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Archive for the ‘Branding’ Category

As the democratic candidates for president get in line, it is refreshing to see diversity in race, gender, and religion. It is also refreshing to see intelligent young people getting interested in politics. They really do seem to represent the diversity of America.

Most have done their homework, have impressive backgrounds, are good speakers, and have a lot of stored up enthusiasm and energy to display in the many months ahead. And if you listen to their words, and are moved by their upbeat tone, you will likely conclude that any one of them will make a great leader of something.

But recent television and social media revolutions, combined with hard lessons from the 2016 election, have already changed the requirements for winning in 2020. Looking strong on television, in social media, and in person is now basic. And simply being photogenic does not help. In fact, “too pretty” today can actually be counterproductive. What works best in a “hard-hitter” world are leaders who can look both really strong and sincerely empathetic at the same time.

Here is what all this will mean in 2020:

(1)  A physical presence and “look” of strength will be necessary to match Mr. Trump’s towering, loud-mouth, arrogance. This strength need not come from height, weight, or gender. Rather it can come from posture, facial expression, attitude, tone, rock solid self-confidence, and overall body language.

(2)  An unwavering strength of character must also be obvious from past and current behaviors in order to counter Trump’s lies, exaggerations, cruelty, bully tactics, lack of ethics, autocratic behaviors, and name calling.

Therefore, a picture image of both personal strength and empathy is the bottom-line prerequisite for winning in 2020. This will matter more than gender, age, race, or even rally generated excitement. And a deep understanding of issues, a clear vision for the future, and fully explained commitments, must underlie everything.

Before you support any candidate you should ask these questions: Overall, is this person strong enough to win? Can he or she handle any crisis, in any place, at any time, with clear strategic thinking? And when in the oval office, will I once again be very proud of my United States of America?

Make no mistake, it will take a rare blend of unflappable personal strength and second-nature empathy to pull all this off. And just liking a candidate will not be enough. If this current crop of candidates remains an indicator, by 2020 you will probably still like most of them.

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Much of my work in the past was helping institutions become better understood. My first task was to clarify each institution’s founding purpose, to show how that differentiated it from others, and to explore how that difference might be its competitive advantage. Simply put, “who are you,” was my first focus group question?

The “who are you” question led me to founding purpose-inspired answers such as “we are all about service to the community,” or, “we develop the talent of each and every student,” or, “we will immerse you in American history,” and the answer almost always also included a set of values. In other words, how they went about their work was as important as what they did. I found that this was also true about the founding purpose of the United States of America.

I have been referencing the Constitution when writing about long-held American values. But the Declaration of Independence is clearly the best “founding purpose” document. And it declares our nation’s independence in the context of unifying values such as human rights, the rule of law, and the complete rejection of monarchical rule.

Additionally, the Constitution promises freedom of speech, religion, and the press. But when angry and polarizing speech results in tribalism and chaos, the Declaration of Independence is there to remind us about our unifying values. Never totally selfish. Never an autocracy.

Both the letter and the spirit of the Declaration of Independence assume the election of leaders with high ideals and strong character. And since we now live in a time of background checks for important positions, should we not be able to expect political parties and precinct chairs to require some level of character qualification before putting candidates on the ballot?

And should we not be able to expect political parties and political action committees (PAC’s) to have professional codes of conduct to guide the work of their communicators… i.e. political statements will be factual, promises will be doable, and personal attacks will not be tolerated?

Yes, I know. You think I am hallucinating! But if citizens and journalists scream long and loud enough about integrity in politics, maybe mobilized public pressure can eventually do some good.

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Thankfully, during this holiday season many of us have been able to see and hear news stories about hometown generosity all over America. But at the same time we have also been learning that this presidency is now under as many as 17 criminal investigations.

Yes, we are hearing about… local charities collecting toys and bicycles for children in need, churches gathering canned goods for ailing elderly people, agencies feeding the homeless and others who cannot afford a good holiday meal, and the man who each year hands out hundred-dollar bills to a wide range of people in desperate need. Compassion in America is not dead.

But in Washington we are also continuing to hear about… presidential criminal investigations, more associates headed to prison, more cabinet officials leaving the White House over ethics violations, extreme deregulation putting public health at risk, threats of a president ordered government shut-down over a billion dollar border wall that few people want, continued support of a Saudi leader in spite of evidence that he oversaw the murder of a Washington Post reporter, reports that the Trump family’s political interests have always been tied to advancing their businesses, foreign and U.S. officials booking people and events at Trump properties in Washington and around the world, and more. And while all this is causing chaos in the country, the president is leaving town for a two-week golf vacation at his resort in Florida.

However, signs of serious anxiety in the White House are appearing. Angry tweets and personal attacks by the President are multiplying. And even some of his close friends are suggesting that he might be worried that the end could be coming soon.

So this holiday season might actually be an ideal time to reflect on solutions. For example, what kind of president does this young country need? One who creates mindless chaos, calls his critics nasty names, and grabs all the power and wealth he can for himself? Or, one who works to insure equal opportunity and the rule of law for everyone at home, as well as for all those around the world who want to share those values?

One thing is certain: Sometime during 2019 and 2020 we will be forced to make up our mind.

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Recent media revolutions gave leaders powerful new media tools. Businesses, social services, NGOs, museums, arts organizations, universities, schools, governments, and causes everywhere, all can now reach their audiences directly and powerfully. But these same revolutions also changed how their audiences receive information, making successful communication even more complicated.

So with chaos and division continuing in American society, I decided it is time to review some of the communication challenges today’s leaders are facing:

  • Communication break down is inevitable. People simply hear what they want.
  • There are new and powerful media tools available, but choosing the best ones for each audience is complicated, and requires constant feedback.
  • At the same time, consumers are learning that many of these tools are proving to be time wasters, potentially isolating, and sometimes even psychologically harmful.
  • So speaking to public groups and appearing on television continues to be important. And each has its own performance requirement.
  • Speaking in public requires projecting vitality. Talking on television requires a more conversational tone. And social media platforms require clear and concise writing.
  • To get through to overloaded audiences, messages must be simple… and examples must be emotionally compelling.
  • And the deluge of messages, news stories, and competitor attacks, tends to give charges of “fake news” an air of credibility.
  • Therefore, issues and crises become difficult to manage. Getting facts out quickly and repeating them often, is a must.
  • A reputation-defining institutional identity must become an often repeated central message.
  • Innovation and bold creative initiatives help achieve visibility.
  • Today’s audiences want their hope restored. Forward-looking ideas and values are essential.
  • Good relationships with key journalists are important, especially when dealing with issues and crises.
  • Managing groups skillfully is necessary to get everyone “on the same page.” Word-of-mouth support still makes all the difference.
  • Partnerships and allies with shared interests are powerful forces for rebuilding credibility.
  • Dealing with internal politics to build team support is mandatory… especially now.

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We live in dangerous times. Just how critical is the U.S. role in maintaining world peace? Is it not likely that another world war will incinerate much of the planet? Is isolationism even an option any more? If the U.S. does not step up and lead the world with unifying ideas, then who will? And will we like the answer?

Here’s the problem. A “me first”stance in any communication creates division. It also creates division in world leadership. And when presidential rhetoric is embarrassingly self-congratulatory, the result can be a permanent barrier to any genuine collaboration. This is simply how communication works.

Allies will react defensively. They will eventually look for and find new collaborators. Lasting leadership requires win-win strategies. Liberty and justice for all are win-win ideas… as are individual freedom, equal opportunity, and world peace. But these are not compatible with ego-driven leadership.

The fact is that both institutions and nations share similar brand identity characteristics. Pride in association is the essential motivator. Win-win initiatives are basic to sustainable success. Unifying brands don’t just fall out of ego-driven heads. To endure, everything must be authentic.

Bottom line: The founding “idea of America” is authentic… and the world needs it now more than ever. But arrogance and isolationism have us neutralized, and any declared win with regard to North Korea will not mean we can sleep better.

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In over fifty years of study, teaching, and professional practice I found that the words people used either clearly reinforced their credibility or permanently destroyed it. There was no middle ground.

But sadly I have to acknowledge that the recent presidential election produced an exception. It seems that television experienced speakers in our 24/7 “live” television environment are now able to suspend this negative effect of repeated lies, vulgarities, exaggerations, bullying, and personal attacks for some uncertain period of time. This is especially true if they convincingly promise to fix their audience’s most deeply felt problems… even when the fixes may not be realistic.

And now other experienced television performers have managed to polarize their political party ideologies and unknowingly drive them into total gridlock. The sad consequence is that these mean-spirited performers accomplished this while being mindlessly unaware that great numbers of Americans were dropping out of their system. Now these drop-outs may be growing into a new majority.

New polls confirm that more and more Americans are concerned about unanticipated consequences of exaggerated promises, White House management turmoil, mean-spirited personal attacks, elimination of society’s safety-net programs, dangerous foreign policy pronouncements, continued gridlock, and mindless disruptive presidential tweets. The question that has so many of us living on pins and needles is… “When will something really bad happen?”

Do we have fresh thinking political leaders ready to engineer a new day? Do we need a totally new grassroots electoral system? Can the current two parties survive this mess they created? Or will a clean-up require new parties based on pragmatic problem-solving and new ideas? There are no easy answers.

But I must say that during my 50 years of immersing myself in all aspects of the power of media and communication I learned that it is possible that truth-telling, authenticity, integrity, ethical character, trust, and credibility can all be restored as unwavering prerequisites for leading anything… most especially great institutions and nations. Collective persistence is the key.

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The lesson learned in the UK this week is that great numbers of people feel that globalization left them behind. The digital technology revolution, free trade agreements, easy immigration, and the creation of a global economy benefited only the educated elite, not the middle or working class.

For the UK there are direct concerns for universities. There are 150,00 European students in UK institutions, and millions of pounds flow from Europe supporting research. But there are also lessons here for the U.S. and other countries, as well as for all of global higher education.

For the U.S. and other countries the growing tendency to move toward greater nationalism may slow globalization a bit, but it will not end it.  Interconnections enabled by technology and an already established global economy will continue. So every nation will have to demonstrate that national pride and shared benefits are possible in a global economy.

There is a parallel reality for universities. International fund-raising, partnerships, curricula, and student and faculty migration patterns, are already underway. Maintaining a strong institutional brand identity is not only possible, but it is essential. Just as with nations, differentiation establishes institutional pride and competitive advantage, and is completely compatible with globalization.

Universities must pay attention to these Brexit lessons, but must also stay the course. Educating global leaders, increasing cross-cultural understanding, and focusing resources on world problem-solving are far too important.

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