Last week I was challenged to describe how my college education has influenced my current job and I totally failed to say anything interesting. Given my role as a brand strategist and writer, the irony was not lost on me. (Or anyone else in the room.)
In my defense, it was a stretch: in college, I studied audio engineering. Today, I plan global brand strategy. That’s a yawning mental chasm to leap. But someone, at some point, figured out you could put peanut butter on celery, so who’s to say what’s impossible?
After a hard think, I think I’ve arrived at a plausible answer.
Music creation, audio recording and sound engineering require nuanced resonance. The end product is reliant on a hundred layered details meshing as a harmonic whole. It starts with the melody and lyrics and theme, but it’s also the fuzz and blur and microscopic corruption at the edges of audible perception, the accidental compounding reactions of volume, EQ, compression, reverb and a hundred other levers. How just a tiny turn of the knob or the addition of a fragment of a sound placed in the gulf between beats can change the tonal presentation of an entire body of work. How noise can be musical, how music can be noise, how just redefinitions of conventions can stop people in their tracks.
The song is nothing without its production. Brilliant songwriters matched with pedestrian producers are poets without pens.
This is no different than other expressions of creativity.
In my designer days, I can’t tell you how many creative reviews contained the phrase “this is good, but it just needs a little something”. Good designers blend typography and color and whitespace into communication that works inside grids and expectations. Great designers tweak the knobs and introduce a fragment of dissonance, an unexpected overtone, a playful echo inside the stereo field. Impression leaps from “it works” to “it’s perfect”.
This extends to writing. Words are symbols, sentences are meaning, but communication is about the holistic production of ideas.
So I use my background in audio engineering to explore the resonance in writing. The way words rhythmically interlock, or audibly flow from one to the next. Is there a staccato beat, a more ambient tone? Is punctuation providing the mental white space, like the subtlest intake of breath in a trumpet solo? Is there deliberate dissonance to force the reader to dead stop wait reread?
Resonance is not an audible quality, but a mental aesthetic. All of the details of feel inside audio recordings that snag our attention can be triggered with rhythms of writing, creative language application, and straight up rule breaking. And when done well, impression leaps from “I read it” to “I remember it”.
Since my world is now very much about branding, storytelling, and word-hacking, this serves as a channel to expel some of thinking and theories. It’s not for everyone. But for those who dig the impact of language and stories on brand-building, please subscribe.
Over the past ten years, the myth that the only good content is short content because long content is boring content has infested the online world like an aggressive foot fungus.
Words like “snackable” appear in creative briefs. Claims of ever-declining time on page are cited. Arbitrary collapsing of content is the new normal in mobile UI. Long-form is waved away in favor of Hemingway quotes over kittens pictures because LIKE! SHARE! TWEET!
Bizarrely, the amount of content keeps growing. Some of it’s good! But most is not. Rampant vapid clickbaiting and the ever-depreciating value of pixel-based display advertising has created an arms race of shit-for-clicks. Page views are the only currency and the inflation is unstoppable.
The combination of the social firehose, mephitic patterns of “content creation”, and illiterate proclamations from people who’ve never written a single interesting thing in their life culminate in statements like “this is boring; no one reads anymore so shorten it”.
Shortening bad content is CPR for a corpse.
The problem is really the myth of “nobody reads” and its corruption of otherwise healthy, robust ideas. Content that needs space to breathe is compressed into tweetable bites, snackable vids, nuggets of click-napping. Narratives are bullet points. Stories are listicles. Art direction is iStock. It’s honestly difficult to tell if something was created by a human or a robot.
All for a desperate scramble to make it “not boring” or “boost engagement”.
Long content is not boring. You know what kind of content is boring? Boring content from boring people is boring. The only content that needs to be short is content that is short.
Perhaps if we collectively agree that “snackable” is a false idol, that social media is one channel and not a universal speed limit, that the churn of shit to support dwindling ad models is a dead end, that engagement comes from content worth engaging with … perhaps our dysfunctional, pejorative view of content can heal.
In addition to hiring employee #100, you’ve outgrown two offices. Sales are even better than expected. You have a full-time HR person. Customer reviews remain outstanding. Your business, launched with a spare bedroom and a cashed-in 401k, is succeeding.
As you ride this trajectory, you’re worried about everything: competition, market trends, security, litigation, acquiring (and keeping) talent, maintaining growth, getting enough sleep. Not fucking everything up.
You want this upward trend to continue, and your reflexive instinct is offense. Sales. Biz devs. Demand generation. Growth hackers. Revenue rocketeers. Profit pirates. Tacticians executing tactics to maximize tactical results.
But brand strategy?
Branding, you think, is not my problem today. Your brand is solid! Your logo looks awesome on the t-shirt you’re wearing. You have a mission statement somewhere, and that agency you hired last year to re-do the website put together something about values. What does it matter? I have numbers that need to be solved before the end of the quarter.
You, burgeoning start-up founder, glance at “brand strategy” and smirk: what a luxury.
But what if 100 employees grows to 10,000?
In a bigger company, everything changes.
Your product expands to a portfolio and your office grows into a campus. Customer reviews are eclipsed by investor skepticism. Your business plan grinds to the slow lane as it’s reviewed in a board meeting in a boardroom with board members who are not your friends. Double-digits fall to single-digits and worry coagulates into pressure.
At 100x scale, there will be no shortage of threats. Customers will jettison to some hot young competitor, and analysts will publicly question your business strategy. Your product naming will scatter all over the map, and squabbling dissension from the teams of acquired companies will unglue strategic cohesion. Marketing assets will lag. Sales will scream for “a new story to tell” and you will schedule interviews for your fourth CMO in five years.
One day, trapped in the trough of flagging confidence, you will think: Customers know us. The market hears about us all the time. We have great name recognition — maybe a rebrand will jumpstart the business.
Here is the problem: legacy name recognition is not equal to long-term brand viability. Visibility is a surface game. Mindshare is fickle and fragile. Betting on brand coverage when your problem is brand depth is a great way to lose a big stack of money. Just ask the Fortune 500 of 50 years ago. Today, almost 90% are gone.
Still, you eye that heap of business challenges. The more problems you find, the more they all start to look like a nail that could be solved by one hammer. My company needs a goddamned rebrand. Let’s fire up a project.
You’ll consider your tactics.
Newly hired CMO #4 could blow their agency whistle and a half-dozen account reps will happily zoom by to drop a proposal at your door. Upside: good agencies do amazing work you can brag about. Downside: good agencies cost a fortune. Upside: if it gets all fucked up, you have someone else to blame and no one internally is held accountable. Downside: you’ll end up diluting their vision into something palatable for committee approval anyway. Upside: everyone will agree. Downside: it will suck.
Alternatively, you could call a leadership roundtable and internally workshop your way to a plausible solution. That always go well.
Or you could delegate this whole problem to a VP, who passes it to the new marketing program manager, who misinterprets the “project” as a logo redesign, and who subsequently tosses it to a product designer, where it smolders like uranium 235, slowly boring a hole to the bottom of her inbox because what the hell can be done with a pile of problems and no strategy and budget to actually fix them?
Or you could lie down, have a cookie, and accept an inconvenient truth: reinventing, renewing and repositioning a brand for the long run is not a one-time project. You cannot fix broken limbs with band-aids and makeup. A brand is a complex, living thing that needs to be nurtured as such.
In fact, a brand is not a logo, mission statement, website, nor app interface. It’s not marketing, sales, nor product design. It’s not what you think, what I think, nor even what your spouse thinks.
A brand is all of that, and more. It is the experiential composite of every touchpoint with every constituent — employees, customers, media, investors, prospects, the world at large — compressed into a pea of an impression. Your brand brings baggage everywhere it goes. It’s the market’s mental record of everything you’ve put into it.
But brand strategy can course-correct and lighten that baggage.
By establishing relevant values and principals — ideas that every individual can not just aspire to but actually implement down in the most pedantic, tactical, day-to-day responsibility — brand opens the door to strategic alignment. Common compass points we all see and follow.
Alignment is not top-down instruction. It’s equal communication up and down the hierarchy. Brand, as a system of guiding principals, serves as a higher religion, enabling questions like “is this on-brand?” to blossom into fruitful conversation.
When brand strategy offers bearings upon which to march, you have the tools and permission to face business challenges head-on and untangle organizational, operational and perception issues. Not that that’s easy. Alignment requires steely-nerved managers to surface problems, and even more steely-nerved CEOs to rip out those problems from the roots.
The best brand strategists are business strategists. Trusted consultants. Adapting and learning. Always seeking opportunities for alignment across people, portfolio and promotion.
So. Before you reach the point where the easiest way to fix your brand is to invent a time machine to return to the days when you were only 100 employees and everything was swell, remind yourself that while tactical execution is mandatory, long-term brand strategy is best seeded in the fertile years before what-if-we-could atrophies into that’s-how-it’s-always-been.
No time machine necessary.
But here you are! You don’t need a time machine yet! You aren’t burdened with the pressures of a 10,000-person organization. You’re still a thriving small business of 100 hard-working folks with a brand that’s zinging along in the market.
Take advantage of this crucial early stage, and offer brand strategy a seat at the table. Establishing healthy patterns now is far more cost-effective than assuming what’s working today will work tomorrow.
Only two songs, but what impact. Spartan, Suicide-like beats filtered through the lens of retro-futuristic synth pop. The beats are dance-friendly, the bass is earth-shaking, the vocals just catchy enough. Last year’s album Noontides was great; this quick glimpse into what’s next for Humans is tasty tasty tasty.
Underworld, Barbara, Barbara we face a shining future
More than any genre, electronic dance music weathers quickly; last year’s bleeding edge is today’s $5 MP3 album. Few recordings are timeless. (Witness the awkwardness of 1995 Chemical Brothers. Or the instantly dated 2013 Skrillex.) Underworld were birthed in the embryonic goo of early rave sound, but since Beaucoup Fish, they’ve delivered a series of thoughtful, lyrical, emotional albums that emphasize the “music” part of electronic music.
Barbara, Barbara we face a shining future (BBWFASF) is a well-conceived contribution to their catalogue. It balances moments of tranquility (“Santiago Cuatro”) with club bangers (“I Exhale” and “Low Burn”). While the synth sequencing, builds, ambient drops, lyrical incoherence and fearless track length are all signature Underworld, this album achieves a certain “total maturity” that in past records was compromised by goofy beats or silly lyrics.
This cohesion is possible in no small part to BBWFASF’s relentless editing. Despite the tonal similarity to Oblivion with Bells and A Hundred Days Off, there is zero waste for the listener: all seven tracks are essential, and each is trimmed to optimal length.
BBWFASF is not a magnum opus, but it’s really darn good.
Strange to be reviewing a recording from 1968, and even stranger to be talking about a “new” Bill Evans recording, but this landmark is the rarest of treats for jazz fans: not a set of outtakes, or obscure live recordings, but a genuine studio recording never before released.
The double LP (released for #rsd2016) is pristine. The packaging is elegant, and a full-size booklet comes loaded with liner notes, interviews and photographs. The wax is heavy and utterly perfect; no hiss, tremors, bumps or hums mars the velvety quiet soundstage. The music leaps from the speakers, cast in you-feel-like-you’re-right-there stereo.
And of course the music is exceptional. The melding of Evans, Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette is sublime as they dance their way through the 21 (!) tracks. Tonally, it’s a close cousin to other Evans’ trio albums like “A Waltz for Debbie” and “Live at the Village Vanguard”, both classics.
If you love Bill Evans, or any piano-driven jazz, this is essential.