Tag Archives: Abilene Paradox

There’s No Crying in Investment Banking, or Don’t Take a Ride on a Snake’s Back

So there’s this mouse who wants to cross a river, and a poison snake who offers the little fellow a ride. “Will you bite me?” squeaks the mouse. “Of courssse not,” replies the snake. The mouse gets on the scaly back of the helpful snake, and they begin crossing. The snake flips around and mortally bites the mouse. “But you said you w-w-w-wouldn’t bite me,” cries the mouse, as darkness descends around him. The snake merely replies, “I’m a snake.”

I feel bad for the mouse.  And, I feel sort of bad for Gregg Smith formerly of Goldman Sachs, or anyone for that matter who spends a quarter of their career traveling down a path they never should have been on. All of our careers have been on the road to Abilene at one time or another. (To paraphrase a bit…Let he who has not imagined smashing a cheeseburger in the face of a horrific boss throw the first Big Mac.)

So Gregg…you rode on the back of a beast that uses “Atlas Shrugged” as its owner’s manual, and sharpens its claws on the bones of its competition. Did you really expect a culture rivaling that of Habitat for Humanity? These are not people looking for win-win situations. They are fierce competitors, and ultimately most of their clients remain fabulously happy, or they don’t remain clients. It regulates itself.

Looking past the press memes and poor career choices, it is fair to ask whether Goldman Sachs should learn from this. The answer is yes and no. Reputation is everything, as evidenced by the $2.2 billion drop in Goldman’s market cap, but I’m sure no one in the company is going to respond well to sensitivity training.

There are 14 principles already embedded in the corporate culture at Goldman, which are as good as any out there. Perhaps, though, it is time to revisit them. I believe there are two principles (#13 and #14) that seem to be most at odds with each other, and perfectly capture the conundrum of having to act like a shark with table manners:

13.  Our business is highly competitive, and we aggressively seek to expand our client relationships.

14.   Integrity and honesty are at the heart of our business.

It is the word “Aggressively” that bothers me here, especially in the context of Integrity and Honesty. Aggression contains a Darwinian nastiness that permits sharks to eat each other in utero. I think the word they were looking for was actually “Assertively.”

It is a fine point, but with vastly different connotations. On the one road, your client is at your side, and on the other your client follows you. With your client at your side, you’ll always know where they are and where you should be headed. With your client traipsing behind, you may one day turn around and find them gone, and the road you’re traveling paved with fool’s gold all the way to Abilene.

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Filed under Abilene Paradox, Advertising, Arrogance, Culture Change, Employee Engagement

The Sunshine of Branding, or How to Make the Invisible Visible

I’ve spent the last 20 or so blog posts bringing to light how employees, committees, and organizations can participate in folly that as individuals they know to be ridiculous. This is the focus of The Road to Abilene: my puny contribution to an imagined world of corporate excellence in which every person remains awake, interested, engaged, and productive. (When the heck did I become an optimist…)

In any case, last night I saw a YouTube video that illuminated another road to Abilene. It is a road that is so wide an entire planet’s population can walk it. This dark route is followed not when we choose to go against our better judgement, but rather it is travelled because our focus drifted away from what truly matters.

I’m referring to the viral YouTube video Kony 2012, which at last count 70 million people have watched. It’s almost 30 minutes long, so wait a minute before you watch it. My first reaction to it was as a fellow human being. My second viewing was of course as a branding professional. I know that seems ugly and coarse, but it is an intellectual reflex that is not without a little merit.

You’ll see how a simple idea that is no more complex than “Crest Fights Cavities,” or “Coke Adds Life” is brought to the fore through the basic imperatives of iconic branding. (See this white paper by MillwardBrown.)

Iconic brands:

  1. Find strong cultural roots that tap into society’s values.
  2. Identify physical or symbolic features and make them instantly recognizable.
  3. Have a compelling story and remain true to their original values, while reinterpreting them in light of contemporary culture.

The Kony 2012 “brand campaign” does exactly these. Take a look. Devote the required 30 minutes. You won’t regret it.

In this case the message is “Get Joseph Kony,” and ignoring it leads us all to a place we would never want to go. What this documentary also proves is that there is a basic underlying decency to all of us (well…probably 96.3% of us) that transcends national boundaries, and it has found a home in social media. Think Arab Spring.

Now an allusion you’ll only get if you watch the video… In the words of Qui-Gon Jinn from Star Wars Episode One: Phantom Menace: “Your focus is your reality.” The right focus allows you to walk in the light. The wrong focus? Well that takes you to a galaxy far, far away to an unfortunate little place called Abilene.


Filed under Abilene Paradox, Branding, Culture Change, Group Dynamics, Indie, Social Media

The Power of Tension and Trans Fatty Acids, or why 2012 is like 1984.

First let me say this: No one should judge advertising under the influence of Cheese Whiz and Funyuns. Now that thirty days have passed, and I’ve worked off nearly a third of the calories that I consumed during our Super Bowl party, I’ve rethought my opinion that there was no “1984” ad moment. There was, but it just took longer to realize. I blame what obviously was a trans fatty acid induced stagger towards Abilene. Don’t worry. I’m good now.

Much has been discussed already about the lack of great advertising during Super Bowl 2012, and so I don’t need to spend any time here rehashing that. One ad though has continued to remain in my thoughts well past the others: Wieden + Kennedy’s Clint Eastwood Half-time ad.

My previous definition of a “1984” moment is when ad is so astounding that while watching you could be induced to join Scientology. This year it didn’t happen for me. In fact it hasn’t happened for me since 1984. Then I began thinking: maybe my definition is flawed. Maybe.

Well, here’s my new and improved checklist for determining the existence of a “1984” moment during Super Bowl, and how “Half-time in America” fairs:

  1. The production value is astonishingly good. Check.
  2. The writing is perfect. Check.
  3. The message inserts itself into an acutely felt cultural tension. Check.
  4. The ad gives me goose bumps or a lump in my throat. Check.
  5. The tone of the commercial is distinctly different than all others playing during the Super Bowl. Check.
  6. It only needs to run once, and the world continues to discuss it. Check.
  7. It pisses off “The Man,” (or at least Karl Rove). Check.

Not that you haven’t seen it a dozen times, but please take another look, and see if it doesn’t hit all these attributes squarely in the face like Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. 


Oddly enough, when I first watched it I thought it was a rip-off of Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America” spot, and in fact it seemed very conservative to me. Clint is my favorite gun lover. On the other hand, those in politically conservative circles viewed this as pay back for political patronage (to put it mildly). In this case, both sides are right, and that’s the beauty of the spot. It allows for multiple, intensely felt interpretations. It’s like that joke about the psychiatrist who is accused of sharing dirty pictures, even though he keeps explaining to his patients they are just inkblots.

Even if you think that Chrysler will never produce a product as significant or wonderful as Apple can, one thing’s for sure. The Chrysler ad did what few ads will ever do. It continued to move our jaws well after we were done gnawing on buffalo chicken wings, giving us pause long enough to look down to make sure our feet are pointed in the right direction -180 degrees away from Abilene.

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Filed under Abilene Paradox, Advertising, Brand Strength, Branding, Super Bowl Advertising

Introducing a Breakthrough in Advertising Measurement: The Abilene-O-Meter

As you have probably figured out by now, I believe the truth is best told with a heavy dose of humor. In fact, in Shakespeare the fools always told the truth before others realized it (and often too late). With this in mind, I would like to share with you my great advancement in measuring advertising effectiveness, The Abilene-O-Meter. It came to me during the Super Bowl last night, as I watched millions upon millions of advertising dollars evaporate like the dreams of Patriot fans. Poof!

In the mere 18 hours of its existence, it has proven more reliable than the free Scientology Stress Tests you can get at the mall, and more accurate than 90% of mutual fund managers. Here is how to read it. First, you must understand the unit of measurement, as it is quite groundbreaking. All are animals that can be found in Texas. (A State that I adore, btw.)  At one end of the scale is the devilish poison armadillo, symbol of that wonderful place great corporate minds come together to produce mediocre results, i.e. Abilene. At the other end of the scale is the proud bald eagle, representing the rare and inspiring actions of brave business people who create the icons we measure our lives buy (oops…I mean “by”). Think of this as a “brand menagerie,” if you will, with each lovely vertebrate standing for a certain metaphorical distance from Abilene. Eagle, good. Armadillo, very bad. Cow, meh.

In order to calibrate the Abilene-O-Meter, I first measured the Fiat commercial that aired on the Super Bowl.

This charming spot for the struggling vehicle sent the needle rocking with the first slap from Romanian supermodel Catrinel Menghia. Within seconds the secret love we have for all things Italian was reawakened. Of course, The Richards Group who created the ad relied on the age old truth that sex sells, but who cares. In this case it really worked. In fact, Edmunds.com reported that Fiat had the highest cumulative increase in web traffic after airing, with a rise in activity of 138 percent. I’d say that’s soaring with the eagles.

To complete the calibration, I then measured the Old Navy ad for Corporado, a make believe brand designed to mock Dockers. As the logo emerged like a leak from what seemed to be the actor’s pant leg, I was afraid I might have pushed the Abilene-O-Meter to its limits. It took me three viewings to realize it was all a joke, which usually means it ain’t that funny.

Despite the Texas inspired satirical name “Corporado,” Old Navy came up all armadillos. I’m afraid the only way out of Abilene for Old Navy will be to take off the Corporados and do the walk of shame pant-less out of town.

If you would like to submit an ad for Abilene-O-Meter testing, please feel free to send it along.

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Filed under Abilene Paradox, Advertising, Brand Strength, Branding, Marketing, Super Bowl Advertising

Prestidigitation and Brand Strength – A Hypothesis

When I was about 10 my father took me to the Magic Castle in Hollywood. What a strange and wonderful place. In every nook and cranny there was something mysterious and amazing (at least for a 10 year old). However, what stuck in my mind was not the lady cut in half, nor pianos that played themselves, but the roaming magicians who would perform small miracles up close with sleight-of-hand. If you have ever witnessed a true hand mechanic, you’ll know of what I speak. Your mind bends as your eyes defy your intellect. Hands are truly amazing instruments.

What sparked this memory was a recent trip to a good Dunkin’ Donuts. You know what I mean by a good Dunkin’. There are Dunkin’ Donuts and then there are Dunkin’ Donuts. All the food is the same across the franchise: the donuts are fresh, the coffee is hot, and the bagels toasty. The employees even smile the same amount. Until now I couldn’t put a finger on why I felt a difference between my favorite Dunkin’ and the rest. I think I know now.

The secret is in the hands.

The next time you go to a retail establishment, be it Fast Food or a Car Wash, watch the employees’ hands. They tell a story. At my favorite Dunkin’ the employees’ hands move like olympic synchronized swimmers. They exhibit fluidity, speed, deftness, and the practiced hand movements of concert pianists. At my least favorite Dunkin’, the employees seem to be wearing invisible weighted baseball mitts. To watch them mix cream and sugar makes me crazy, and don’t get me started on spreading cream cheese. It’s like watching a glacier move across the tundra. Eyes may be the window to the soul, but hands hold the light of truth. Hands don’t lie.

Our hands connect us to the world. They are our interface. Our language is filled with metaphor incorporating the word hand. “Let’s get a handle on this.” “He’s got the upper hand.” “Let’s give her a hand.” “He’s got the whole world in is hands.” For some, physical hands are the primary means of communication.

My theory is this: you can tell a great brand by how deftly the employees’ hands interact with their environment, from handling merchandize to ringing up items to filling out return forms. I think hands are a leading indicator. Slow, hesitant, close to the body, clumsy = brand in trouble. Snappy, outstretched, active, practiced = brand on the rise. The hands are in the driver’s seat. More precisely, they are on the wheel, and the moment they come off, you’re on the road to Abilene.


Filed under Abilene Paradox, Brand Strength, Branding, Employee Engagement, Marketing, Prestidigitation

To HP or not HP, that is the Distraction.

So HP’s new logo is not going to be their new logo. A company spokesperson definitively quashed the rumor by letting us know that “HP is one of the world’s most valuable brands and has no plans to adopt the new logo.” Honestly, I wasn’t comforted. Since April of 2010, the market cap of HP has dropped by 50%.

Well, it’s not the first time I got all excited for nothing. I am after all a closet optimist. That is to say, while sometimes I let go of a belly laugh when Olympic skaters kiss the ice rink floor after a quadruple axle to the melodies of Tchaikovsky, I actually think everyone who gets to the Olympics deserves a gold medal. (I know. I’m complicated and probably immature, but spandex, human flight, gravity, and classical music are hilarious when combined in appropriate amounts.)

So this brings me to HP, whose mission is to create  “…new possibilities for technology to have a meaningful impact on people, businesses, governments and society.” I’m a sucker for mission statements written to improve human lives, since I’m human and I get to benefit regardless of buying a printer. The almost new logo seems the very embodiment of these possibilities.  To my point, even though HP probably drives you crazy, I’m sure the better part of you saw that new logo and said, “Ooh, look. HP did something inspiring amid the slippery ice of leadership decisions and product launches.” It’s like, say, a gold medal for the Jamaican bobsled team.

As CEO of a firm that often designs logos, there is nothing more frustrating than good work that is not adopted, so I’m biased in my appraisal. They should have adopted the mark, and with some flair and a little PR deftness, they could have adopted it up until the statement by the spokesperson. The reaction to the “misunderstanding” contains something more insidious; that is, design is a distraction from the business at hand, which includes bringing the stock back and managing the tablet mess.

Design is always the business at hand.

Ironically, great design in many ways shares HP’s mission of creating new possibilities. Great logos are not merely symbols. They are catalysts.  As Professor Anthony Dunne, Head of the Design Interactions Department at the Royal College of Art in London points out…

“This space of probable, preferable, plausible and possible futures allows designers to challenge design orthodoxy and prevailing technological visions so that fresh perspectives can begin to emerge. It is absolutely not about prediction, but asking what if…, speculating, imagining, and even dreaming in order to encourage debate about the kind of technologically mediated world we wish to live in. Hopefully, one that reflects the complex, troubled people we are, rather than the easily satisfied consumers and users we are supposed to be.”

Beautiful. This perspective feels like a shaded Sunday stroll in the English countryside along the green shires near the River Rea.  And management decisions targeted at the “…easily satisfied consumers and users we are supposed to be?” Well, we all know this road. Its hot steaming asphalt leads only one place – right into the heart of Abilene.


Filed under Advertising, Branding, Management Theory, Marketing, Mission Statements

McDonald’s Sign Going Green, Or I Will not Eat Green Eggs and Ham.

I am not without sin when it comes to hamburgers. I don’t care if they are good for me, or for the cows, or for the environment. (Ok, I care a little bit, and I exercise four times a week.) I’ll even let my kids have a McDonald’s hamburger once in a while, and honest to goodness, they look happy when eating happy meals. Go figure.

I am not without sin when it comes to living green. I drive a german automobile that gets 16 mpg in the city, and I have a gas powered leaf blower that could clear out a freshly filled grave. (For the record, I have purchased a carbon offset for my bad deeds, and I don’t disturb the recently departed.) Honest to goodness, I’m happy when I drive my car, and especially when I use my satanic leaf blower. Go figure.

What I am most self-righteous about is that I’m honest in my sinfulness. I don’t pretend to be something I’m not, and I think that’s part of my brand, so to speak. This brings me to a sensitive issue. Can going green put you on The Road to Abilene?

I recently found out from a friend of mine in Germany that McDonald’s is changing a portion of their iconic signs green to signify their growing commitment to greener practices. According to the Huffington Post, this is a Europe-wide initiative, including the U.K. and France. This will include just a small portion of their 32,000 restaurants worldwide.

“With this new appearance we want to clarify our responsibility for the preservation of natural resources. In the future we will put an even larger focus on that,” Hoger Beek, vice chairman of McDonald’s Germany, said in the statement.

Oh for goodness sake. I just want to enjoy my burger, and not save the world for five minutes. Las Vegas is NOT a family destination, and McDonald’s is not a healthy part of anything.

Let’s get real for a moment. All companies need to work on becoming greener. This an indisputable axiom, as far as I’m concerned. However, please don’t try to make me feel better about trans-saturated french fries by making me feel that clogging my arteries will help the environment. This seems relatively manipulative. Let’s applaud McDonald’s for their efforts, but this attempt to wear it on their sleeve (signs) seems disingenuous.

To help my friends in Oak Brook, Illinois, here’s my new Mickey D’s Mission:

  1. We make food that is yummy, and convenient.
  2. It is part of a balanced way of living in which you treat yourself sometimes to yummy things.
  3. We promise we won’t try to make you eat here every day. In fact, you shouldn’t.
  4. We are not the answer to the world’s problems, but we will try to be a good corporate citizen.
  5. We know that pictures of kids playing soccer on a happy meal box does not encourage athletic activity in any way. We’ll stop that.
  6. We’ll work on the salads.
  7. We encourage all of our employees to exercise three days a week, and to eat a balanced diet.
  8. It’s alright to like us for what we are, and we’ll like us for what we are. A greasy, albeit iconic, burger joint that you can visit anywhere in the world.
  9. We’ll leave the signs red and yellow. The green ones kind of made us a little queasy anyway.
  10. We promise to make the roadside McDonald’s more accessible on the highway out of Abilene than on the way in.


Filed under Advertising, Arrogance, Branding