Can Lassie be saved? When re-branding doesn’t work

I’m still reeling about Lassie. That the scion of a loyal, courageous, elegant line of war heroes (The Courage of Lassie) has been re-positioned as the “Kate Middleton of animals” is more than I can bear.

Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  Courtesy of The New York Times.
Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  (Courtesy of The New York Times)

Granted re-branding is tricky, as are brand extensions. Should this young Lassie have been a brand extension instead of a re-brand?  Can Lassie come home?

Case in point:  I’ve been admiring a new extension of a venerable local brand as it’s come together over the last several months.  The new building is adjacent to the original, so the relationship of mother-to-child is obvious. Of course, this is not Hollywood, but we’re getting close to it here in Austin, Tex.

The original, Fonda San Miguel, is a gorgeous place filled with a world-class art collection, food and drink. A welcoming, elegant restaurant with adjacent gardens.

It's the kind of restaurant eople take pictures of each other standing in front of
It’s the kind of restaurant where you go to curry favor.

Here’s the extension. It’s unannounced, unopened but rumored to be a tapas bar.  Perfect, no?

The new tapas bar of Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Texas.
The child of the grand Fonda San Miguel, just across the garden in Austin, Texas.  A bit of hipster funk.

The brand extension works because it contrasts with the original while maintaining the flavor. It’s unexpected, but it makes sense. (I sound like I’m at a wine tasting, don’t I?  But you understand what I’m saying.)

A lesson for Dreamworks?  Don’t tamper with an icon.  Did anyone ask Marilyn Monroe to lose weight?  Well, probably, but that’s another conversation.

Is it presumptious to compare a Hollywood icon to a local institution?  Perhaps. But then again why not, if something is to be learned?

Maybe Lassie’s great-great-great offspring should have been renamed “Lasi” and positioned as a fashion blogger?

Who Put Brussel Sprouts in Every Shopping Basket?

What I want to know is this:  Who engineered the comeback of brussel sprouts?  Did I miss the tweets?  Because the humble vegetable of my childhood, grey and waterlogged, has morphed into a supply side challenge.

Can farmers keep up?
               Can farmers keep up?

Was it Mark Bittman and those classy NYT spreads?  Some trendy chef in upper New York state, or even here in what was once a comfortably populist ATX (Tex Mex or a steak, anyone?)?

There’s been no humiliating name change (bruss?), as prunes have had to endure (dried plums?).  They look the same:  little cabbages, hard and round.  No labor-saving innovations;  still a somewhat tedious process that requires a colander, trimming, cutting, and unless you’re a roaster, a two-step cooking process.

They still, sauces and marinades aside, taste (and smell) like cabbages.

Was there a blog?  A reality show (an island, 20-somethings, a case of brussel sprouts and lots of conflict?)  Opeds?

Did Dr. Oz endorse them for their digestive qualities?  Was it the source-agnostic but ever-purist French?

Where is the marketing team?  I want to meet them.

Be Great

Each of us can be great — in our own way.  Great human beings don’t spring full-blown from Zeus’ head like Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and inspiration.  The trick lies in uncovering, then nurturing its seed.

Thanks to technology (and I include publishing), we’ve no shortage of examples — in business, the arts and politics.  We can read, see and hear the stories of people who discovered their gift and then overcame their circumstances, doubts and fears to be bigger, broader and richer (if that’s what they wanted).

Work at being great -- in your own way. (Courtesy of Greg Bartley/Camera Press, via Redux, The New York Times)
Work at being great — in your own way. (Courtesy of Greg Bartley/Camera Press, via Redux, The New York Times)

Many of us have to dig to find our seed of greatness.  Maybe it’s writing, or developing great relationships or designing gardens.  But believing in ourselves — and our unique greatness — is pivotal.  Otherwise, our hands are tied.  We fail to act.  So we have to look for examples and learn from others.

Take entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs are energizers.  They charge us up with their self-confidence and sheer drive.  Last week I sat in on a talk by John Arrow, the brilliant young CEO of Mutual Mobile.  Arrow told about his first entrepreneurial effort, a grammar school newsletter that was shut down for profiling students’ popularity.  (Sounds a little like a Facebook prototype, yes?) While his co-conspirators were punished by their parents, he was praised for his business acumen.  That chutzpah — and vision — has taken him far.

Or statesmen.  Nelson Mandela believed in a cause so great it dwarfed the failure and suffering he endured to become an icon of humanitarianism. Bill Keller‘s coverage drew from a 2007 interview.  Mandela was asked how he kept his hatred in check:  “… his answer was almost dismissive: “Hating clouds the mind.  It gets in the way of strategy.  Leaders cannot afford to hate.”  My sense is Mandela, although born the son of a tribal chief, was not always so adept a diplomat. I listened to a former colleague describe him as a “head knocker.”  If that’s the case, then Mandela had to master his anger to achieve his goals.

Or musicians.  A quote from the late, great Lou Reed, who as a young man had been through electroshock therapy, and in his music never seemed too concerned about popular opinion.  He followed his muse:

I’ve never thought of music as a challenge — you always figure the audience is at least as smart as you are.  You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful.  And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they think it’s beautiful.

As we wind down another year, rushing madly along, let’s go for one thing:  Let’s try for greatness.  Or as Steven Pressfield puts it,  … Follow your unconventional, crazy heart.  Do the work.

Stay Curious Despite the Shutdown: Try edX

“We’re looking for the international space station,” my elderly neighbors said as they looked up at the night sky.

“What does it look like?”  I asked.

The night sky on Oct. 13, 2013 in Austin, Texas.  That's Jupiter above the tree. Courtesy Night Sky Network.
The night sky on Oct. 13, 2013 in Austin, Texas. That’s Jupiter above the tree. Courtesy Night Sky Network.

“We’re not sure, but it’s supposed to be out here someplace.”

We spend a lot of our time looking for things without knowing exactly what we’re looking for.   Ideally, there’s a sense of wonder, but also frustration and alas, impatience.

Whether it’s a job, a new client or partner.  We know they’re out there, somewhere.  But where?

The trick is to stay curious, so curious we keep trying.

To keep my curiosity in tune, I’m trying our edX, specifically Dr. Micheal Webber’s Energy 101 MOOC.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

The content is terrific, especially the widgets.  I find myself sliding over maps of Europe, Africa, India and South America to get a sense of our world — in constant flux.  Want to see fracking in action?  Stephen Rountree’s 3D infographic is one of the best I’ve seen.

But it’s the sheer scope of the effort that sparks my imagination.  Comments and introductions from people all over the world – Iran, Palestine, Iceland.

It’s like the night sky; makes you think anything is possible.  (Even this photo, taken by intrepid volunteers on Astronomy Day 2013 by the Night Sky Network, despite the federal shutdown)

Here’s to the Joyful Pivot

It’s not just Ben Bernake;  sudden course corrections are the rule of the day.  I used to worry about feeling stuck.  Then I heard the musician Laurie Anderson say she feels stuck all the time.  Now I worry if I don’t feel stuck; I figure if I’m comfortable, I’m not paying attention.

Most of us don’t make tough decisions until there’s a crisis. Detroit didn’t pivot — if that’s what it was — until it was broke.  We lose a client (or worse, a friend), an elderly parent falls and breaks a hip, we lose our job.  

Writing in Forbes, Martin Zwilling defines (the over-used term) pivot as a quick change in direction that keeps an organization grounded in what’s been learned.  “(Startups that pivot) keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new possible future.”

Nothing is more reassuring than the scent of possibility.

The trick is to separate setback from failure and train our eyes on the possible.  I’m reminded of an anecdote the marvelous Laurie Anderson told during her recent visit here:  It became clear that a collaboration with Brian Eno wasn’t working.  Eno clapped his hands and said, “Oh boy, a problem.  We can throw everything out and re-think the thing.”

That’s such a large idea:  being Joyful when things don’t go as planned. Years ago, I worked with the talented producer Linda Batwin.  I’d asked her help with a corporate project that wasn’t going as smoothly (surprise!).  I was in a snit, and Linda said to me, not in a preachy way, but as someone working towards mastery:  I try to enjoy the process.

So here’s to possibilities — and the process of working towards them with joy, wisdom and hopefully, a little help from our friends.

Courtesy Fast Company Design
Courtesy Fast Company Design

Over Deliver and Keep ‘Em Coming Back for More

“Do you know anyone in Togo?”

Brand loyalty is built by extraordinary service.
Brand loyalty is built on relationships.

I picked up the call over 20 years ago on a July 4th afternoon.  The voice at the other end of the line belonged to an AT&T customer service representative who’d flagged a series of calls from my number to a tiny country on Africa’s Gold Coast.  By going beyond her job description (or contract, or scope), she saved me hundreds of dollars and countless hours spent trying to straighten the mess out.  She made my life a little easier.

Brand loyalty isn’t always logical, but it has a long memory.  AT&T is an entirely different entity than it was then, but I continue to have an emotional connection with the brand.   I told this story to an AT&T call center representative once when I was trying to untangle a bill.  I’m not sure they got it.

The market has changed, as have my needs. AT&T long ago laid off the people who did what that woman did.  I hope she is happily retired — or teaching companies how to bond with customers for life.

I recently moved into a building served by another provider and got a quick refresher on the  bare-knuckles world of the consumer broadband industry:  bait and swap, if-you don’t-like-it-take-your-business-somewhere-else.  No brand loyalty there.

A friend once critiqued a piece of work I did, “Remember, over deliver and keep ’em coming back for more.”

On whatever scale you’re operating, those are words to the wise.

The Boy Who Wants to Be a Scientist

I took the iPod out of my young friend’s ear and suggested he would make a great mayor.  “I don’t want to be a mayor, he said.  “I want to be a scientist.”

I was impressed.

I have a young friend who wants to be a scientist.
I have a young friend who wants to be a scientist.

“What kind of scientist?” I asked.

“An engineer,” and then he paused.  “I want to be everything.”

My admiration grew.  My friend is 10 years old — 11 next month.  I met him at the Helping Hand Home for Children, where he’s spent the last couple of years after a rocky experience in the foster care system.  Next week, he goes back to the family from which he was removed.

I replaced the earpod and looked at him. My friend is at the intersection of many of the great debates of our time — race, abortion, economic opportunity, multiculturalism.  I don’t know why he was taken from his family, but whatever it was, it must have been pretty horrible.  To become a scientist, a mayor, or a repairman in a power substation will require super-human work, hope and magic.  If he fails to pull it off and becomes homeless, goes to jail or abuses his kids, we’ll be the ones who pay the price.  Literally.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could make my friend’s path a little easier?

Solutions to complex problems happen when people begin to talk with one another.  A few weeks ago, inspired by an editorial on civil exchange, I signed up for red bench training.  The genesis of the idea came from Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, a business consultant, poet, educator and administrator and communicator (who is also a native Texan and former director of LBJ Presidential Library):

I think people don’t feel they have permission to talk about something that makes them as vulnerable as love, so we don’t usually talk about it in public. I once had the idea of having a red bench in every corporation. And the red bench to be an invitation to conversations that matter. So if you sat on the red bench, you were saying, I’m open to having a conversation about love, or a conversation about truth, or something that matters to me.    Dr. Betty Sue Flowers

The red bench conversations encourage people to build relationships. (Photo courtesy of Christy Tidwell)
The red bench conversations encourage people to build relationships. (Photo courtesy of Christy Tidwell)

Civil exchange is a prerequisite for collaboration, which is the way most things get done. Note that Dr. Flowers proposed red bench conversations as part of a project she did for Royal Dutch Shell.  Here in Austin, Interfaith Action of Central Texas  runs a program built around the idea.  iACT Executive Director Tom Spencer wrote the editorial that prompted me to act. Check it out in your community.

We may be able to begin a conversation that will help my young friend. He would make a great mayor.