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Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

You don’t need a time machine for brand strategy

Growth is looking really good.

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.

Agency!

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.

Roundtable!

Alternatively, you could call a leadership roundtable and internally workshop your way to a plausible solution. That always go well.

Delegate!

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?

Actually!

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.

Don’t you have a #101 to go hire?

Originally published on Medium.

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New Music of Note, May 2016

Humans, Water Water EP

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.

Bill Evans, Some Other Time

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.

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Airport Security in India Versus United States

Last week I gad the privelege of traveling to New Delhi, India for business. While wholly remarkable in many ways (the food!), a singularly non-American moment came in the airport en route back to the US.

Airport security, and immigration security, vary wildly between countries. The TSA in the United States was created in the wake of 9/11, citing the need for increased security. That agency’s effectiveness has undoubtedly contributed to the lack of airline-related terrorist threats, despite tests showing their training and processes have a 95% failure rate.

Exhibit A: Dehli Security

I’ve flown internationally several times over the past few years, but traveling home from Delhi was a whole new level of security. For posterity and comparison, here is a summary of what it takes to actually get on an airplane back to the States:

  1. Before your car can even reach the terminal, it passes through three blockaded checkpoints. Not every car was searched – we were waved through thanks to the experience of my native driver — but plenty were.
  2. After you get dropped off at the curb, but before you can literally walk in the door, a security officer — armed with the kind of shitkicker 14-eye boots, machine guns and perfectly angled berets you don’t mess with — checks your passport and printed itinerary.
  3. Ten feet later, inside the terminal, another equally armed security officer checks your passport again.
  4. Then you check into your flight via your airline’s kiosk. An airline rep checks your passport and visa, and you receive a paper boarding pass and paper tag for your carry-on.
  5. Then you move through the immigration line. The officer asks a few questions, gives you that look (you know the one), checks your passport and visa, then stamps your boarding pass. (You do not want to lose the paper boarding pass. Boarding pass via mobile device is not a thing here.)
  6. Then there’s physical security. Shoes off, laptops out, pockets empty. All carry-ons are screened, and their tags stamped. After you show your passport, your boarding pass is stamped again. Every person passes through a scanner and gets a mandatory wand treatment and pat-down by a security officer.
  7. After that, you’re inside the terminal, with plenty of duty-free shops and a long walk to the gate. But the actual gate has a complete additional security line. Shoes off, laptops out, pockets empty. Another pat-down by another security officer. Any water you bought inside the terminal is confiscated (even if the cap is still sealed). Bags are rescanned and re-stamped, and your boarding pass is stamped and ripped. Once you’re inside the gate, surrounded by plexiglas, there’s no leaving.
  8. One more time showing your well-stamped boarding pass before getting on the plane.
  9. Swallow some narcotics and sleep for 14.5 hours.

Exhibit B: Newark Security

By comparison, the security procedure from the US (Newark, NJ, to be precise) flying to Delhi is about half the steps:

  1. At check-in for bags and boarding passes, an airline rep verifies passport and valid visa. (From the US, you can’t fly to India without a visa.)
  2. One security line (shoes off, laptops out, pockets empty) checks passport and boarding pass. No physical pat-down.
  3. Gate attendants check paper boarding pass, passport and visa before allowing you on the plane.

In summary:

CheckpointUnited StatesIndia
Car security03
Passport checked36
Visa checked21
Itinerary checked01
Boarding pass checked24
Carry-on scanning12
Physical pat-downs02
Total discrete validation points819

I don’t have enough geopolitical knowledge or diverse international travel experience to draw meaningful analysis. Regard this as anecdotal.

But it was interesting to me that my country, so politcally paranoid about terrorism, has far less stringent person-to-person airline security1 than a country embedded in a region where terrorism is an actual daily reality. (Two week before I left, the Taliban exploded a bomb in a park in Lahore, Pakistan, killing more than 70 and injuring almost 300 — by intent, many of them children. Lahore is just across the Indian border and 425 kilometers from Delhi. This is closer than Boston, MA is to Washington, DC.)

Would US citizens tolerate such time (2+ hours) and checkpoints? After witnessing years of childish impatience at the mere suggestion of inconvenience for the sake of security, I’m not sure.

1 I am specific in person-to-person security, because I have no doubt highly trafficked international US airports like Newark are full of cameras, face recognition software, pre-cogs and other “behind the glass” technology that helps thwart threats.

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Career Transition

This month I made a Significant Career Change. After 12+ years with the same company (Perceptive Software seven years before their acquisition and Lexmark five more years after the acquisition), I stepped away and accepted a position with Oracle working inside their Brand Creative team as a brand director.

While leading and rebranding a $4b, Fortune 1000 brand was fascinating, the opportunity to influence a $39b, Fortune 100 brand, ranked by Forbes as the 17th most valuable in the world, was too tasty to pass up.

The experience has not disappointed.

In the first few weeks, I’ve written key messaging, advised on global campaigns, dove into the deep end of Oracle’s oceanic product portfolio, and learned how to use Apple Mail without punting my laptop into a dumpster fire. The position is a savory blend of writing, positioning, content strategy, traditional marketing, and so much more; every day is mental crossfit as I get to flex all kinds of creative muscles.

The transition was bittersweet. 12 years is, after all, a long time.

My adventure with Lexmark arced over many peak career years. I worked hard and learned hard stuff. Branding at the global scale. Building teams across geographic and political lines. Gaining the confidence of the C suite. Submitting expense reports through SAP. And as a frequent visitor to Lexington, I cultivated a delicious interest in the merits and nuance of bourbon and rye whiskey.

All of that experience will stay with me until I bail out of the tech sector completely and open my fish taco stand in Barbados. And even then I’ll still have the bourbon.

So here’s to closing old chapters and opening new adventures. I’m all in.

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New Music of Note, February 2016

Bloc Party, Hymns

After the disastrous, self-parodying album Four, I approached Hymns with thick rubber gloves and expectations lower than the bottom of the Thames. However: faith renewed. I don’t know if it’s great because it’s actually great or because it’s just different, but I give Kele and crew credit for creating something totally divergent from old Bloc Party. Gone is the frantic, stabby whirligig of anthemic post-punk, replaced by mostly quiet, mostly introspective, mostly legible ideas of spirituality, relationships both divine and mortal, and the value of honoring the present moment. Forgiving the shockingly bad (ludicrously bad) opening song, which I’ve just gone ahead and deleted from every device, this is the album we knew Bloc Party had the musical and emotional intelligence to write.

Savages, Adore Life

There is little grey area here. If you liked Silence Yourself, you will like Adore Life. Full stop. But if Savages’ unapologetic, gaunt, alley-fighting sound didn’t jive with your musical aesthetic the first go-round, I can only tell you that Adore Life is a genuinely better record. It still cuts deeply, but there’s also tangible love, a willingness to listen, a sense of humility that doesn’t so much muzzle the bite of their debut as much as exacerbate the pain via contrast. All that aside, it kicks ass. Worth the wait.

Beacon, Escapements

Beacon’s debut The Ways We Separate from 2013 remains one of my favorite electronic albums of the decade. Their quiet, breathy, bassy meditations unfold into a complicated symbiosis of vocal-driven pop and abstract progressive house, creating tinted watercolor compositions perfect for headphones. Escapements picks right up where they left off. The sounds and delivery are well-tread, and teeter on redundancy, but there’s just enough urgency to lock your attention into a synthpop freeze-ray. Beats are snappier. Tracks are tighter. Vocals aren’t always the focus. Beacon’s sound is refined, cleaner, more accessible, and it’s a more-than-worthy sequel.

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