The Banality of “Your Health and Safety Are Our Top Concern”

What have you been doing during the coronavirus lockdown?

I have been reading emails from businesses. Lots of them.

Seems like every organization in the world wants to reach out and let me know how much they care about me as the coronavirus spreads. Their emails are clogging my in-box, muscling aside missives from my accountant, online bills, and updates from my daughter’s college about the relocation of undergraduate students off campus and transformation of classes to a virtual format for the rest of the semester.

Everyone — retailers, banks, associations, restaurants, movie theaters, car maintenance companies, car rental agencies, museums, and churches to name a few — wants to contact me now to have a friendly talk about COVID-19. If you want proof of a highly planned conspiracy of email sending, I’m looking at it right now.

And boy, there sure is an outbreak of caution out there. An abundance of it.

I’m reading. But I’m not listening anymore. That’s because every message not only says the same thing, they also read like they were composed by the one beleaguered copywriter with Legal, HR, and PR breathing down their neck.

Does this sound familiar to you?

Dear valued customer . . . at [Name of Company], your health and safety are always our top priority. Therefore out of an abundance of caution, we are taking several proactive steps to ramp up our procedures and ensure that our high standards are maintained to the utmost, as follows . . .we are monitoring this evolving situation closely . . . rest assured, we are in close contact with governmental health agencies . . . we realize you are being impacted . . we are committed to keeping you informed . . .

Maybe a human being isn’t even writing these rote messages. Maybe every business that wants to tell me about their concern for my well-being is relying on the same artificial intelligence algorithm to compose the notes. If these emails were blog posts, I’d wonder if all the writers were competing to stuff their posts with the same keywords.

Alas, concern has become a commodity.

But amid the sea of same-sounding emails, one stood out, from Barnes & Noble:

The note was so short that for a hot second, I wondered if I needed to scroll down for more. Where was the offer for a discount if I visited my local B&N? Where was the impassioned statement of commitment to put my needs first?

I almost felt a twinge of loss, like an amputee feeling a phantom pain.

But yup, that’s all B&N had to say about the matter.

This was a risky message to send. Anytime a business comments on a difficult current event, they’re wading into choppy waters fraught with hazards (of their own making). Most times I’d advise a business just to leave the subject alone unless something needed to be said. Ironically, the purpose of the “abundance of caution” emails is indeed to share useful information such as a temporary change in policy to accommodate the current environment. But you have to wade through a screen full of treacly language to find anything meaningful, and when everyone uses the same words, my eyes gloss over the emails completely. Sorry. That’s human nature.

Now, I quibbled with a few word choices here and there. B&N was laying it on a bit thick with the “friends and family” language. The “Your stories are our stories” sentence had me wondering if there was going to be a call to action for some sort of writing contest, but nonetheless it’s an interesting sentence that suggests the power of story and community during turbulent times without overexplaining. And it is reasonable to position B&N stores as neighbors in their communities, thriving from great stories by merchandizing them for B&N customers.

Maybe B&N got lucky with me because they zigged when everyone else was zagging. Maybe I’m overthinking a one-paragraph note. But here I am, writing about it. Why did the email work for me? Because Barnes & Noble stayed in its emotional lane. They didn’t overstep their boundaries and try to be something they are not. Barnes & Noble cares first and foremost about selling books to me. Do they really care about my health and safety? Only to the extent that my health and safety make it possible for me to buy books at Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble must keep its stores safe to keep me as a customer, period. In its email, the company does not pretend otherwise.

Good email, B&N. Less is more. Staying in your emotional lane makes you more credible.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Gillette Tries to Be the Best That Companies Can Be

Gillette sure knows how to create a controversy. The company’s “We Believe” short video, which challenges men to hold each other accountable for toxic behavior, has quickly become a polarizing example of the emotional firestorm a business can ignite when it dips its toes into the volatile world of cause marketing.

The video has been reviled and praised — accused of being being preachy, phony, and ham-handed, and praised for taking a stand against the evils of sexism and bullying. Some consumers on social media have called for a boycott against Gillette products. Others have taken to social to back Gillette. As comic book writer Ron Marz tweeted, “If you have a problem with the #GilletteAd, congratulations, you’re the reason they made the #GilletteAd.”

What interests me from a marketing standpoint is what will happen once the controversy over the video subsides. So much attention has focused on the “We Believe” short that I think many have overlooked the fact that “We Believe” is much more than a video. “We Believe” is a broader redefinition of Gillette’s core brand ethos, from “The Best a Man Can Get” to “The Best That Men Can Be.” In a press release, Gillette announced the company is committed to a long-term effort to uphold the values of respect, accountability, and role modeling. Per Gillette:

RESPECT — Demonstrating respect and fostering inclusivity for all, including genders, races, religions and orientations.

ACCOUNTABILITY — Ending phrases like “Boys Will Be Boys” and eliminating the justification of bad behavior.

ROLE MODELING — Inspiring men to help create a new standard for boys to admire. We want boys to see and admire traits like honesty, integrity, hard work, empathy and respect — words that people across the U.S. use when describing what a great man looks like.

Gillette said it will hold itself accountable to these values by:

  • Donating $1 million annually to causes designed to help men achieve their best.
  • Ensuring that its public content reflects respect, accountability, and role modeling.
  • Keeping a conversation about male behavior in the public eye through social media.

Gillette has put a stake in the ground. If Gillette truly lives those values in its actions and in its message, Gillette will succeed. In fact, Gillette may gain customers who identify with those values, especially with millennials, who are more interested than baby boomers are in brands whose values align with their own. In addition, Gillette may very well be happy to cut loose of the kind of customer who boycotts a company for challenging men to hold each other accountable for their behavior.

What happens next all comes down to Gillette demonstrating its commitment to its brand values. You don’t simply bake a new set of values in the oven and serve them to the public. It takes time to build emotional trust and belief through actions and reinforcement of your message. Gillette has just begun a long-term journey toward being a better company, not just a famous brand that makes a lot of money selling razors. Let’s see how this journey plays out.

Will the Apple brand become more open without Steve Jobs?

Where is the Apple brand headed in the aftermath of Steve Jobs’s resignation as CEO?

It’s a significant question for one of the world’s most valuable companies (depending on the daily ups and downs of the stock market.) Steve Jobs is more than the face of the Apple brand — he is the Apple brand. The company has willingly benefitted from the strength of his own reputation, which makes it all the more difficult to build a brand without him.

Fortunately for Apple, as Steve Furman points out in his blog, the organization has an advantage obvious to millions of consumers: an unmatched reputation for creating innovative and user friendly products that have become part of our lives. But many observers associate those innovations with Steve Jobs personally. Here is what I think might happen now:

  • Apple might open up its brand with social media (a largely untapped opportunity for Apple) to show you more of its personality beyond Steve Jobs.

This is a sad time for Steve Jobs, and an interesting time for Apple.  How do you believe the Apple brand will evolve?

Why marketers love bad boys

Why do bad boys and girls fascinate us? Why do people who thumb their noses at society and sometimes self-destruct capture the attention of marketing and business executives?

I’ve been pondering these questions ever since I saw Dana Anderson of Kraft Foods discuss “The Bad Boys’ Guide to Digital Bliss” April 5 at the Forrester Research Marketing Forum.

Dana riveted the audience by discussing how bad boys like Robert Downey, Jr., and Jack Nicholson can teach marketing executives valuable lessons about living with swagger and embracing the art of being sly. It was fascinating to see an executive from a staid brand like Kraft hold up bad boys as examples for business leaders to follow — and equally fascinating to witness an audience of staid marketing executives eating out of the palm of her hand.

Dana was an excellent presenter, to be sure. But I believe the topic of itself was irresistible to those of us who live in the weeds and wrestle with such weighty topics like how to build our brands with social media. In truth, we love bad boys because they are sexy, they break rules, and they are, well, cool.

Bad boys are sexy

Bonnie and Clyde. King David and Bathsheba. These couples behaved very badly. And their stories are undeniably sexy. According to the Bible (a great journal of bad boy behavior) Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, attracted the attention of King David by bathing in public view of his palace (akin to Monica Lewinsky flashing her thong at President Clinton).

David, a man whose life was defined by bloodshed and passion, promptly seduced her, got her pregnant — and then conspired to have Uriah killed so that he could have Bathsheba all to himself.

Poor Uriah: loyal to his wife, loyal to King David, and apparently far too boring for his Bathsheba and not compelling enough to make David think twice about bumping him off. Uriah is nothing more than a footnote to history. But David and Bathsheba? We remember David as one of the great kings of Israel, and Bathsheba the mother of wise Solomon. They were dangerous, destructive, and sexy.

Bad boys make their own rules

Even the most daring and creative marketers and business leaders live by rules. We have processes for developing ideas. We create our own structures for getting work done every day.

Bad boys fascinate us because they create their own rules for succeeding. They thumb their noses at us, and we reward them with our fascination and interest.

It’s hard to believe now, but in the 1950s, Elvis Presley was viewed as a bad boy. And there would be no modern day rock and roll had Elvis Presley not broken all the rules for how a white entertainer (circa 1954) was supposed to sing and behave. He dressed differently, he sang differently, and he behaved differently.

White male singers were not supposed to dress in gold lame suits and shake their hips on stage. They were supposed to sound like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra: safe, romantic, and white. But Elvis broke all those rules (the most important being that he was a white person who sounded black).

Alas, Elvis stopped being a bad boy when his manager Colonel Tom Parker steered his career in the direction of safe, boring movies like Clambake and Harum Scarum. And then for a brief moment in the late 1960s, Elvis recaptured the public’s interest. How? By appearing in a dangerous, skin-tight black leather suit in a memorable Christmas special in 1968 and taunting his fans with a sneer and a swagger. He was a bad boy again – for a while.

Bad boys are cool

Is it the way they embody rebellion? Or is it their ability to laugh at their own bad boy behavior while wallowing in it? I don’t know exactly. But bad boys are cool.

Defining cool is like defining pornography: you just know it when you see it. Jack Nicholson in the 1960s and 1970s was cool. He winked at his fans as he sneered at authority. Robert Downey, Jr., is cool for a different reason: he takes his own bad boy behavior in stride.

On the other hand, Axl Rose and Mel Gibson are uncool because they spew rage (especially Gibson) and try too hard to be “dangerous” (Rose). True bad boys capture our interest because they seem so effortless, natural, and even self- effacing. There is something in us that wants to be cool.

Do bad boys fascinate you? Why? Check out some highlights of Dana’s presentation here and let me know how you feel about bad boys.


How Abraham Lincoln can make you a better marketing executive

Marketing executives must endure an impossible learning curve.  Social media.  Cloud computing.  Consumer generated content. So many dramatic changes to understand all at once.  Is it any wonder that CMO job tenures seem shaky at best?  Fortunately marketing executives have a role model for adapting constantly to dramatic change: Abraham Lincoln.

Continue reading

Jimmy Page, the Hardy Boys & Razorfish

In the Marketing Hitch Ad Industry Innovator series, David Wiggs was kind enough to profile Razorfish and my role as vice president of marketing.  David indicates that Razorfish has “helped reshape marketing conversations by leading public, transparent discussions on how digital touches all aspects of the marketing enterprise.”  In my conversation with David, I discuss a few examples of how Razorfish helps reshape marketing conversations through thought leadership like the social influence research that my colleague Andrea Harrison has been developing.  I also touch upon how Razorfish lives the social values through employee blogging, among other activities.  David’s profile also mentions aspects of my personal life, such as personal inspirations (Jimmy Page), and books I’m reading (Hardy Boys along with my daughter).  The personal touch is not only fun but relevant.  At the 2009 Razorfish Client Summit, Matthew Weiner, the genius behind Mad Men, provided several examples of how Mad Men episodes reflect his personal life and experiences.  You might say Jimmy Page is working hard at Razorfish. & You

View more presentations from David Deal.

At FIAP Buenos Aires, my Razorfish colleague Joe Crump discussed seven tactics that marketers can learn from Barack Obama, America’s first digital president.  I’ve reproduced his presentation here and highly recommend you take a moment to browse through it. The seven tactics are:

1. Got a vision for what you want to do?  Great.  Now go recruit a team of digital specialists to craft your strategy.

2. Make your message findable.  Make your content visible in the right place at the right time.

3. Be relevant to your audiences.

4. Create engagement.

5. Empower your fans.

6. Reward the faithful.  Give them inside information. Make them feel special.

7. Be transparent.  Use digital to report on what you’re doing throughout your campaign, whether you’re launching a new product or building a better brand.

I would add one more take-away:

8. You need a compelling message.  In this era of consumer-generated content and advertising as an experience, what you say about yourself still matters — a great deal.  Barack Obama delivered the right message at the right time.  As Joe mentions, his vision of change was short, simple, motivating, and viral.  Does messaging still matter to marketers? The answer is a resounding yes.  But, what’s changed is how you deliver that message — not by pushing it but by employing the kinds of tactics Joe discusses, such as empowering your fans and creating engagement.

What do you think?

Razorfish, CafeMom study digital moms

If marketers want to understand today’s mom, we had better get in touch with her digital side.  CafeMom and my employer Razorfish have published a report, Digital Mom, to help.  Digital Mom analyzes the purchasing behavior and media consumption habits of the increasingly digital savvy and powerful mom consumer.  As indicated in a February 2 press release, Razorfish and CafeMom have narrowed the focus of our research on moms who are active users of digital and who regularly research and purchase goods online.  Key findings:

  • The gap is closing between TV and digital channels in terms of creating awareness and affecting purchase decisions, and social influence channels are increasingly important.  TV still has the most impact on creating initial awareness for a product.  But social influence channels such as online consumer reviews and blogs are highly influential in the consideration stage.  These findings indicate how important it is for marketers to pinpoint the right channel (especially social) to influence moms through the purchase decision-making process.
  • Moms with children 12 and older are motivated to adopt new technologies to stay in tune with their children.  Of those who use social networks and blogs, almost half monitor their children.  Likewise, digital moms of children 12 and older, versus moms with children under 12, are more likely to watch online video, game, read online consumer reviews, and watch or listen to podcasts.  The findings suggest that marketers need to become more sophisticated in reaching out to moms at different stages of their parenting.
  • A mom’s media consumption habits reflect the many roles she plays: mom, wife, daughter, friend, powerful consumer, and adviser.  More moms show interest in clothing/fashion and food than in parenting information, with the exception of moms with children under 6 years of age.  Marketers need to respect the rich and diverse nature of her interest.

A Flash and PDF version of Digital Mom are available here.  Charts and graphs are available here.  In coming months, look for more significant Razorfish thought leadership, including our annual Digital Outlook Report and research into Social Influence Marketing.

How children named the Super Bowl

How the NFL championship game came to be known as the Super Bowl is the stuff of marketing legend.  The game was formed in 1966 when two rival American football organizations, the NFL and AFL, agreed that the best teams of each league would square off against each other in a championship.  But as most recently reported by Allen St. John, author of The Billion Dollar Game, no one could agree on what to call the contest.  NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle favored the bland “The Big One.”  (Yes, if he’d had his way, in 2009 the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers would be playing in Big One XLIII.)

Fortunately, Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, had a better idea.  Inspired by watching his children playing with a bouncing ball called a Super Ball,  he half-jokingly suggested the name The Super Bowl — in retrospect, a bold, even arrogant suggestion for a game that had zero credibility at the time.  Well, the name stuck.  And you know the rest of the story.

I find the naming of the Super Bowl to be fascinating from a marketing standpoint.   A name is perhaps the most important element of a brand (next to performance).  And yet in my experience as a marketing executive, creating a memorable name can be confounding.  As charming as the Lamar Hunt anecdote is, I have also seen terrible names result from the same kind of capricious decision making-process that went into the naming of the Super Bowl.  At the same time, hideous brand names have resulted from expensive, seemingly well organized research, too.

What’s the most effective process you’ve seen for formulating a brand name?  What’s your favorite naming anecdote?

Number one with a “Bullitt”


Marketing and communications executives are obsessed with “message consistency.” We want our audiences to form the same impressions of our brands whether they’re reading magazine advertisements carefully designed by our creative team, exploring our company Facebook page, or discussing our organization with our employees at a trade show. But sometimes our interest in consistency and polish makes us blind to a great idea that doesn’t obviously conform to our agreed-upon way of doing things.

I was reminded of this lesson recently from two unlikely sources: a book about the Beatles and a great Steve McQueen movie.

Here, There and Everywhere

In his book Here, There and Everywhere, Geoff Emerick recounts his experiences as principal sound engineer on landmark Beatles albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Through his partnership with the Beatles and producer Sir George Martin, Emerick had developed a strong intuition for the Beatles sound. He knew what the Beatles wanted, and he knew how to translate the group’s talents into ground-breaking music.

But oftentimes, the creative drive of the Beatles pushed Emerick beyond his comfort zone. He recalls the time that he was mixing the sound for “I Want You,” the angst-ridden John Lennon masterpiece from Abbey Road. Although most of the song had been mixed, no one could decide how “I Want You” should end. Emerick writes, “When they recorded the backing track, the Beatles had just played on and on, with no definitive conclusion, so I assumed I would be doing a fadeout. John had other ideas, though. He let the tape play until just twenty seconds or so before the take broke down, and then all of a sudden he barked out an order: ‘Cut the tape here.’

‘Cut the tape?” I asked, astonished. We had never ended a song that way, and an abrupt ending like that didn’t make any sense unless the track was going to run directly into another one. But that wasn’t the case here, because it had already been decided that ‘I Want You’ was to close side one of the album. My protestations had no impact on John: his decision was absolute . . . so I got out the scissors and sliced the tape at precisely the point John indicated . . . At the time I thought he was out of his mind, but due to the shock factor it ended up being incredibly effective, a Lennon concept that really worked.”

Emerick’s anecdote is instructive to marketing, communications, and PR pros. We believe we’re good at what we do because we understand our clients, our employees, and our audiences. But how do you react when your client pushes you beyond your comfort zone? How willing are you to embrace the new?


Recently I revisited the famous Steve McQueen movie Bullitt on DVD, and on this particular occasion I listened to the commentary track by director Peter Yates.

Yates’s commentary offers a fascinating insight into the tensions of trying to create art while succeeding commercially. Bullitt is famously remembered for one of the most exciting car chases in film history as well as an effective use of the city of San Francisco almost as a character of its own. And yet, as Yates recalls, the now-famous car chase came about for the most seemingly prosaic reason: Yates and Steve McQueen were just so in love with cars that they found an excuse to shoot a car case.


Yates also describes many other moments where his personal fascination with cars informed the way he filmed the movie, such as choosing many scenes to be shot near freeways. As the Yates remembers, freeways are like veins pumping blood into the city.


Think about that for a moment: today such an experience would be carefully controlled and choreographed by a studio and producer, and unless you’re Steven Spielberg, the movie is going to get made in spite of, not because of, something as whimsical as the director’s personal love for cars and freeways.  Yet, look at the outcome: Bullitt gives me an experience far superior that what today’s big-budget, overproduced Hollywood product can give me.

Marketers are often the ones acting as producer to a project manager’s direction. How do we accommodate an inspired personal vision in our work? How have you done so? I’d love to know.