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Monday, May 15, 2017

The French Canary

I have my political views. You have your political views.  For a minute, put them aside for the sake of some pure, staggering, strategic analysis.  This could be historic, so buckle in.

Look, I'm a brand strategist, so I'm more concerned with why things happen, on the theory that if you understand why things happen, you're better prepared for when they happen.  If you're really good, you can also get an accurate picture of what's going to happen, which comes in handy, too.  My work tends to stay in the commercial sector, but make no mistake:  Branding is about making decisions, wherever those decisions are made.  So as long as humans are choosing their actions, the forces at work in purchase decisions will remain very much like the ones influencing social and political events.

Which brings us to France.

At the time of this writing, France has just inaugurated its youngest president in history.  That's not important. Two thirds of the French vote carried the center-left Mr. Macron into office, sending the right-leaning Ms. LePen to defeat.  There's no doubt that Ms. LePen had a serious branding problem, but that's not important, either.

Here's what is important:

Starting in June, 2016, the world has witnessed profound growth in anti-globalist sentiment.  It began with BREXIT and -- regardless of social media hash tags to the contrary -- continued with the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.  Social media like Facebook and Twitter is rife with malcontents who post memes and videos espousing the dangers of unrestricted immigration.  In the past year, Sweden has become the poster child for increases in crime, while Hungary and Poland are being heralded for their own zero tolerance policies.

Clearly, the battle lines are being drawn all over the world. But it's France that tells the real story.

Two decades ago, LePen's National Front party was barely a blip on the radar. Two weeks ago, it registered roughly 30% of the national French vote -- and that's just the official tally:  That doesn't include those who were sympathetic to LePen, but simply couldn't bring themselves to vote for her.

So now, France -- a country not well-known for its tolerance of non-white, non-Christian cultures -- has a major portion of her population reaching its boiling point.  Once known as the City of Lights, Paris has become a checkerboard of dark, impoverished ghettos where sharia law prevents the enforcement of French civil law.  The French are witnessing first-hand the degradation that social media has been blaring  about for the last few years -- and they don't like it one bit.  That's the significance of LePen's recent advances.

But there's more.

Nothing angers a mob -- especially throngs of Frenchmen -- more than being ignored by elitist rulers. It bothered the people of France enough in 1789 to start chopping off their own rulers' heads.  Now, with their civil remedies, elections and laws proving ineffective, it's not all that unlikely that we'll begin seeing Frenchmen take to the streets, going to those places where no French civil or military authority dare go.

Historically, "having run out of viable options" is what propels civil unrest movements, which often have a knack for turning violent.  So it shouldn't come as a surprise if/when France's white, unemployed working class -- in response to its tone-deaf government -- decides to take matters into its own hands.  Call it the Timothy McVeigh Syndrome, as multi-story residential tenements in Paris's immigrant neighborhoods begin collapsing in heaps of bomb-blasted rubble, each episode empowering the anti-immigrant movement on to its next attack.

The predictable reaction would be Macron sending in the French militia to restore order, which would backfire as social media portrays the action as "the French government favoring immigrants over its own citizens."  In the business, we call that a "PR disaster."  In the real world, we call it a precursor to civil war.

And that's why France is worth watching.  She's the canary in the European coal mine.

Okay, so that's one scenario and I'm just a branding guy. It could happen.  It might not.  But then, calculating the possibilities what I get paid for -- even when those possibilities aren't especially nice.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Changing Your Mind

It's a lot of fun being young.  You can drink til all hours and still get up for work.  You can be in shape without ever going to the gym.  You also get to passionately criticize everything since you own very little and have even less to lose.  You can be a socialist, a communist, a Democrat or a Republican.  You can support Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Paul Ryan or Donald Trump.  It doesn't matter:

If things improve, you get to enjoy it.  If things get worse, you still haven't lost, because you were never invested in the first place.

Being young with no skin in the game is like when an online equities trader lets you practice trading stocks without using real money.  It's not your money.  It's all a big game.  And as long as you can get by, you're just fine.

Of course, that philosophy only works while you're genuinely young.  It doesn't work so well for Baby Boomers with families or their unemployed offspring, both of whom suffer from genuinely prolonged adolescence.  No matter which capital letter sociologists have slapped on to your particular generation, the fact is that more than ever before, we exist in a Nation of Children, where everyone ages but nobody matures.

I've ranted about this before in other blogs, but there's one aspect of maturity that seems to have slipped through the cracks:  The ability to change your mind.

Somewhere along the line, the media and various socially retarded organizations have issued an edict that nobody anywhere, at any time, is permitted to change his opinion for any reason.  Consistency, they argue, is a sign of virtue and stalwart character.  I submit to you it's just the opposite.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson eloquently stated, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," meaning that consistency for its own sake is, well, kind of stupid.

Stick with me for a few more paragraphs on this.  You'll like it.

To succeed in life, you have to adapt to its constant changes, which means there's very little that doesn't require periodic re-evaluation.  Just because something worked like a charm before doesn't mean it has the same chance of succeeding again now.  Think I'm wrong?  Try selling eight track tapes or touring the streets of Tehran.  Good ideas back in the seventies.  Now, not so much.

If life evolves, then it only makes sense for our opinions, values and tactics to evolve right along with it.  I see this everywhere.  When I question my client's methods and tactics, they frequently answer with puzzled responses like, "But we've always done it that way."  To which I usually answer, "Yes, but that's why you're failing now. What you're doing no longer works."

Easy enough to accept in a business environment, but for some reason, not so easy to accept in the political sphere.  Whether you like him or not, Donald Trump is the first president that actually understands the concept of evolution, and that consistency for its own sake yields nothing more than predictability.  It's also the basis for making bad decisions when you consider that the world is not at all like it was five, ten or fifty years ago.

Look around your own world.  What hasn't changed in your own life in the past four years?  Ten years?  Since your childhood?  My money says that far more has changed than hasn't, that your own life would be hobbled and that you would be paralyzed were you not able to jettison or alter your old opinions when faced with new circumstances.

Or maybe not.

You could choose to hold your breath, stamp your feet and demand that everything remain consistent because that's the way you like it. But the world would still go on and you'd be left with nothing but your eight track tapes.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Return of Bricks & Mortar

I do a lot of reading.  Biographies are my subject of choice because no matter how historically trivial or famous, everyone has a story.  And if you pay attention, you can learn a lot -- and save yourself a ton of heartache -- by listening to them tell those stories.

The biggest lesson common to all of those stories is that life changes a lot faster than you think.

At the moment, I'm absorbing the stories of people who lived in the last half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.  That's a hugely dynamic period of American history.  John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, was born before Abraham Lincoln was elected president, but by the time he died, radio, telephones, motion pictures, airplanes, steam engines, automobiles, the War Between the States, the first world war and a host of other medical, industrial and technological inventions had come into existence, irrevocably changing every single American's way of life in a fairly short amount of time.   In just a few decades, horses and buggies gave way to cars and airplanes.  Gasoline, once considered a nuisance byproduct of kerosene refineries, provided the foundation for billion dollar fortunes.  Everything got better.  Everything went faster.

We've just gotten through a similar period.

Just a few decades ago, there was no internet. No social media. No point and click. No overnight delivery.  Telephones had rotary dials and most retail stores were closed on Sundays -- often on Saturdays, as well.

That all changed by 1998, however, when the internet got real, drastically changing the way humans interacted with businesses and each other.  Everyone and everything functioned on a 24/7  basis.  Corporate productivity and profit took huge leaps.  Stuff got cheaper. Stuff went faster.

Not everyone did so well, though.  Many commercial establishments blamed the "low-overhead" internet for their inability to sustain their "higher overhead" brick and mortar operations.  The online marketplace, they claimed, destroyed a lot of brick and mortar brands.

Nice excuses. None of it true -- especially now.

Brick and mortar is not only sustainable, but as of this writing, it's highly likely to flourish once again.  The reason is simple, but not one you'll find on any corporate balance sheet or in some self-appointed guru's latest best seller.

As of 2017, it's been nearly 20 years since the internet changed our ways of life.  Two decades is a short time to those who remember gas selling for 28 cents a gallon.  But it's a lifetime to a young, twenty-something adult who's never known anything other than pointing and clicking at a sterile, blue-tinged screen as the way to get through life.  Ask any young person about their frustrations, pressures and disappointments with the online world -- social media in particular -- and see how they respond.  I have.  They all report back the same answers:

Ineffective. Empty.  Pointless.

Okay, so maybe none of this is new you.  But here's something that might be:  The internet has created billions of very lonely people yearning for the human experience, which is precisely why bricks and mortar will come roaring back -- sooner than you think.

At this writing, we're going on three generations of social atomization, with the internet enabling billions of recluses to not socialize, as long as they use Facebook, Twitter and whatever other app is going IPO this week.  billions of posers are spending more time presenting their lives than actually living them, dying daily in their digital cocoons.

What these kids need is a place to go in real time to experience other living, warm, breathing humans.  They don't care what.  They don't care where.  It just has to be someplace real, where they can connect with other people.  And that's where bricks and mortar come in.  Mark my words, the re-emergence of totally analog retail environments is not too far off.  I'm not prognosticating a return of Sears or Woolworth or the local mall.   I'm talking about places and spaces with non-alcoholic activities incorporated into destinations whose primary purpose to shareholders may be revenues, but whose not-so-subtle agenda is to provide a gathering space with just enough purpose to drive shy, socially-ignorant millennials out into the real-time sunshine of social situations.

That's where the big money is going to be.  In and around bricks and mortar.  Out there, away from the screens and under the blue summer sky, where she can drop her car keys by accident -- so that he can be there to pick them up.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Underestimating Trump's Health Plan

You'd think that by now, Americans would have learned from their mistakes.  In this very blog, back in July of 2015, I went on record with my conviction that Donald Trump could likely become the 45th president of the United States.  At the time, anyone and everyone dismissed my opinion, only to watch him inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States more than 18 months later.

At the time, the media and those who fancy themselves as quite knowledgeable, parroted each others' polls and opinions, promoting their confirmation biases based on outmoded, narrow thinking.  In the end, there was not a Bush or Clinton in sight.  As Britain's Nigel Farage is so fond of saying after Great Britain's BREXIT stunned the world in 2016, "You're not laughing now, are you?"

With all the shock and awe we've seen the world over since 2016, you'd think that people would finally understand that the political world no longer functions in the manner to which they've become accustomed.  There really is a new world order, but it's not the one the so-called "global elitists" had in mind.  The new reality was born with BREXIT, caught fire in the United States, and at the time of this writing, is about to strike heavy blows in France, Norway and Germany.  Hungary has already left the station and Poland isn't far behind.

Which brings us to the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, a favorite target of geniuses on both sides of the aisle, none of whom has seemed to learn their lessons from recent world history.

I wish that knee jerk reactionaries would take the time to understand what's really going on, as opposed to what they think is happening.  In the first place, this isn't a "Trump" plan; it's a Congressional proposal submitted for approval.  Like every other Congressional proposal, it's subject to modification and edits long before it reaches the President's desk.  

Second, it would help if the reactionaries had real jobs in the real world, which would help them understand that major changes in practices are always implemented in phases, with the simplest, most expeditious alterations are attempted first, followed by the gradual phasing in of more complicated, time-consuming issues.   In the business world, this is how things get done: You submit a plan, phase it in, and ensure a smooth transition.  In the academic world, nothing other than opining ever gets done, so I'm not surprised this is where their thought process stops.

Third, the crucial, more complicated phases of health care overhaul include the removal of state barriers that prevent real competition amongst service providers.  While it's been proven that removing barriers to competition lowers costs for consumers (which is why your insurance bill is lowered when you bundle car and home coverage with the same company), getting states to go along with that plan is not something that happens quickly.  States make a lot of money by ensuring their borders keep competitors out, so they're not likely to give up that province any time soon.  In the meantime, Trump's plan begins the process with some, but not all, parts in play.  In essence, Phase One is just that:  the first part of a multi-phase plan.

What happens next?  What, for example, if the states simply refuse to cooperate?

My guess is that the states will first be offered some sort of compensation for surrendering their borders against competition.  If they don't fall into line, I imagine the next step -- as is the case in this new world order -- would be the Federal government creating a new corporate classification of service providers which would be Federally chartered, granted the privilege of practicing throughout the United Staes and its territories.  As such, these providers' services would be available to any United States citizen or resident, regardless of physical location.  Located online and possibly headquartered in Washington, D.C., these Federally chartered service providers would be empowered to simply bypass the states via the internet, delivering more competition and lower costs that the administration promised.

In all likelihood, service providers would jump at the chance to lower their costs:  Ridding themselves of the compliance issues commanded by more than 50 states and territories, their costs of operation and administration would dramatically decrease, while online operations would integrate nicely into an environment of centralized electronic medical records.

All of this could -- or could not -- happen.  It all depends on whether you can see beyond what is set in front of you.  If you prefer to see the long-range realities, it makes a lot of sense,  If you prefer  the short-term political rhetoric, it might not.  Given the new world order, you have to ask yourself, "Does it sound unreasonable?"  Perhaps.

But in July of 2015, so did the phrase, "President Trump."

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Open Carry Saves the World

As of this writing, the biggest media story of the week concerns a young man who pulled out a gun and started shooting up a baggage claim area in a Florida airport.  I don't want to get prematurely judgmental, here.  I'll let you guess his ethno-religious affiliation.  I watched the story on a few different media outlets, and most of them carried the same version of the story.

The guy walked in, pulled out a gun and started shooting innocent bystanders.  The video surveillance camera seems to agree:

It's a horrible situation, made even worse by all the pundits theorizing how to prevent these kinds of attacks, ranging from increased airport security to banning guns all together.  I'm just a branding guy, but I've got another suggestion.  Here me out on this, because it might just be as effective as it is counter intuitive.

The country needs to nationalize open carry laws.

I know, it sounds heretic, but the more you think about it, the more sense it makes.  In the first place, increasing security doesn't do much good.  Forget the costs involved.  The hard truth is that security officers are set in place more for public consumption than anything else, the logic being that if good citizens see more security, they'll think they're safer.  Maybe.  But bad guys don't see security personnel as anything more than just a few more obstacles between them and their objective -- and that doesn't even take into consideration the ones on suicide missions.

Second, for a security officer to respond to a situation, he has to follow procedure, or risk criminal prosecution for wounding or killing a criminal. Ordinary citizens don't have to follow any procedure.  They merely have to fear for their lives at the moment of threat. Which means that in the event of a terrorist act, victims have to wait a whole lot longer for counter measures from a security officer than they would if the good citizen sitting nearby happens to be carrying a semi-automatic pistol.

With open carry, a criminal can be dropped long before a security officer can even be contacted or respond, because there are more people capable of reacting much more quickly.  In the heartbeats that follow an initial gun shot, those milliseconds count.

Finally, the most counter intuitive observation of all is that if open carry really did become the law of the land, it could quite possibly bring this atomized nation back together.  It might just reassure strangers on the bus that if anything should go sideways, we've got each other's backs.  It might also cultivate a lost sense of trust and accountability in a society that's grown accustomed to paying others for doing the jobs and sustaining the ethics we seem to have shirked.

Oh, I'm sure there are plenty of anti-gun folks out there who dismiss this line of thinking entirely.  But as I pointed out back in 2010's  The Tipping Point of Terror, the tiny percentage of nut cases out there now translates into real numbers:  If only one tenth of one percent of the American population were radicalized enough to become unstable and violent, that would mean roughly 350,000 of them would be roaming freely within our borders.

The good news is that a few hundred million more would be watching out for you...and maybe you for them.


Thursday, December 01, 2016

Anyone Can Play

With it all over but the inauguration, Donald Trump is now the 45th President of the United States.  I know, not everyone likes to hear that, but that's the way it's going into the books.  At the time of this writing, there are still a lot of holdouts fomenting recounts and Electoral College mutinies.  I expect all that will subside by the Rose Bowl's half-time show.

The year of 2016 was exciting, for sure. But I'm a branding guy.  To me, this stuff is already history.  I'm looking out at the horizon, straining to see what lies ahead.  And from where I'm sitting, it's already beginning to look fairly amusing.  Indulge me on this.

I don't care if you're conservative or liberal: Any way you look at it, the Democrats got flattened in 2016, losing the House of Representatives, the Senate and more than likely, any voice in filling vacancies on the Supreme Court.  The big enchilada, of course, was their "shocking" loss of the presidency, but from the 100,000 foot view, the real sea change was the long-awaited delivery of the internet's promise.  Outspent and outnumbered, Republicans -- Trump in particular -- leveraged social media even better than Obama did in 2008.

That was only the second half of the change, however.  The first half occurred earlier in the year, as the United Kingdom roundly rejected the European Union, spectacularly defeating globalism while reclaiming its cultural and economic sovereignty.  "Brexit" was, as they say, huge, a  tremendous -- and possibly the most important -- boost not only to the Trump effort, but to the realization that the internet really can move millions of individuals to action.  By utilizing the intricate channels of social media, the public actually felt as though it was really participating actively.  All of a sudden, people weren't simply reading about the news; they were discussing it, adding to it and re-igniting  political passions on which they'd long past given up for dead.  For the first time, people really felt their voices were being heard -- whether they actually were or not.

In short, for the first time in decades, the concept of possibility became more real than ever before.  With the United Kingdom, that meant the European wasn't indomitable.  In America, it meant any boy really can grow up to be President.

This is where it gets really fun.

From where I sit, the rebirth of possibility is what the next four years will be all about.  With the Democrats having no place to go but up, and Donald Trump's victory reaffirming the concept of wide open possibility, there's a real chance that the next Democratic candidates for president will be Donald Trump knock-offs.   Prepare yourself for a host of beauty contestants, each one a CEO or such "stepping down to pursue personal interests," as they parade past the judges in search of political support.

Think it can't happen?  It's already started.  At the moment, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, has conveniently stepped down as CEO on December 1, 2016, and is not exactly vehemently denying his political interests. Schultz leans left and has never vigorously opposed the idea of seeking public office. In fact, he's gotten burned more often than French Roast for his attempts to drag coffee into politics. As for ego, there's plenty of it in the tank, and like many successful people, I'm sure he believes that if he can make a few billion dollars selling coffee, he can do anything.  Maybe he can.  At this point, the only thing of which we can be certain is that we're going to be seeing more of him -- and he won't be hawking java.

What can we take away from this?  Maybe nothing. But more likely, if the world is anything as I imagine, we'll spend the next year or two watching more rich commoner Democrats thinking that if Trump can do it, so can they.  Watch for more CEOs, along with famous non-politicos dipping their toes into the political waters.  Watch it happen even faster if the French decide to exit the European Union.  It's going to be like when the first automobiles were invented and nobody knew if steamers, gas engines or wood-powered vehicles were going to dominate the market.

These are historic times. Not since the turn of the twentieth century, when the bulk of political power transferred from monarchies to republics, have we witnessed so much change happening to so many people in so little time.

Get ready, America.  Grab your popcorn.  The beauty contest is about to begin.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

No Experience Necessary

So here's some good news: the presidential election of 2016 is over.  Donald Trump won.  Hillary Clinton lost.  Which means there's nothing in this piece even remotely calculated to persuade you as to how to cast your vote. Nothing.  What you will find, however, are a few non-partisan observations that, like Trump's victory, nobody sees coming.  

And the best part is that all of them are good, no matter who you voted for.

The first observation is something I can relate to because I've been an independent consultant for a long time.  Whenever I interview prospective clients, they invariably ask me the same questions, including the infamous, "Do you have experience in our field?"  It sounds like a reasonable question, but it's not, in fact, an appropriate one, because while a certain amount of familiarity is definitely an asset before plunging into a situation, it's the very lack of experience that allows an outsider to recognize flaws and opportunities to which lifers have become either blind or immune.  Thomas Edison famously acknowledged this when derided about his eighth grade education.  The lack of a higher education, he maintained, freed him from the constraints of dogmatic thinking.  He was able to see alternative solution and create thousands of inventions by not thinking in traditional modes.

It's pretty much the same thing in my own career.  I don't need to know the intricate details of threaded fasteners or how to write a million lines of code.  I need to know just enough to spot a flaw and improve output.  And since I'm not a lifer, I have no allegiance in corporate legacy or fear of political reprisal. Many are the times I've challenged "We've always done it this way" with "And that's why you're losing money."  That's when the client accepts my recommendation and we turn the business profitable.

The second observation is that young people everywhere should be thrilled with the notion that the world still offers them possibilities, no matter how little experience they have.  Who among us hasn't trudged out of a job interview having been rejected solely because "you don't have the experience?"  Remember saying to yourself, "I can do this job, if they just gave me a chance?"  You never doubted you could prove your naysayers wrong.  And remember that time when someone, somewhere looked you in the eye, smiled and said, "I know you've never done this before, but there's something about you that tells me you'd be a natural at this"?   If anything, this election shows that experience isn't everything, but hard work, endless energy and the will to succeed can drive you to your goal and win it.

A third observation is reserved for some of our older friends.  Forget what you think about Trump for a minute and focus on the fact that the man has never held public office (neither did the Founding Fathers, Ulysses Grant or Dwight Eisenhower, for that matter) and now holds the highest public office in the land.  That's pretty good.  But I suspect that in the wee hours of the morning, many people imagine what they would do if they were president, only to comfort themselves that "I don't have the political connections to run for office."

Well, I guess that myth just blew apart.  Trump not only didn't get any active Republican support, he actually got active Republican opposition.  He had no political connections, but lots of political enemies, fueled mostly by -- dare I say it -- jealousy.  

Yet I find something positive even in that jealousy.  The fact that there is no longer any excuse -- other than your own self-doubt -- for not pursuing your goal, and now a guy you're not so crazy about just proved it.  You may not like it, but that very jealousy confirms both opportunity and possibility are still very much alive in the United States and that every kid really can grow up to be President.  That's important to you and me, but it's critical to our kids and everyone who has left the work force due to the last eight years of rejections.

You don't believe that, do you?  Well, you don't have to.  Not yet.  But come the twentieth of January, you may just have to.