20,000 words — no more than 50 pages, equal to a brisk read on a flight from Denver to New York. Most cost from 99 cents to $2.99 and exist only in electronic form, to be read on Kindles, iPads, laptops or smart phones. All in all, the friction between a Single and someone who wants to read it is almost non-existent. 

A Single is also easier to create than a traditional book. Writing a 10,000-word, well-crafted and researched Single might take a couple of months. Writing the 100,000 words in a 250-page book can take a couple of years. Distribution can be lightning quick. Amazon says that King finished Guns on Friday, Jan. 18, and it was published globally by the next Friday, Jan. 25. It is now No. 1 on the Kindle Singles bestseller list.


Of course, King is a popular writer, and his fans will help push anything he writes up the charts. But he also wrote about a hot subject, and the combination proved electric. 

So what can CEOs and brands glean from this? 

First — short e-books are a new and interesting opportunity. They don’t have the restrictions of trying to place an op-ed piece. They are lengthy enough to explore a topic in a rich way. If written with integrity and authenticity, they can be content that people want to read — as opposed to marketing material, which people feel is pushed at them.

Second — King’s book shows the power of timeliness in this new medium. And the medium allows for timeliness. A smart communications team could look for news or a hot issue that lands right in their CEO’s strike zone. For instance, is there a well-known CEO who might have something truly enlightening to say about immigration in the U.S.? Probably. Especially if that CEO could eloquently express how immigration reform would benefit his or her company or the industry or the U.S. economy.

But then the point is: Write those 10,000 words while the topic is hot, and get it published almost instantly through an electronic channel like Kindle Singles.

One last thing to hammer home: A Kindle Single is content that people to buy. The content isn’t being pushed at them in ads, or arriving packaged in a newspaper or magazine they already subscribe to. It sits out there naked, and will only be read if a person actively pays money to download it. Which means that the content has to be good or it’s not even worth doing. It has to be well-written, credible, honest, and have something unique and helpful to say. If a CEO can do that, the company might find it can win some dedicated fans.


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Pope Tweeting; CEOs Not

When the Pope got into tweeting, we wondered why so few CEOs do the same.

Now a study by Weber Shandwick reveals the sorry statistics. Just 18% of big-company CEOs are active on social networks at all, and just 2% are active on Twitter.

This despite the fact that two-thirds of consumers say their perceptions of CEOs impact their opinions of companies and the products they make. Seems like CEOs would do well to get tweeting.

By the way, the Pope is up to 1.4 million followers. But we’ll see how this goes. So far, 23 tweets since Dec. 12. The last one: “What happens in Baptism? We become united forever with Jesus, to be born again to a new life.”


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IBM’s Think and the Power of Great Owned Publishing

Sometimes we think we’re inventing the future and find someone’s already been there.

Doing some research on branded journalism, I pulled up issues of IBM’s old Think magazine. I read a number of issues of Think more than a decade ago when researching my book about Thomas Watson Sr., but wanted to look at them again through this owned-content lens. And what I found was startling.

Seventy years ago, IBM was doing what some smart companies ought to do now.

In short, Think was a real magazine. It started out in 1935 — the teeth of the Depression — as a pet project backed by Watson. He loved to associate himself and IBM with top cultural and political figures, and he wanted IBM to be seen as what we’d today call a thought leader — not just in technology, but in business and world affairs. So he funded Think, and instructed its editor, Edmund Hackett, to fill it with great writers writing about timely topics.

The July 1942 issue, on the brink of war, has German author Thomas Mann, who fled to Switzerland when Hitler came to power, writing “The Citizen’s Wartime Duty,” and the King of Greece writing “Every Greek Was Ready.” A 1963 issue featured Sargent Shriver on “What We’ve Learned in the Peace Corps.” In 1968, Peter Drucker wrote, “Education: The High Cost of Low Production” and economist Paul Samuelson wrote, “Lifting the Curse of the Poor.”

Do those stories sound like they’re explicitly pushing IBM’s agenda? No they do not.

think mag

The publication changed over the years, but it stayed true to the idea of gathering high quality work about a range of topics, including the arts, science, and management. The magazines were mostly sent free to employees, customers, and influential people. It fizzled as a public-facing publication in the 1970s and turned into a more internal-focused magazine. By the time IBM stopped publishing Think — in IBM’s crisis years of the 1990s — it was being sent to 360,000 employees in 65 countries.

Did the magazine directly generate business for IBM? Probably not. But certainly in the 1930s and 1940s, when IBM was not yet the powerhouse we know now, Think helped it build a high-minded reputation, which the company still enjoys today.

These days, more and more companies are hiring accomplished journalists to create credible content. But no company that I know of is doing anything as lofty as Think in its heyday.

Maybe they should.

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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The Pope Tweets, So Why Not CEOs?

So the Pope plans to tweet. Which makes him, at age 85, more savvy about digital content than most Fortune 500 CEOs.

CEOs tend to wonder why they should be on Twitter, or what they’d say, or what value tweeting could possibly bring to them or their companies. But here’s what Pope Benedict has already proven: People want to hear from their leaders. Within 24 hours of announcing and setting up his account, the Pope got 370,000 followers. That’s before a single tweet.

How does that rack up in the Twitter universe? For one thing, CEOs are pretty much nowhere to be found. The most followed person on Twitter is Lady Gaga, with 31.7 million followers. She’s just ahead of Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Rihanna — and then comes President Obama with 24.1 million followers.

After Obama, every top tweeter is a performer or sports figure or entity like CNN, until you get to Bill Gates at number 37. Gates has 9 million followers — and he actually aggressively tweets, almost entirely about issues related to his philanthropic work.


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Rex Tillerson, CEO of the biggest company, ExxonMobil, doesn’t have a Twitter account. Neither does Michael Duke, CEO of the second-biggest company, Wal-Mart. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and Fortune‘s business person of the  year, doesn’t tweet. Neither does Keith Wandell, CEO of Harley-Davidson. Surely lots of Harley fans would want to follow Wandell.

Warren Buffett has a Twitter account and 117,603 followers. He’s tweeted exactly once — on Feb. 20, 2009, to say he was about to start tweeting. That’s a lot of disappointed followers.

On the other hand, Jeff Immelt, GE’s CEO, tweets quite a lot, but hardly anyone seems to care — at least compared to Lady Gaga, or even a deficient tweeter like Buffett. Immelt has 6,327 followers.

Certainly Twitter is not a stand-alone content strategy. Just tweeting doesn’t do much. But it can be an effective part of a broader plan to win an audience. You want those brief little tweets to take people to other content — videos, books, products, news, etc. And you want to pump out tweets that matter, so that followers will re-tweet, spreading the word. As Mo Rocca says, re-tweeting is the new applause.


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