Alf Rehn

can I get a little hate?

I’m fascinated by branding. Not the marking-cows-so-the-don’t-get-rustled kind. The kind of branding that’s about identity and messaging and clear authenticity. How clear? If No One Hates You, No One is Paying Attention. That statement is the title of a great piece by Alf Rehn (@alfrehn), and gets at the heart of branding. Alf reminds us that trying to be all things to all people doesn’t work, despite the legions of businesses that attempt it. It makes sense to know and declare who you are as a business and what you stand for. But the ugly, unmentioned downside is that in doing so you are also declaring who you aren’t and who you stand against.

So truly strong branding is only telling people “Our products are for you. You will like them. You will like what being associated with them says about you. You should buy them.” But it’s also taking that stand to say “Our products are not for you. You won’t like them. You won’t like what being associated with them says about you. You shouldn’t buy them.”

As an example Alf mentions the Cadillac “Poolside” ad. I hadn’t seen it, but it apparently launched in the spring to much criticism. Take a look:

Critics said it missed the mark, because it was obnoxious, reinforced negative stereotypes about Americans, and didn’t appeal to most buyers. Which was the point. They took a bold stand in defining who their target customers were and who they weren’t. It also got people talking and passionately arguing about Cadillac and what the ad represented. And it presented their electric cars a cool status symbol for people who would typically abhor electric cars as being for “tree hugging ecomentalists”.

Ford took advantage of the Cadillac’s self-induced negative press to parody it with an ad targeting a completely different group of buyers. Think young urban activist vs middle aged Wall Streeter. It’s a brilliant parody, nailing scene after scene and positioning buying the Ford as almost an act of protest against everything the Cadillac buyer stands for. It’s a pretty good jab, but not quite as much of a statement simply because the Ford has a bigger target market and the ad doesn’t have the same level of potential for starting internet flame wars.  See it here:

Not as bold as it seems

These ads actually highlight how low the bar for a definitive brand is set. That the ads appear buzzworthy is incredibly telling. This isn’t edgy – it’s actually very safe because it’s just acknowledging and reinforcing their long established brand images. The people who liked it were already on board and those who got irritated never going to be customers anyway. All the marketers have done is acknowledge and play off of what was already there.

Middle-age folks with some bucks treating themselves with a luxury car because “they’ve earned it”? Not quite a shocker. Twenty-somethings buying a small economy car? Well, few among that market could afford the luxury brand even if they did want it. Safe. Safe. Amusing. But safe.

Why are we so concerned with clearly defining our brands? Why are we so worried we might offend a potential customer when those who might be put off by the brand were never going to buy from us anyway? Why do we so rarely define both our target market and our anti-market? Our brand and our anti-brand? (A fun question for my HR friends: What’s the brand and anti-brand for your HR department? If you can’t answer that you might want to start asking around because it exists whether you’ve defined it or not.)

Bolder branding?

You know how difficult it is to shake the reputation you establish in the first few weeks on a job? Branding is the same. The brand image can boost or haunt you for years to come. So one of the biggest challenges is changing a brand by creating a new and different identity. The risk is that you’ll offend and lose the existing demographic while not convincing anyone of the new brand. Some retailers, such as JcPenney have been giving a master class in how not to change your brand for the past couple of years.

We started off with cars, so let’s continue there. Jaguar has been one of the most interesting rebrands to watch. They had a huge sporting heritage in the 1960s and then slowly morphed into an old man’s brand for people who liked luxury cars that tended to leak oil and break down on the way to the country club. Unfair? Tough. That’s the unfortunate power of branding. Your brand is not what you want it to be, it’s the identity and image stuck in the customer’s mind. And that can be tough to overcome.

A couple of years back they attempted to change their image with ads like this:

That’s a pretty swift kick to the crotch of the traditional buyers. Then, more recently they switched to the Good To Be Bad campaign with ads like this:

Are they good cars? Don’t know. But the branding has taken a bold, fun, tongue-in-cheek stance with a middle finger (or two fingers upraised) to the stodgy past. These are not cars for everyone. More importantly, judging by the styling and dragster-meets-F1 car sound, they are not cars for Jaguar’s traditional customer.

But they are cars for who they want their new customer to be. They have a very clear idea of who that is and isn’t.

Do you?

new ideas wanted, creativity not allowed

Good and bad is rarely as black and white as movies depict. Simple distinctions make for easy storytelling, but miss the sloppymessines of humanity. Strengths and weakness are rarely opposites – it’s not one or the other, but one with the other.

I recall reading a sci-fi book as a teenager where humans had crated enormous self-contained and mobile cities – rolling fortresses. For protection and law and order, the computers controlling the cities had been programmed to expel undesirables. Convicted criminals were expelled first, then those with criminal tendencies, then those who might be commit crimes under the right circumstances (say, stealing bread to feed their starving children), then… Soon the cities were empty of all people.

Life is mostly grey, rarely black and white, and insisting on clear divisions carries consequences. The other day, Max Mckeown (@maxmckeown) noted this on twitter, saying: Removing troublemakers may also squeeze out idea creators… There is a lot in that simple sentence. The line between troublemaker and creator is blurry at best. Under the right circumstances creators are often considered troublemakers – they ask questions (sometimes very inconvenient questions), reject the status quo, suggest other solutions, ignore politics and power base, have little regard for tradition and legacy, etc. They can be a real thorn in the sides of those who like things just so and it would be easy to expel the useful with the counterproductive.

It’s a brilliant and important reminder that us humans don’t all fit into neat shinyhappy boxes and our strengths can come at a cost. In his book Dangerous Ideas, Alf Rehn (@alfrehn) noted that many companies say they want creativity and innovation, but they really don’t. Sure, they want the benefits of designing the next hit product, but they aren’t prepared to deal with the idiosyncrasies of creative people. It’s as though “creativity” is viewed as a skill that can be produced on demand and then put away when not needed rather than a completely different perspective and thinking process.

I suspect that often, leaders are excited about bringing really creative, innovative, daring, visionary people on board. Early on, they produce some really great ideas so we ignore their quirks, but after a while their eccentricities and unwillingness to be confined to the neat and tidy “employee” box stops being cute and starts to hurt their careers. So the leaders who were so excited about having creative, idea generators on board are soon expelling them. Or the creative folks get tired of rigid walls and move on. Either way, the company is left more dogmatic, less creative, less innovative, with fewer and fewer ideas. They now offer more of the same with nothing to distinguish them from the competition.

Remember the timeless advice: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

flashback friday: book review: “dangerous ideas” by Alf Rehn

[I originally posted this on May 16, 2012. This book came up in a conversation I had earlier this week and it’s one I really enjoyed.]

Innovation and creativity are all the buzz. You can’t escape the flash flood of blogs and articles telling you how to be more creative. I had gotten pretty jaded and had started thinking that maybe we should worry less about being Innovative (with a capital “I”) and worry more about just making better stuff and providing better service.

I want to believe that the true masters of creativity and  innovation do NOT start the day with a big whoop and a cheer of “Let’s innovate today!” Rather, they just relentlessly ask how they can improve things and look beyond the walls of their own fields and ideas. They ignore how it’s “supposed” to be done and instead do it right.

That’s where this book comes in. The subtitle is “When Provocative Thinking Becomes Your Most Valuable Asset” and Alf delights in being provocative and contrarian. He works hard to keep us thinking creatively about creative thinking.

I found it a straightforward and good read. It flows well and moves right along, which is a bit of a rarity amongst business books with substance. And it does have substance. Some of the high points:

  • He shows how people typically approach creativity from very uncreative ways. And why that shouldn’t surprise us.
  • Alf takes on the Belief around the cult of innovation that prevents us from innovating and he shows how our brains are hardwired to avoid innovative thinking. He goes on to point out that our discomfort with being different causes us to back off and prevents truly creative thoughts.
  • Creativity is hard freakin’ work. It’s unpleasant. It’s difficult. It involves wrestling with the unknown and untried. No wonder people resist.
  • When innovation is more hindrance than blessing (blasphemy?).
  • How and why copying other ideas plays a big role in actual innovation. What, you say, copying is not creative! Well, you may be wrong (hint: Steve Jobs did not actually invent the MP3 player).
  • Why we only think we want a bunch of creative people in the company.
  • The fun of conflict and value of opposition when trying to think creatively.
  • Diversity and creativity and why efforts at diversity generally come up lacking real diversity.
  • “The World’s Shortest Course of Creativity”. Yes, he does actually provide ideas and exercises to help you be more creative. It shouldn’t surprise you that they are probably not quite what you’re expecting.
  • The importance of shutting off creativity and actually producing something. Analytical types suffer “paralysis of analysis” and creatives can get caught in a similar whirlpool of thinking, thinking, and thinking some more without actually doing. That doesn’t help.

All in all, a very good take on creativity and innovation and one that I have enthusiastically already recommended to others. A little hard to track down in the States (the internet is your friend), but well worth the effort.

read any good books lately?

I love books. One of my great frustrations in life is the knowledge that I will never be able to read (and reread) all the books I want to. No matter how deep the stack of “must reads” gets, I’m always looking for more. So, I thought I’d share my list of current reads and maybe a few favorites. There’s lots more I could have included (how could I skip Jim Rohn?!? – next time), but this is a good start.


Currently reading:

Adaptability: the art of winning in an age of uncertainty by Max McKeown (twitter: @maxmckeown). I’m a HUGE fan of Max McKeown. It frustrates me to no end that he is still relatively unknown in the States (that will change). I feel he’s one of the best at taking complex ideas and making them simple, practical, relevant, and important. I got so tired waiting for Adaptability to come out on paperback that I borrowed my wife’s e-reader and purchased it electronically. Well worth it.

Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed. In the vein of Talent is Overrated and Outliers. A nice reminder that talent and interest get you in the game, but passion and hard, hard work keep you there.


Next Up:

Degrees of Strength: The Innovative Technique to Accelerate Greatness by Craig Ross and Steven Vannoy (@rossbestever). The latest from the boys who did Stomp the Elephant in the Office: Put an End to the Toxic Workplace, Get More Done – and Be Excited About Work Again. Full disclaimer: I used to work with Craig and Steve and consider them important mentors in my life. They are also two of the most passionate people you’ll meet when it comes to transforming leaders and workplaces.

Dangerous Ideas: When Provocative Thinking Becomes Your Most Valuable Asset by Alf Rehn (@alfrehn). I haven’t read any of his books yet, but love the concept of the book and ideas he puts out on twitter. Can’t wait to read it.


Recently Read:

The Strategy Book by Max McKeown. I recently did a short review of this book here.

The Truth About Innovation by Max McKeown. From the back cover: “Innovation rocks. It rolls. It makes the world go round. In a definitive set of ‘home-truths,’ you’ll discover how to harness its power to increase creativity, collaboration and profit. Are you ready to change the world?” Yes, Max, I am. Thanks for helping.

Unshrink Yourself, Other People, Business, the World by (you guessed it!) Max McKeown. So, no I don’t know Max personally, have no stake in him selling more books, and do actually read books by other authors. However, I was so impressed by The Strategy Book that I immediately sought out other books by him and with each new book my enthusiasm only grows. He writes the books I wish I could write. Good, good stuff. This one is about destroying the myths that keep us small and prevent growing ourselves, those around us, business, and (yep) the world.


Long-Time Favorites:

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Combine the ideas in these two books from the 1930’s and very, very little new has been written since then. Most personal development and success books since can trace their roots back to these two books.

The Greatness Guide: 101 Lessons for Making What’s Good at Work and In Life Even Better by Robin Sharma (@_robin_sharma). I’ve read this book at least four times in as many years. Although he’s better known for The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, I feel this collection of short lessons (none of them more than about a page and a half long) is a far superior, more practical, and more motivating book.

It’s Called Work for a Reason: Your Success is Your Own Damn Fault! by Larry Winget (@larrywinget). He’s fun, down to earth, and doesn’t suffer victims or fools.


How about you? What are some books you’d recommend adding to my must read list?