Monday, October 31, 2011

To Fly. To Serve. To Do The Absolute Minimum

Readers of HOTM know that as interested as I am in the branding of politicians, I'm also interested in the psychology and mechanics of branding generally. Which is why I was struck by an ad I saw recently for British Airways, which has decided to ditch it's current slogan, "The World's Favourite Airline," in favor of something it was using 90 years ago:

"To Fly. To Serve."

The ad I saw described the change this way: "It's not a slogan. It's a promise."

Well… let's be fair. It's actually both. And what makes this such a very poor slogan is precisely the minimalism of its promise. I mean, what does an airline absolutely have to do to be an airline? It has to fly customers. That's really it. It has to fly. It has to serve. If it doesn't do those things, it's not an airline. So it's no coincidence that every single airline in the history of the world has, at a bare minimum, flown. And served.

"So what?" you might ask. "It's true, isn't it? They fly and they serve. Just telling it like it is."

Yes, it is true, and alongside something like Fox's "Fair and Balanced," truth is much to be admired. There's also something to be said for under-promising and over-delivering. But a slogan, ideally, should do at least two things: (1) promise something more than the minimum customers already assume; and (2) promise something that distinguishes you from your competitors. Being memorable is also nice, so let's make memorable a #3.

Back in my Jersey days, I used to come across a radio news station called Ten-Ten WINS (1010 on the AM dial). Their slogan was, "You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world." That's a good slogan! Big promise, distinguishes you from the competition, and memorable. The British Airways equivalent would be, "Ten-Ten WINS… we tell you news."

So I hope it's now clear that AT&T, for example, shouldn't use a slogan like, "We let you talk on the phone." McDonald's should steer clear of, "We serve people hamburgers." The New York Times would probably be ill-served by, "We print news" (actually, "All the news that's fit to print" is a nice slogan -- big promise, distinguishing, and memorable, too. Not terribly accurate, IMO, but accuracy is a lot to ask of a corporation, and anyway I expect the Times' management believes it's true).

Now, none of this is terribly important, but the principles I discuss here are so fundamental and so obvious that sometimes I'm quietly in awe of not just at what these giant companies come up with, but also at the thought of what they must have invested in the exercise. How many employees and outside consultants, how many millions of dollars went into coming up with such a patently bad corporate slogan? I assume these companies understand how important branding is and how crucial a slogan can be to any branding effort. I assume that when they work to come up with a new corporate slogan, they bring their A game and their A dollars. And this is the best they can do?

I'm not sure if this qualifies as good news for British Airways, but they're hardly alone. Delta once thought it would be useful to promise customers, "Delta gets you there." In fact, one handy way of knowing if a corporate slogan is terrible is to ask of it, "Is anything else even possible? Delta leaves you stranded on the tarmac? Delta goes down in the ocean? Delta *doesn't* get you there?"

And look at MSNBC: "Lean Forward." Come on, what happens when you're leaning forward (or in any other direction)? Well, the first thing that happens is, you're not moving. You might even be in danger of falling, if you lean too far. So MSNBC paid millions of dollars to a bunch of branding consultants, who then came up with the equivalent of, "MSNBC. We're not going anywhere. And we might even fall down."

I think even MSNBC knows how weak this is, because, like those restroom electric hand dryers that come with their own propaganda ("This slow and noisy hand dryer is saving lots of paper!"), MSNBC wants you to know that, "To Lean Forward is to think bigger, listen closer, fight smarter, and act faster. To celebrate the best ideas no matter where they come from. To dare to dream of a nation that's better tomorrow than it is today."

Well, maybe that's what Lean Forward means to MSNBC, the executives of which have had lots of time and substantial motivation to convince themselves. But I think most people who come across the slogan will just imagine MSNBC leaning there, immobilized. And who even really cares in which direction you're leaning? I guess forward is minimally better than backward, because the latter is more tiring and more likely to make you lose your balance, but really, MSNBC… your identify, your value to your customers, it's all built on the fact that you lean?

Hey British Airways and MSNBC, if you're reading this: I know my shit and I work cheap (that's a promise, and also a slogan). Call me. And if anyone has examples of other particularly good or particularly bad corporate slogans, I'd be curious. Post 'em here -- thanks.

P.S. Forgot to mention earlier, for anyone interested in the question of why many authors fear a future Amazon publishing monopoly but are sanguine about the existing New York publishing monopoly, here's a guest post I did with novelist and blogger J.A. Konrath, The Bogeyman and The Axe Murderer.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

Today The Detachment comes out in paper, and I'm in New York briefly for some book stuff. Naturally, I spent the afternoon at OccupyWallStreet, a movement that is spreading incredibly fast. Here are some impressions.

First, the notion that the movement doesn't know or can't articulate what it wants is nonsense. As I think the photos in this post (I had trouble uploading the videos; will try again later) will make clear, the fundamental grievance that has motivated people to interrupt their lives and endure ridicule, discomfort, and attacks by the police, is their understanding that America's political processes have been captured by oligarchic interests, and that politicians serve not the people, but the powerful.

This is not a movement against capitalism; it is a movement against America's current version of capitalism, which we might loosely label with the oxymoron "crony capitalism," which, by definition, isn't capitalism at all.

I was impressed by the determination and organization I witnessed. There were people engaged primarily in occupying the park; people holding signs; people running services -- information, food, sanitation, trash disposal, medical. My sense was of a collection of citizens who had come to realize that America's political system is so broken, that our democracy has become so inverted and perverted, that they had to do something, had to do whatever they could, even if that something was just to deploy their bodies and their voices and to declare together, Enough.

Where will it all lead? I don't know. But I have a feeling that all such protests against inequality, corruption, and repression must initially seem doomed to failure. Who could have believed in 1980, when Solidarity was formed in Poland, that ten years later Lech Walesa would be president? Who would have predicted when Tahrir Square in Egypt was first occupied that Mubarak would soon be forced to step down? And I'll bet that even as Thomas Jefferson penned The Declaration of Independence, he had moments of, "What the hell am I doing? We've really got a chance against Britain?!"

It must always seem hopeless at the outset. Except sometimes it turns out not to be.

P.S. If you're around on Friday, October 21, come by the Palo Alto Four Seasons for the Detachment launch party, generously hosted by the Four Seasons with legendary local independent bookseller Kepler's Books. Come by at 6:00 pm for wine and light bites, after which, at 7:00, I'll say a few words about the book and take questions. I'll then sign books, which Kepler's will be selling on the premises (autographed copies make great gifts, you know… ;)). After the signing, I'm going to hit the bar -- and hope you'll join me! If you like gin, order a Purple Rain (it's not on the menu). Buy a book from Kepler's, and have dinner after at the wonderful hotel restaurant, Quattro -- what could be better?

Friday, October 21, 6:00 pm
Four Seasons Palo Alto
2050 University Avenue
East Palo Alto, CA 94303
(650) 566-1200

Update: Okay, I couldn't get the video to upload directly here, so posted it on YouTube and will now embed. Here you go:

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Beneficent, Benign Establishments

First, apologies for my long blogging hiatus. I made a number of significant decisions and changes in my writing business, then wrote two short stories, a political essay, and co-authored a (free) short book on what's going on in the publishing industry, then had to finish the new novel, The Detachment… all of which kept me from posting here as often as I'd like. I'll try to be more regular now, and to that end, I think I'll post more shorter pieces, in addition to the longer essays to which I seem naturally to gravitate. This post will be one of those shorter ones.

Last week, I gave a talk at my alma mater, Cornell Law. Before the talk got started, I was chatting with a few people, including a retired judge who likes my books and who asked me why I take such a dim view of establishments (he described himself as an establishmentarian). We didn't have time to talk about it much, so I thought I'd use the question, which is an interesting one, as the basis for this post.

For me, it comes down to this: who does the establishment serve?

If you're a member of the establishment (which I think is better understood as an oligarchy), naturally you'll believe it primarily serves society. But I believe establishments are like bureaucracies, and therefore subject to Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy, which suggests: any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

In fact, there is even a related concept, known at the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

There might have been some period in the golden past when the American establishment primarily served the interests of the wider society (I doubt this, but am willing to concede for the sake of argument). Regardless, over time, the establishment has inevitably come primarily to serve its own interests, probably through the psychological mechanism of equating society's interests with its own. L'etat, c'est moi.

It's all about human nature. Having achieved, or having been handed, a position of power, profit, and privilege in society, people will naturally seek to preserve that position, even at the expense of society's other members. To argue otherwise requires a view of human nature for which I see scant evidence. And in the behavior of politicians, bankers, corporate media organs, corporations -- and particularly up close and personal in the business practices and articulated worldview of members of the New York publishing establishment -- I see overwhelming evidence in support of my less sanguine view.

I therefore look at Amerca's oligarchy -- yes, more politely and generously known in some quarters as America's establishment -- as primarily parasitical, not as primarily beneficial. And naturally, I try to reflect this view in my books.

P.S. One other thing that's been keeping me from blogging here is that I've been guest blogging elsewhere. Here's a new piece I did with novelist J.A. Konrath on his blog, debunking some foolish and pernicious thinking about self-publishing from a reasonably well known literary agent.