One Hundred Years

One of my favorite books about history is Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: From 1500 to the Present: Five Hundred Years of Western Culture Life. It’s an impressive career summation, published in 2001 when Barzun was in his nineties. I love how he looks telescopically at broad historical trends, while also zooming into the messy details of specific times and places along the way. In the past two years, the long decline that Barzun observed has accelerated into a great unraveling of Western institutions—a breakdown marked by destructive monetary policy, increasing class conflict and geopolitical tension, rapid technological change,…

Brand marketing vs. performance marketing

There’s a simple procedure I use for creating or evaluating an organization’s marketing strategy. It starts with: Clarifying the opportunity we’re going afterArticulating and segmenting the specific stakeholder relationships we must foster to capture that opportunityDesigning and managing clear, custom funnels for each of those relationships These last two steps lend themselves to an easy-to-remember progression of images, where we could first depict an organization’s relationships with the outside world using a Venn diagram: And then pour each of those external circles into the top of a traditional marketing funnel, as if they were gumballs: And then, over time, we…

What is positioning?

Positioning is important for every organization. Yet there is no consensus on what the term means. Among positioning experts, Michael Porter talks about strategic advantage, Seth Godin talks about purple cows, and Clotaire Rapaille talks about tapping into enduring cultural archetypes. Are we really all discussing the same thing? Here is a simple description that I use to align teams and viewpoints: Positioning defines how external audiences see a company or product relative to its competitors. In practice, positioning answers three questions: Where are we in the competitive landscape?What is the nature of our offering?How are we situated in stakeholders’…

Becoming #1

Long ago a colleague recommended that I read the book Eating the Big Fish by Adam Morgan. I did. At the time, I thought it was interesting, if simplistic. And then I continued to use it as a key tool in my professional work for the next dozen years. The core idea in Eating the Big Fish is that there are large incumbents in every market space, but “little fish” can come to dominate the ecosystem through effective brand-building and communication. The book came out at a time when “brand” was the buzziest of buzzwords, one that could smother any…

The future of consulting

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of consulting lately. This is a bit of an occupational hazard… I’ve been a consultant for almost 20 years, based in San Francisco, and I’ve run my own practice for eight years and counting. A long time ago I remember telling a colleague: “The consulting space is massive: multi-billions of dollars globally. Even if it were to shrink by 50%, there’d still be money on the table for those who know how to find it.” That remark, though not particularly insightful, is still correct and evergreen. There will always be money to…

Beyond average thinking

Before we look at data sets, we can all cultivate better data sense. To that end, I’d encourage us all to look at one common kind of data with suspicion: the average. We all use averages on a daily basis—e.g., when we split a dinner bill or keep tabs on our favorite athletes. They can be useful. But the following examples show how these easy-to-compute shorthands can also lead us astray. Making money online For a pure e-commerce business, Average Order Value (AOV) is a standard measure of financial health. In addition to aggregate revenue, it gives business owners a…

What is marketing?

Marketing is one of those words that seems to have a different definition depending on who you ask. If you explore the huge volume of resources, history, and commentary out there regarding marketing, it quickly becomes obvious that these voices have little to do with each other. It’s hard to believe that they all describe aspects of the same general craft. I work with companies across a wide range of industries and levels of scale, so it helps to have frameworks that are easy to understand and broadly applicable. I’ve written previously that business strategy is essentially about opportunity—seeing clearly…

What is brand?

Brand is a top priority for many businesses, but it often lacks a clear definition, owner, or action plan. People frequently conflate the term “brand” with related concepts like vision, awareness, positioning, and design, and so it never really gets articulated, and therefore never really gels. I’ve been doing brand work for a long time, across a wide range of clients—from massive global conglomerates to edgy startups to small local businesses, and everything in between. Personally I’ve found that the most effective way to think about brand is to replace it with the word “relationships.” Not relationships in some abstract…

It’s (not) complicated

We all understand simple mechanical systems like pulleys. Complex systems, like rain forests, however, work differently. They exhibit unique characteristics, including modularity, homeostasis, self-organization, resilience, emergence, non-linearity, inter-dependence with other complex systems, and collapse. In work and life, we encounter complex systems every day. They include: Human brainsHuman bodiesHuman relationshipsOrganizational culturesFinancial marketsDigital media ecosystemsCompetitive business environmentsGlobal climate One sure-fire way to make big mistakes is to expect complex systems to behave like simple ones. You’ll notice people doing this all the time. E.g., “My investments are down right now, but you know, the pendulum always swings back.” These simple system metaphors can warp our understanding of what’s really going on. Complex…

Unstorytelling

Our default way of experiencing the world is through stories. Whether they come from the latest Good Wife episode, the companies we purchase from, or the theater of our minds, stories are safe-to-consume simulations about how things were, are, will be, or could be. I love stories, and they can do many good things: They entertain us.They help us contemplate what we would do in unfamiliar situations.They help us act.They make abstract concepts relatable and human.The create order out of apparent disorder.They bind communities together.They make us smarter by either challenging or reinforcing our existing ideas.They sharpen our pattern recognition skills.They help us restore self-control.…

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