"Exit Through the Gift Shop" – A Study in Personal Branding

I can’t believe it has taken me this long to see Exit Through the Gift Shop, the 2010 documentary that tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant in Los Angeles, and his obsession with street art. After all, the film was nominated for an Academy Award (Best Documentary Feature) and was directed by the mysterious Bansky, one of the most famous and contemptous street artists in the world (along with Shepard Fairey, who gained worldwide fame with his Barack Obama “Hope” poster).

Normally I see all the nominated films and I find street art to be absolutely enthralling. But, until this past weekend, I had somehow missed ETTGS and I am now recommending that if you missed it too…you’ve got to see it!

This film is not only interesting, exciting and well made, it is a compelling study on two levels.

One, I found it to very creatively inspirational. Sure, some people might be put off because street art to some is actually graffiti to others. But this graffiti isn’t like the stuff you find spray painted on your garage one morning. It’s a variety of things and can include sculpture, stencil graffiti, sticker art, wheat pasting and poster art, video projection, art intervention, guerrilla art and flash mobbing — among other things.

Its messages arise from currents in activism and subversion and can serve as a powerful platform for reaching the public with themes that include adbusting, subvertising and other culture jamming techniques. Some street artists use what could be called “smart vandalism” as a way to raise awareness of social and political issues. Others do it solely for the fun, artist nature.

My interest in street art and street activity most likely comes from the fact that my father, a retired Denver policeman, was truly intrigued with flash mobs. Not as an opponent — but a participant! In the early days of flash mobbing, and on more than one occasion, he left the office of his new job as an investigator for the State of Colorado to participate in flash mobs. He found them to be energetic and fresh and loved to be part of the sponaneity.

On a second level, the movie is an enlightening example of how a person can totally take charge of their own personal brand. Without going into details that may ruin the movie for you, it shows how one man can reinvent himself, develop a unique personal brand and build that brand into a wholly successful opportunity. This individual uses all the basic elements of marketing/branding to capitalize on a unique situation. It is there that the film becomes a remarkable study in Branding 101. I would be surprised if it wasn’t currently being shown in college business classes around the country.

Therefore, from a creative, marketing and branding perspective, I definitely recommend the film. As a purely entertaining experience I also recommend. It’s just good fun.

Now all I need to do is decide on a street artist name for myself (*wink*).

The London Underground: An Example of Perfect User Interface Design

Interface design is the art of making the user’s interaction as simple and efficient as possible with regard to accomplishing specific tasks or goals. As designers we facilitate user experience. Good design means we do so without compromising the usability of the application or information and that we include natural intuition into the design process. The more intuitive the user interface, the easier the application is to use or the information to understand.

Steve Jobs, the late and great, visionary CEO of Apple, once said, “design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.“ That is actually pretty basic thinking, but it is the core principle behind good interface design.

Let’s look at an example of interface design in print that changed forever the way that Londoners have viewed their city for nearly a century…the Underground logo and map.

The first line of the London Underground system opened in 1863 and ran between Paddington and Farringdon. Over the next 70 years there would be over 160 separate and independent companies simultaneously running busses and underground trains on the rapidly expanding network of station and rail lines. While each company had its own branding of sort with unique uniforms, an advisory committee suggested in 1924 to the Minister of Transportation that the current conditions were confusing to travelers and that something should be done about the “acute and wasteful competition.” In 1931 London Transport was born and with it came the challenge of demonstrating efficiency and unified purpose to London travelers.

Frank Pick, the first managing director, did something quite unheard of in his day…he created the very first unified corporate identity. He felt that a unified operating system with a new single visual identity would not only create easily recognizable stations but would come to represent consistent and reliable service as well. The visual framework that he foresaw being employed across the city would send a clear message that the rail lines and busses were now under a single managing and integrated entity. With this vision in mind, Pick solicited Edward Johnston, a Uruguay-born calligrapher and professor at London’s Royal College of Art, to design the original Underground logo and its san-serif typeface.

1930’s Logo

Today’s Logo

While the new logo accomplished exactly what Pick had intended, one might still find the map detailing the rail lines confusing and hard to visually digest. As we can see now, it failed to serve the simple function of any informational graphic since it did not communicate the complex information quickly and clearly.

Harry Beck, an electrician for London Transport, designed a map based on the layout of an electronic circuit diagram. Beck realized that since the railway ran mostly underground, the physical locations of the stations were irrelevant. Only the topology of the railway mattered and there was no need to replicate the true geographical locations of stations or lines. To further simplify, Beck only ran lines vertically, horizontally, or on 45 degree diagonals with connections differentiated between ordinary stations by tick marks and interchanges with diamonds. Because the scale of Beck’s map was not fixed, he was able to provide more space around crowded stations making information easier to understand and providing a more intuitive representation for the user.

Beck’s design and the process for arriving at it is a lesson for all designers. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the French poet said, “a designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is exactly how Beck approached his map. He removed the elements that were extraneous to the information being communicated and even altered the true geographical locations to focus the user on the relevant specifics of the railway system. His depiction of London and the surrounding area became a graphical depiction of true information in an abstract way, which, in essence, takes advantage of the visual language of communication which is far more universal. Beck’s information is no less true, but far easier for our minds to grasp.

Today Beck’s design and Johnston’s Underground logo are instantly recognizable as representing London. Both are plastered on t-shirts, postcards, and other touristy stuff. In 2006, Beck’s map design came second in a televised search for the most well known British design icon.

From this we, as designers, can learn to never forget that we are responsible for making the user’s interaction as simple and efficient as possible. If we can do so, as Beck did, without compromising the information, the tasks, or goals, then we have properly facilitated user experience. We can apply this principle to every single project we undertake whether it be print, web or signage.

Another Book Recommendation

I once again have turned to Marty Neumeier’s The Brand Gap: How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design (here it is on Amazon) when doing research for an upcoming appointment and thought I’d take a minute to mention it here.

I like this little book so much that I have actually bought two copies. Not exactly on purpose, though. My first copy, which had a whole bunch of loving notes I’d scribbled into the margins, was loaned to a neighbor I met at a block party. As it turned out she worked at a local ad agency and we got talking about marketing, design and the usual. To my complete shock, she admitted that she had never even heard of Marty Neumeier! While I don’t consider myself a name-dropping, marketing prima donna, I can’t imagine anyone in the field that hasn’t at least heard of The Brand Gap. I immediately sang the book’s praises, went home and got my copy for her, and promptly never saw it again. Needless to say, some nights when I was walking the dog by her house I thought almost seriously about slipping in a window and taking my book back. I imagined it discarded on a dusty shelf. Then I began to envision her cherishing it, like I did, and that made my little book’s journey out of my life a bit more tolerable. So, instead of stealing it back, I broke down and bought another copy, and began to fill the margins of the new book with all my notes.

What I really like about The Brand Gap is that it takes into account both the strategic and creative approaches to brand building — and clearly shows us that when a disconnect exists between the two, between “logic and magic,” it can cause an even brilliant strategy to fail where it counts most — at the point of contact with the customer. That is the brand gap.

Neumeier goes on to present a pared-down strategy for constructing a unified theory of branding—a set of five disciplines to help companies bridge the gap between brand strategy and customer experience. He also gives us:

  • The new definition of brand
  • How branding is changing the dynamics of competition
  • The three most powerful questions to ask about any brand
  • Why collaboration is the key to brand-building
  • How design determines a customer’s experience
  • How to test brand concepts quickly and cheaply
  • The importance of managing brands from the inside
  • and a really nice 220-word brand glossary
All of that, packed into 180 pages! 
I truly recommend it for brand novices and professionals alike. I know I return to it often. And it always gives me something to mull over.

eBay’s User Experience Blunder

Good, or bad, user experiences really come down to a few simple things: intuitive design, clarity and execution. If you mess one of those up you have a confused user who is likely to experience problems and get frustrated. This can be anything: a website, a cell phone or information about trains at a subway stop. If you need to catch that train, for a job interview, let’s say, and the map on the wall is utterly confusing, then you’re probably going to get angry, get more confused and have a terrible interview when you finally get to your destination. Frustration with hard to use cell phones lead to a phone being thrown against the wall in the extreme, and a new phone in most cases. In either example, the brand is damaged. You probably won’t buy that cell phone brand the next time around and for the subway commuter you will think, in perpetuity, that [fill in the blank] Metro System is staffed with morons. With a website it’s much easier. You click away. And, you probably won’t come back. Maybe not ever again.

eBay, for some reason, began including a CAPTCHA as part of their online registration process this summer, and they did so in such a shoddy way that they made a whole bunch of users pretty darn frustrated. Their mistake was that they broke two of the cardinal rules — clarity and execution.

For those who might be unfamiliar with the expression, a CAPTCHA is an acronym based on the word “capture” that stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.” It’s the little jumble of words or letters that you are asked to type before submitting a form. The sole purpose is to make sure you are a human being, who can decipher the jumble, as opposed to a computer application, program or bot that cannot. CAPTCHA’s, while annoying at times, prevent automated abuse of forms.

Here’s a couple CAPTCHA style examples I am sure you have seen:

I first heard about the problem with eBay’s CAPTCHA from my 80 year old father-in-law. Yes, I have included his age because it is an important part of the story. While he is 80, he is a very savvy computer user. He sends email, reads the news, listen to music and even shops online. Over the course of several months he was looking for something in particular and started perusing Craigslist and eBay to see if he could find the item there. Viola! The thing he wanted was on eBay so he decided to register an account and start bidding.

Although he told me later he had no clue why he had to type in the scrambled words when he filled out forms online, he was not unfamiliar with CAPTCHA’s. He had, after all, seen them on Craigslist. But eBay’s was different, and confusing, and he wasn’t able to figure it out. The next time I visited him, he took me into his computer room and asked me to explain it to him. This is what I saw:

It seemed pretty clear cut to me. Enter the numbers in the box, I told him. It’s a CAPTCHA…, I began to explain.

And he said, I don’t see an image.

Then I read the instructions, because I hadn’t actually read them before. I had seen that sort of set up a million times and knew what I was supposed to do. Intuitively. Just, I am sure, as the designer who had laid out that section of the form had seen millions of times as well.

But for my father-in-law, who is 80, and was actually reading the instructions since it was a new experience for him, it was confusing. The numbers didn’t look like an image. They didn’t even look hidden. They were numbers out in the open. He didn’t realize they were the thing he was supposed to type into the box.

An absolutely perfect example of a user experience design fail, where the designer forgot the most important element of user design: You must always think like the user.

How many other 80 year olds, or 40 year olds, ran across that and were absolutely baffled by the wording?

Pretty incredible, especially from a company like eBay!

I mentioned there was another problem with their CAPTCHA, one involving execution. As it turned out, the “image” with the numbers didn’t show up in the FireFox browser. The user was confronted with a blank space and nothing they to type into the box.

Within a month or so eBay removed the CAPTCHA from the registration form.

Digital Marketing Strategy – The Basic Planning

As most businesses have found out over the last few years, marketing online requires a whole lot more than just having a website, optimizing it some for the search engines and maybe buying some adwords. Doing just those things will leave you way behind the pack and struggling for traffic and return visits.

These days a digital strategy can be really complicated and can include a number of components, such as:

  • Designing your overall brand experiences (beyond just the website — this should encompass everything that your business represents — and should be translated to your website).
  • Coding those experiences for mobile and other access, not just the web.
  • Deploying these brand experiences in ways where analytics and data can be easily accessed, consumer engagement can be measured and effectiveness can be measured.  
  • Hosting the digital experiences in easy-to-maintain and updatable environments, such as a CMS.
  • Having sufficient resources, people and technology, that can evolve as needs shift.
There is a lot going on there that needs to be mulled over before jumping in and building a website. If you just start building a site without getting at the core essence of the business first, you will fall flat on your face in no time. The key thing is, stepping back and getting a good grasp of the company’s business goals. 
Define the vision and business and operational strategy for the company and brand in general. Then, take that a step further and determine the specific marketing objectives for customers and product lines. Once you have all of that in place you can begin to determine how your current business processes should either be supported by a web presence or altered to accommodate a new way of thinking. 
Business objectives and digital marketing strategy must go hand-in-hand. Otherwise you are building out something that will only drain precious resources and pull the business in a direction where targeted expectations cannot be met. 
A sound emarketing strategy will always be built on sound business goals — not on online marketing aspirations. Success will always come from focus and exploited opportunities, leading to market-share growth and a competitive advantage.
Step 1 in your digital marketing strategy should always be the establishment of a sound business strategy. 

I Hate this Ad!

If you haven’t already seen this fairly new ATT commercial touting unlimited messaging you might want to watch. It has moved to the top of my current list of most hated commercials.

I don’t just hate the ad because I despise the mean and insufferable wife and loathe the milquetoast, pansy husband. I hate the ad because it is not only flawed (I will get to that in a minute), but is another in a recent scourge that would seem to have no target audience whatsoever.

I cannot imagine a single average American male watching that ad and saying, Oh cool! I should sign up for unlimited messaging! I would guess that, like me, they are instead blurting out profanities directed at Mr. Milquetoast’s wife.

And I would like to think that there aren’t a whole lot of average American women aligning themselves with the insufferable wife (even though I know that women are supposed to the the target audience).

However, my presupposition means that the latest glot of male-bashing ads on TV aren’t actually working on female consumers. Maybe they are and the joke’s on me.

But I would still like to think that ads that pit people against each other, depict family dysfunction or use cruelty (in a humorless way) cannot possibly be successful. There’s nothing cute about the ad. There’s nothing fun. It’s really a mini-story about a marriage that is crumbling in a bad economy and two people that actually despise each other. Nothing in that premise makes me want to grab my (ATT service) phone and enroll in unlimited messaging. It only makes me swear at the woman when I am watching live TV and hit the fast forward when I am happily watching something I DVRed.

Oh yes, and the flaw:

The husband says he signed the whole family up for mobile-to-mobile minutes. The wife berates him for not asking her and for being so stupid as to spend money on something like that (when they are apparently having a bad time in this forever recession). The husbands response — he says, they were free. I got them when I signed us up for unlimited messaging. For all of one second the wife looks moderately embarrassed for the way she responded to him. Then the voice-over tells us blah, blah, blah about ATT’s plan.

Why didn’t she say, Well…how much did the unlimited messaging cost?? 

After all, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t free.

Would You Let an Intern Plan a Major Event?

Let’s say you had a huge event coming up. Maybe it is a new product launch. Or maybe it’s a presentation by the company’s CEO to a group of Wall Street analysts. Would you turn the whole thing over to a summer intern? Would you let them plan the event, pull together all the applicable research, create the presentations and coordinate deliverables from various departments?

I am guessing you are thinking a flat NO. And, that’s exactly what you should be thinking.

Why is it then that companies let interns handle their social influence marketing?

More often than not I think it has to do with a generational gap in the thinking of marketing leadership. A department head who is out of touch with the rapidly changing world of marketing thinks — my daughter spends all day on Facebook — and that becomes the company’s social media strategy.

In early 2009, Pizza Hut launched its Twitter page and immediately posted a position for a “twitern” to run their social media efforts. It has been famously mentioned in books, articles and blogs as a perfect example of a potential marketing disaster. Thankfully, Alexa Robinson, the 22 year old intern hired to tweet Pizza Hut offers did a pretty good job. But other “twinterns” haven’t been so lucky. A twittering intern for Habitat, a home-furnishings retailer in the U.K., decided to use misleading tweets as the primary strategy for attracting followers. He used words that were being searched in relation to ongoing protests in Iran, such as #iran and #mousavi, as a means to get people who had been searching for information about the protests to the Habitat page and website. Habitat apologized, vowed to do a better job with their social marketing, and who knows what happened to the intern.

In most cases the people who are handling a company’s tweets and social marketing are doing so with little, if any supervision. And a great many of them are interns or kids fresh out of college who don’t even know the business or services they are supposed to be tweeting about. Gini Dietrich, who runs a Chicago public relations firm, says, “There’s a general perception that young people are the masters of all things social media. By letting an intern determine [social media strategy], you’re putting your brand and reputation in the hands of someone who has no experience…[and who has] been using social media in a personal, not business [way].”

Sounds rather scary, yet company’s continue to hand over the reigns of social media marketing to inexperienced interns without even considering the potential pitfalls. It’s like giving an unchecked megaphone to a perfect stranger and allowing them to be the voice of the company.

You wouldn’t let an intern plan a major company event. Don’t let them run your social media strategy.

Does the Number of Subscribers Indicate Importance?

In a previous engagement, we (the marketing folks) found ourselves frequently debating the success of the company’s blog. The problem was, the blog just didn’t have a whole lot of subscribers. Trying to explain that upstairs in the C-suite was definitely a challenge. Why, after all, would they want to put time, effort and possibly incentives in place to encourage blogging when we had such a minimal subscriber base?

The fact of the matter is, however, that subscribers may demonstrate the popularity of a particular blog, but it doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to measuring importance.

What if a blog had four subscribers? Three of them are the bloggers parents and sister. But the fourth subscriber is a journalist with the New York Times. Would that be considered a failing blog?

That is why relying solely on the number of subscribers to measure a blog’s success is a bad marketing strategy. It would be much more prudent for companies to look at:

  • Activity on a blog
  • How often content is posted
  • Google page rank
  • Technorati rank
  • Search engine ranking for specific keywords