What have we been talking about?


A brand is a promise. An expectation. To a great extent, it is also a reputation. As a company, you either deliver on this promise, or you get the boot from your customers. Plain and simple.

Years ago, Mercedes stood for quality. Wait, no... not just quality but superquality. Mercedes was a luxury brand, much like Cartier and Chanel and Hermes. To a great extent, this is still the company's stance. Mercedes, BMW and Porsche form the great German Luxury Automaking triumvirate. When it comes to status and image, they still rule over all other "affordable" luxury car brands including Jaguar, Cadillac and Lexus. (Rolls Royce, Bentley, Ferrari and the likes could be more accurately batched into a superluxury category.)

At any rate, the decision to purchase a Mercedes comes with a certain degree of expectation when it comes to the quality of the car, its design, comfort, performance, safety, etc. Along with that should come a certain level of service. After all, the experience of shopping for a luxury car (and owning it) should come with a few perks. You expect to be treated professionally. You expect to feel like you are receiving VIP treatment by a dealership's sales and service staff.

You expect friendly, able people to smile, nod, and say things like "yes Mr. Skipsquat, we'll take care of that for you right away. Would you like some coffee while you wait? Can I have one of our drivers take you back to your office? Would you like us to send a car to pick you up when we're done servicing your car?"

Okay, maybe that last part is too much to ask... but we're talking about Mercedes, aren't we? No offense to Toyota, Dodge or Citroen, but... the Mercedes experience (yes, it begins when you first drive up to the dealership) should be on a whole different level than that of other, more budget-friendly brands.

At the very least, even f you aren't taken care of like royalty, you should walk away from every Mercedes experience feeling really great about it. You should be wowed by the excelent level of service. You pay good money to be a part of the Mercedes world, and that world extends far beyond the confines of your car. If you wanted to buy a poorly-built car and get the runaround from the dealer and the corporate office, you could have bought a Ford, right?

Eh... Well... times, they're a-changin'.
Apparently, Mercedes may be dropping the ball. Read Francois Gossieaux's Mercedes horror story here, and find out for yourselves what might be wrong with what was once one of the most sought after luxury brands in the world. It's a great read.


Dave Lorenzo's Branding Microcosms


Check out these great bits of advice from Dave Lorenzo's Career Intensity blog:

"Deciding: 'Familiarize yourself with common decision-making errors—such as going along with a group choice to maintain cohesion. Watch for tendencies within yourself to commit such errors.'

Leaders make bold decisions. They see them through, and if they aren’t working out, they make new decisions. The worst thing you can do for your career is make no choices or let your choices be made for you. Taking a passive approach to your goals is unlikely to result in success. Even if you make a bad decision, it’s better to mess up and learn from it than to remain stagnant. Failures are great opportunities to learn more about yourself and the world. Move ahead by choosing wisely and boldly."

(If you're asking yourself... yeah, cool career advice, but... what does this have to do with branding, hold on. I'm getting to it.)

"It takes someone who believes in herself and her ideas to challenge the status quo. These are the people who shake things up and change them for the better. You don’t have to be contentious to challenge. The best way to suggest changes is not to bash the old ways, but to offer new and positive ideas.

If you are part of a team working on a project that you believe could be going more smoothly, step up and present your ideas. Most likely, everyone will be excited to approach the work from a new angle. And you will begin to earn a reputation for innovation."

Still not catching on? Okay... Let's try one more:

"In the famous words of Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

What separates the dazzling winners from everyone else is that they are able to envision a grand future. What turns them into winners is that they are able to leap into that future and do the hard work necessary to make it great.

Particularly for die-hard realists and people who have been trained (by parents, friends, or spouse) to be 'responsible' and 'stable', indulging in imagination can be difficult. For every idea that’s even mildly revolutionary, a little voice chimes in, 'Impossible. You can’t do that. That’s stupid. It’ll never work.' Quiet that voice and spend some time ruminating on your wild, far-out, fanciful ideas. Great leader do things that no one before them has done."

Still no? Tsssk... Okay. I'll give you a hint: Substitute "brand" for "career". Everything that Dave so brilliantly recommends is exactly the kind of advice that you can put to good use in building strong brands - from 'brand you' to the next retail darling, iconic consumer good or dazzling web application.

Brands aren't built in a vacuum. They aren't built by functionaries. They do not thrive in stagnant bureaucracies. Brands are built by empowered visionaries. Brands are built on enthusiasm, conviction, and courage... Or they are doomed from the start.

You are the heart and soul of the brand you represent and serve. If you want your brand to be a market leader, you must be a leader in your job as well. Your qualities are your brand's attributes. Your weaknesses are its flaws. Everything you are, everything you do, affects its success and future.

So... don't ever let anyone turn you into a tool. Challenge everything. Question every assumption. Wage war on routine and bureaucracy. Accept no compromise...

... and read Dave's blog. It's a good one.

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Power to the people


Your customers are passionate people. They don't like unfair labor practices. They don't like laws they consider unjust. They don't like paying more than they should for necessities. They don't like being discriminated against. They don't like being treated like cattle.

A hundred years ago, people didn't ave much of a voice. Today they do. And they like it.

Every day, more businesses are launched. Every day, more new products reach the websites they visit and the shelves of the retail outlets they like to buy from. Every day, they are given more opportunities to choose whom to do business with, and whom not to do business with.

Gone are the days when the neighborhood butcher was really the only convenient place to buy meat. Gone are the days when watching TV meant choosing between four channels. Gone are the days when you either bought a Ford or a Chevy. An IBM or an Apple. Nike or Adidas.

The more choices your customers have, the more power they hold... and the least likely they are to choose you over your competition.

People work hard for their dollars, and they are becoming increasingly savvy about how and where to spend them. They've all been burned. They've all been lied to. They're a lot more cautious now... and demanding.

The companies who will engage them, give them the value they demand, treat them well and make them crave more will earn their dollars... and their friends' dollars, and their families' dollars and on and on and on.

Other companies, those who fail to do this will see their revenue stagnate or dwindle. They will resort to expensive advertising campaigns and outsourcing and repositioning to stay afloat.


People hold the power. Your customers. They control where the dollars go. They control what is said about brand A vs. brand B. They control what products are hot and what products are not.

Look at "American Idol". Look at the success of iPod. Look at the popularity of MySpace. When people are engaged by a product or brand, they contribute to its growth. If they aren't, that brand gets ignored and dies.

Your customers decide if you are worth doing business with, or if you aren't. All you have to do is listen and decide what kind of relationship you want to have with them. Do you want to be their first choice, or do you want to be their third or fifth or twelfth?

Do you want to be the one they spend their money on, or the one they don't?

Do you want to be the first name they think of when it comes to buying a cupof coffee, or a new car, or a computer, or a pair of shoes... or do you want to be an afterthought?

They have the power. They decide your fate.

Whom do you think you should be courting today... and tomorrow... and the day after that?

Who do you work for?

(See where I'm going with this?)

Every customer is your boss. My boss. Our boss. Every single one. From the kid who spends twenty-five cents on a piece of gum to the VC who comes in to drop seven figures on your latest project.

Your job, whatever and wherever it may be, is to make sure that your customers choose you over everyone else.

Something to think about.



Stand Out


Word to the wise: If you don't stand out in some way, you're done.

You might be able to exist, you might manage to survive, but that's all you'll ever have to look forward to. You can be a one-man show and still be corporate. Don't do it. Don't waste your time being just like everyone else. Don't waste your soul on being average.

Give yourself more credit. Everyone has strengths. Everyone has talents and abilities. Not using them every day even in some small way is such a shame it ought to be a crime. (And it's bad business to boot.)

Whether you're a photography studio, a web design firm, a sports magazine, a sportswear company, a triathlon shop or an antique furniture store, you either stand out, or someone who does will come along to wow your audience and steal your business right from under your nose.

Trust me on this: you can't afford to be average. Even if you've based your entire business model on the lowest pricepoints, on bare-bones bottom-line imports, you have to take your uniqueness as far as humanly possible... and then some.

Yes, even accounting and financial services firms can stand out. Restaurants. Retail outlets. Breweries. Day care centers. Schools. Law offices. Graphic design firms. Janitorial services agencies. Manufacturing plants. It doesn't matter. Your industry and specialty are irrelevant. Anyone can stand out.

Here's a tip for you: The best way to stand out in a crowd is simply to stand for something: Producing the most useful online content for your users. Making it easy for your customers to get information on products before they shop. Providing your clients with the best after-sale service in the industry. Brewing the best cup of coffee in the world. Turning boring shopping experiences into something fun and enjoyable. Returning calls faster than anyone else. Being the easiest company your customers have ever had the pleasure to do business with.

Business models are just templates, folks. They're the framework. Marketing, advertising, branding, PR, all of these things are great, but remember that you can customize your business all on your own too. From packaging to billing to the way you answer the phones. From the grade of toilet paper you stock in your bathrooms to the way you hire new talent. From the corners you will never, ever cut to the crazy ideas you decide to put stock into. From the stand you take on community issues to the tone of the dialogue you foster with your customers. It is all in your hands.

Stand for something. Stand out. Be extraordinary, if only for a year, if only in the eyes of a handful of customers. If only during the course of a single phonecall.

Be memorable.

Be worthy of note.

Don't ever, ever, ever settle for safe or average or just good enough. Not in the big things. Not in the small things.

Know who you are and who you want to be as a person, as a company, as a brand, and just do it.

No one - let me repeat this - no one is standing in your way.

Now go out there and concquer something. (Yes, right now.)


Blockbuster: The End


Once upon a time, Blockbuster was as big as Starbucks in the US. Strong brand, great customer service, unrivaled market ownership... Blockbuster was virtually untouchable.

Admit it: You had a card too. You rented stuff there. Yeah. We all did.

But then, something happened. The world changed... and Blockbuster found itself completely unable to deal with those changes. VOD (video on demand) and Netflix, more than anything else, shanked Blockbuster silly while it was looking the other way.

Sure, it tried to hold on to its fleeing customers by abolishing late fees... kinduv... but it was too little, too late. Driving to a Blockbuster was still a pain. Rental fees had doubled since we'd all first become members there, and we weren't happy about it. Somehow, we all got the sense that Blockbuster could have - should have - done a whole lot more.

Personally, I think that Blockbuster should have come up with something smarter and more engaging than its half-hearted capitulation. (I don't care how excited the people in the ads acted. It was a weak program and you all know it.) I never cared about late fees anyway. Yeah, they were a hassle, but not a deal-breaker. Abolishing them... kinduv... wasn't enough to convince me or you or anyone to rent videos there anymore. We needed a real reason to shop there again. Blockbuster failed to give us one.

The issue was mainly one of convenience. Why should I drive to a store twice (rent and return) and spend thirty minutes picking out a movie, when I could just order one right from my living room? Cable and broadband internet access have made movie rentals a commodity. Blockbuster failed to anticipate the change... and respond to it. It got left behind.

Sure, adding video game rentals to the mix was a good idea, but poorly executed. Blockbuster stores became a weird hybrid. The brand lost some of its relevance. The smell of desperation was in the air, and we all caught a whiff.

But here's what sealed Blockbuster's fate: It never reached out to us, the old core of once loyal customers. It never made us feel at home there. It never worked on making the Blockbuster experience a great one... or even a half-way decent one, at that. Actually, for the most part, it wasn't all that pleasant at all.

No, instead, what Blockbuster did was try to sell us an additional membership. (Give us more money... and we'll give you free rentals.) Bribes aren't enough. Especially the kind we have to pay for. (Woohoo! A free rental each month!) Please.

The whole thing made me seriously consider the possibility that Blockbuster was actually run and operated by Uncle Scrooge (which I haven't yet completely ruled out, by the way).

Now, I want you to look at the photo of my neighborhood Blockbuster (top of post). What do you see?

1) One car in the parking lot.

2) What happened to the movie posters in the windows, and the promos on the door, and all of the things that made the store inviting? They're gone!!! Why?

3) Not only that, but the windows are covered by ugly rack butts and the backsides of posters. Beautiful and enticing, huh?

4) You can't actually see it in this photo, but the "gaming" section of the store has its windows completely obscured from the inside by... wallpaper or something. From the outside, it looks like someone duct-taped giant rolls of dollar-store giftwrap paper over every inch of glass on that side of the store. Just beautiful.

Okay... Here's a tip: It's pretty basic, but I guess the marketing folks at Blockbuster must have been sick when we covered this in class - The outside appearance of your retail outlet is as important as the inside. Maybe more so. If your store looks like a crack house, nobody is going to want to come inside. (Go figure.)

Blockbuster used to do a great job of promoting to the outside world what was inside the store. Now, it just looks like a cross between a project in antisocial behavior and a foreclosure.

Something else you can't see in this photo: The obnoxious staff.

My last trip to Blockbuster basically involved the following experiences:

- Three clerks playing pencil-tag (yes, it's fun to throw pencils at each other when you're bored). Even more so when customers are waiting in line and opening a second register might not be a bad idea. Extra-credit for hitting a customer in the head, and then just laughing at the fact that you did.

- Seventeen minutes in the checkout line. (Hey, at least there were customers there.)

- Oh wait... the couple ahead of me finally got tired of waiting and left without renting anything. Never mind.

- So did the family in line behind me. Tsssk.

- The sales pitch for Blockbuster's special rebate club deal thingie:

The clerk: "Let me tell you about a super sweet offer blablabla..."
Me: "Um... no thanks, man."
The clerk: "But you haven't even heard what it is."
Me: "Yeah I did. It's a cool program, but not today."
The clerk: "Pffft. Whatever. Your loss. Pay full price for your rentals then."


- Sticker shock. Although... maybe if I had spent the extra nine bucks for the rewards program, the $5 rental fee and the entire hour I wasted driving there, picking a movie and waiting in line might have been easier to swallow. I don't know. Maybe.

- Having to drive the movie back to the store a few days later was just the cherry on top. You have no idea.

*Sigh* And now, Blockbuster has finally decided to become a clone of Netflix. Better late than never? I don't know.

It isn't every day that you get to witness the death of a superbrand. It's kind of sad in a way, because Blockbuster could have avoided all of this... and to be fair, it might bounce back. I guess anything's possible... But... You know... I wouldn't hold my breath or anything.

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The Business Innovation Insider


Dear brilliant readers, you probably owe it to yourselves to add the business innovation insider to either your blogroll or your RSS feed. It's a great resource for news, commentary,insight about our little world and everything it touches.

(And they were one of the first sites to adopt the BrandBuilder blog as a source when I first launched... which earns them some extra style points.)



Faux Pas?


Um... Somebody who gets paid a whole lot more than many of us (and by the United Nations, no less) actually approved this ad.

For their next project, the team that put this piece together could slap a box of Trixx Cereal on an anti KKK poster. (I can see it now: "Bigotry comes in lots of fun flavors.")



1) Denmark gets slapped in the face (as if the Danes needed any more negative attention).
2) Lego is stoked to find itself directly associated with racism around the world. (What company woudn't!)
3) The UN now has to go through the process of having its giant foot surgically extracted from its own big mouth... But it's hard to admit having made an error when you can only speak in vowels.
4) Money well spent rocks my world.

This is the Marketing equivalent of an oil tanker spill.

Read the whole story here
. (Thanks to Michelle Malkin for the great coverage.)

Now, let's all go out and by some Legos. (Oooops... "Lego blocks and toys" is the correct nomenclature.)

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Yep, it's that time again: Time to discover some new voices in our little world of marketing, branding and customer experience design. Yeah, Corante, Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, Hugh, John Moore and the rest of the folks you already know are great, but it's nice to try new things sometimes. These are some of the best marketing/branding-related blogs I've run into lately that you probably haven't heard of yet. Let's remedy that right now:

... and as a bonus, check out this awesome little smart radio web ap:

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Today, we're hopping over the big pond to beautiful New Zealand, thanks to Decisive Flow (a very cool little kiwi web design company). Their blog, which I enjoy a lot, recently tackled the subject of word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM to you Marketing 2.0 veterans out there), and some of the points either Tim, Natalie or Laurel touched on (I'm not sure who wrote the piece) were worthy of note.

First, it's pretty important to note that the DF team's first 'exposure' to WOMM wasn't positive. (Actually, it wasn't WOMM at all... which is kind of my point):

"The first time I heard the term 'word-of-mouth marketing' was in relation to companies who pay trendsetters from their target markets to chat about/wear/eat their products in view of anyone who could potentially become a customer. This is pretty unethical and something to avoid like the plague. The concept, however, is excellent - happy customers selling your stuff for free."

It seems that their experience isn't unusual. I have gotten feedback from other sources over the last few months that kind of echoed this negative/shill-first, enlightenment/true WOMM-second pattern of introduction onto the world of great business.

What does that tell me? One: That what constitutes real/true/authentic/ethical WOMM still hasn't been clearly communicated, especially in relation to its evil shill cousin. Two: That the charlatans are out there en force. (Yeah, we might still be slightly outnumbered.) Three: The good word still isn't touching enough people. Four:WOMM hasn't reached "the tipping point" yet.

Fortunately, the folks at Decisive Flow were quick to get past the shill smokescreen:

"The idea is to make your business or product so good that your customers rave about it to their friends, family and anyone else who will listen."

Bingo. Once you get that, everything else falls into place.

Check out their full post here. Pay particular attention to the "Things That Impress Me" section. If you own a business... or work for a business, the five bullet points are absolutely the Holy Grail of customer experience salvation (and its crucial role in establishing yourself as a solid brand). These are the tests that most companies routinely fail, but that great brands ace on a pretty consistent basis.

Take an honest look at those five points and ask yourselves (honestly), "are we nailing this, or are we falling short?"

Are your customers raving about you, or are they complaining about you?

The difference between being great and being like everyone else might just be in a smile... or in a "yes, we'll be happy take care of that for you right now" attitude.

Could it really be that simple?

You bet.

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The Indie Virus


Okay, so the somewhat meme-esque tag thing a few days ago was fun, and Evan (of the increasingly popular Orange Yeti blog) took it to a whole next level by adding a seven-year curse to the formula. So far so good. It was a fun way to start the week.

This is something completely different though. And even it isn't as fun because you don't get to find out about the ridiculous jobs some of us have had, it's kind of interesting nonetheless.

From what I gather, Chris Pearson (of Pearsonified) started this little "Indie Virus" experiment to:

1) bring exposure to lesser known blogs (especially those outside of Technorati's top 100), and
2) explore the metrics behind a viral linking campaign launched by the "little guys" (less popular blogs)

Ah so. If you're curious, read all about it here.

In the spirit of science, marketing, and the advancement of humanity, let me first thank Ron McDaniel (at Buzzoodle) for sneezing on me. If you arent familiar with his WOMM-inspired blog yet, definitely check it out. So... the question is... who will I pass the virus to?


Let's see... So many great blogs to choose from...

Okay. I've made my decision:

1) The From The Marketing Trenches blog is always a great read: It's always on the money, to the point, and full of insight. (What else can you ask for?) Go check it out at: The Indie Virus.

2) Mark True's A Little Bit Of Mark is the other lucky infected blog. It's still very new, but I kind of like it, and Mark has some very smart things to say. Go visit him here: The Indie Virus

If you get infected by the Indie Virus, just click on the Indie Virus/Pearsonified link already provided towards the top of this post, and follow the instructions.

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The Customer Dilemma


Because customer experiences are very much a part of branding, I wanted to share this post by Eric Myers with you. It's just brilliant.

Come to think of it, just about everything Eric writes is worthy of your attention, so carve ten or fifteen minutes out of your schedule today, and go check out his little gem of a blog. You won't be sorry.

Technoratahiti tags: None. Not today. Take a breather.


Insight In Action


Today's bit of Marketing, Customer Experience, Design & Product Development advice comes from Kathy Sierra's blog:

"Your job is to anticipate... To give them what they want and/or what they need just before they have to "ask" for it - to be surprising yet self-evident at the same time. If you are too far behind, or too far ahead of them, you create problems, but if you are right with them, leading them ever so slightly, the flow of events feels natural and exciting at the same time."

- Walter Murch

iPod wasn't designed by users. It was designed for users. No... wait... it was designed to be loved by users.

If your job deals with customer experience design, (product, web, retail, customer service, touchpoint ideation, advertising, etc.) print either the sentence that came just before this paragraph or Walter Murch's bit of wisdom, and pin it to your office wall. Either one can (and probably should) become your new mantra.

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Tag, You're It!


I've been tagged! Thanks to Mark True for the turn. Okay, here we go:

Four jobs I've had (past lives and all):
1. Disc Jockey.
2. Rockstar Photographer.
3. Naval Officer (that counts as a job, right?).
4. Sandwich artist.

Four movies I could watch over and over:
1. Fight Club.
2. The Thin Red Line.
3. Sin City.
4. Rushmore.

Four places I have lived:
1. Paris, France
2. Brussels, Belgium
3. Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
4. Greenville, SC (USA)

Four TV shows I love to watch:
1. Battlestar Galactica
2. Curb Your Enthusiasm
3. Deadwood
4. Real Time With Bill Maher

Four places I have been on holiday:
1. Egypt.
2. Reunion Island.
3. The Austrian Alps.
4. St. Tropez.

Four websites I visit daily:
1. Buzznet
2. Corante
3. Orange Yeti
4. Bona Tempura Volvantur

Four of my favorite foods:
1. Sushi.
2. Steak tartare.
3. Oysters.
4. Aioli de poisson (just because having all four food selections raw didn't seem civilized.)

Four places I would rather be right now:
1. Freediving in the Med.
2. On my bike, climbing.
3. Trekking across Argentina. On horseback.
4. On a three-month photo safari of Southeast Asia.

And four... no, five bloggers I am tagging:
1. Matt Armendariz
2. Andy Woolard
3. Marc Babej
4. Ernie Mosteller
5. Evan Tishuk

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Shatter Conventions


image by Mitya

Shatter conventions.

No, smash them to bits.

I was reading Mark Babej's post on what makes an agency hot, and the value of shattering conventions suddenly became even clearer to me than it already was.

What's hot? Hot is being completely in the moment. Hot is being completely original and fresh. Hot is about driving change and inspiring desire. Hot is anything that will either set a trend or take it to a whole new level. Hot is about moving on to the next big thing, because that's how most of us are wired.

Hot is also very, very finite. Hot isn't yesterday or tomorrow. Hot is now. (Thanks, Ernie.)

But back to what makes agencies hot. Best case scenario: Groundbreaking work. Worst case scenario: Hotness by association.

For the latter, consider the concept of transference: Driving a hot car makes you hot. Wearing hot clothes will make you hot. Sporting those little white iPod earphones will make you hot. Being able to say that your agency of record or designer or CEO is superdopemeister so-and-so makes you hothothot.

But not really.

How many times have you bumped into an ad agency, financial firm or consultancy of some kind whose website or portfolio pushed their client lists more than their work?

"Hey, look at all the big names on our list! We must be hot, eh?" (Giving it a little Canadian flair today.)

Can a company or person be hot by association? Superficially, yeah. For a while... perception is everything, after all. And if hotness is by its very nature ephemeral, then why bother with substance? Why bother with being consistently great? Why not just settle for a great client list and see how much mileage you'll get out of those laurels? I've heard it called the self-perpetuating cycle of crap. I think it's a bit harsh, but in many cases, it isn't far from the truth.

Ultimately, I couldn't care less if you were the financial advisor to the king of Siam or the ad agency of record for Breitling watches and Tiffany's and BMW. If I don't know your work, if I haven't seen it or heard it or tasted it, then you might not be as great as you think. Show me something that will speak to me. Show me something that will wow me. Otherwise, go pitch somebody else.

If people aren't talking about you or your product, if you need salespeople to convince me to give you my cash or my attention, trust me, you aren't even lukewarm.

The good news is this: Being hot is great, but if you're already doing everything right, it's just the frosting on the cake. It isn't the end-all, be-all. It shouldn't be your goal. The downside of being hot is that sooner or later, you'll be yesterday's hot agency. Being hot and then being not is traumatic. It's crushing. You watch your numbers drop and settle. It can be emotionally jarring.

Unless you don't care. Unless you're mature enough to appreciate when hotness happens but not miss it once it's gone. This isn't something you can crave. Hotness isn't what great brands or enduring success are made of.

Hotness is a spike on a graph, nothing more. Here today, gone tomorrow.

If you do things right, though, that spike will come back regularly. Think IDEO. Think U2. Think Joss Whedon.

In the best case scenario, hotness is cyclical: You're a great company or author or product, and while you do very well most of the time, you get to enjoy big hits every now and then. The idea is to make this kind of pattern sustainable. That comes from being dedicated to innovation and in tune with the people for whom you are designing something. Their next car. Their next mp3 player. Their next kitchen sink. Their next customer service experience. Their next campaign.

In the worst case scenario, you're a one-hit wonder. You're the ad agency whose one successful ad is forever part of a generation's pop culture, but nothing else you've done before or since was worthy of mention. You're the high school quarterback who threw the one great pass thirty years ago and never moved on.

Hot gets cold fast.

Food for thought.

So what does any of this have to do with shattering conventions?


Being hot starts with producing groundbreaking work, setting trends, being at the forefront of product design, advertising, political thought, literature, art and business. All of these things require a certain measure of rebellion against what is already out there: Rules. Conventions. Assumptions.

I am working for three hot companies right now, and what makes them hot is the fact that they march to the beat of their own drum. They do things that no other company out there does. They are completely into their customers and their skills and their purpose. They look at their work as being fun. They gauge their success by their customers' smiles rather than by their revenue (they're both high). They are completely in the zone. What they do is the stuff that would make most people go "Damn, why didn't I think of that?!"

Their client/customer lists are completely irrelevant. The answer to "what do you guys do?" changes daily. They have fun. They love their work, and it is second to none. They are fearless in their pursuit of excellence. They are quickly running all of their would-be "competitors" out of business.

Adapt or die.

Shattering conventions is what propels us forward.

Shattering conventions is what being hot is all about.

Screw choosing the path less taken. Carve your own.

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Photo by Matt A.

If brands start with people, great brands start with great people. Not great in the sense that they are wealthy or successful or influencial (yet), but great in the sense that ego, self-righteousness and self-serving agendas aren't part of the equation. Instead, these people are devoted to a cause. Infected with an idea. Motivated by success measured in other people's smiles and excitement and ownership of the things they do for them.

Get into that kind of groove this week: Check out John Moore's awesome post on Dan Sullivan's Laws Of Lifetime Growth here.

I'm serious. Go check it out now. (No, not later, right now.) It's that good. (Well... it's really the ten laws that are good, but... same difference.)

What... you're still here? Tsssk.

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The Fight Over Marketing's Evolution.


photo by monamiclea

I am not a big fan of "old vs. new". As a matter of fact, I am not a big fan of black vs. white or left vs. right or traditional vs. progressive.

Come to think of it, unless I am playing a video game or some kind of sport, I'm not a big fan of the concept of vs.

Aside from the topic of honesty vs. dishonesty, I tend to cringe at the thought of a rift being created in the marketing community when it comes to old vs. new or traditional vs. progressive. Here's what's really going on: Over the last few years, the Marketing industry has been going through an evolutionary leap. One that was sorely needed. One that was the direct result of a communications revolution that gave "consumers" a true voice and the power to control the very message of the brands they were once spoonfed through "traditional" media.

This isn't about philosophy or schools of thought. It's about following the evolution of a medium as it adapts to changes in the economic, scientific, social and cultural fabrics of our society (feel free to call them markets if you must). This isn't an academic debate. It is reality.

Things like social networks, WOMM (the good kind), open-source marketing, blogging, and PR 2.0 (for starters) aren't replacements for traditional forms of marketing. They aren't the enemy. They are simply the newest chapters of a book that is being written every day out here in the real world of customers, shoppers, clients, product design and 24-hour free shipping. To think that Marketing (or any field for that matter) is static is ridiculous. Advances are made in biology, political thought, film-making, athletics, warfare, foodservice, and the arts. Is it so difficult to accept that the same is true of Marketing?

We're all supposed to be creative people. Contextual interpreters. Trend spotters. Is it so difficult for some of us to accept so simple a concept? Do some of us fear change that much? Apparently so.

Aside from last week's Jack Trout episode, check out these citrus-fresh pieces from a few Corante contributors:

Being Reasonable's Tim Pollack:

A paragraph in the Adweek creative editor’s “Art & Commerce” column last week caught our attention, because it succinctly captured the core arguments of those who defend traditional creativity as the best weapon against the growth of DVRs… (Read the middle section here.) DVRs are a legitimate and growing threat to the effectiveness of TV advertising. The problem will not be solved by contrived defensive statements and self denial.

Or try this piece from the Marketing Diva blog:

"... When he learned that I was doing work in the blog the space, his immediate reaction was to tell me blogs were a waste of time ... nothing more than a bunch of rant opinions and oh by the way, people are getting fired for blogging and colleges are now demanding that students hand over their blogs to them. And who has time to write those things anyway forget reading them. Much too busy.
I don't want to give them that information. There's too much on the internet already, the doc declared. Great opportunity to make sure they have correct information, I replied. But they don't need to know all that, he proclaimed. It would only confuse them."

Or even Jennifer Rice's Brand Mantra piece on the backlash against Social Networking:

"People always used to approach me to try to talk about this or that. I wanted to punch them in the throat. Now they leave me the hell alone. Thanks, Isolatr!"

... Okay, that one isn't serious, but you get the drift.

Fact: Fear is irrelevant. Change is a given. It's a constant in our world. An absolute and cyclical certainty, like the seasons and the rise and fall of political dynasties and the ebb and flow of the tides. People were once afraid of the notion that the Earth might not be flat. They firmly believed that if ships sailed far enough, they would fall off the edge of the Earth. There was a time when the very notion of the world being round was vehemently opposed by "traditionalists". Their views eventually faded, thanks to... well, the evolution of knowledge. As humans, knowledge has always been our best weapon. Our ability to ask questions and investigate possibilities has given us everything from the wheel to modern medicine. This is no different. Progress happens with or without us. Either we adapt to change, or we get left behind. End of story. Those of us who refuse to accept "new" marketing methods as additional tools of the trade are missing the boat and will get left behind.

So I will say it again: It isn't a question of old vs. new. The issue isn't which between the two is better or smarter or more effective. The question is this: Given traditional methods and so-called "new" methods, which ones will benefit your specific client, company, or product line the most? Better yet, which one(s) will benefit your customers the most?

The question isn't about vs. It's about specificity.

The more we know about every marketing tool available to us, the more likely we are to make the best possible decisions.

We'll be back tomorrow with more. Have a great Tuesday, everyone.

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Written for Corante on 03.13.06


Truth and Marketing


image by aliblu

Jack Trout's Forbes.com piece on WOMM (word-of-mouth-marketing) earlier this week definitely proved that WOMMA and the rest of us who understand what WOMM is - and should be - have our work cut out for us. Apparently, a whole lot of folks out there equate WOMM with spam and shill marketing... which... it isn't.

WOMM is about transparency and truth. Shill marketing is about exploitation and manipulation.

To help us shed some light on the difference, I offer you none other than Jack Trout himself:

"Now we have a new dictionary to learn. Word-of-mouth is now buzz marketing, viral marketing, community marketing, grassroots marketing, evangelist marketing, product seeding, influencer marketing, cause marketing, conversation creation, brand blogging and referral programs. That's the good stuff.

What isn't so good is stealth marketing, shilling, infiltration, comment spam, defacement and falsifications."

Okay... so, the dictionary isn't new, and if you haven't learned it yet, the good news is that you'll have it down inside of a week or two. You can even skip a few useless piece of corporate-speak like "conversation creation" and "influencer marketing." While you're at it, throw back "cause marketing" and "referral programs" back in the traditional marketing pile, where they belong.

But at least, there you have it: the bright side and the dark side. The real deal, and the cheap junk that frauds and hacks would try to pass off as WOMM. Bleh.

If you haven't figured this out already, understand that when I speak about WOMM, or when John Moore or Johnnie Moore or anyone at Corante speaks about WOMM, what we are talking about is a marketing model based on transparency and open-source dialogue. Not the other slimy business. You can find out more about how to keep WOMM and Brand-building clean in the Chico's Favorite Posts section (top right of this page) if you're interested.

But back to Jack's comments:

"How many people really want to chatter about products? Do you really want to talk about your toothpaste or your toilet paper? Even people with prestige products tend not to chatter about them. All you really want is to be seen driving up in one. Now, if it's a Harley Davidson motorcycle, sure. That's because you're part of a club, and that's all they talk about. But they don't need buzz."

Wrong, wrong, wrong. When a product is extraordinary - or "cool" or delicious or fun or really well designed - people do talk about it. They talk about it to their friends, their loved ones, their coworkers and peers, and if they have a blog, they write about it there. My wife recently switched to a new conditioner, and she recommended it to all of her friends at work (fifteen or so women). Even if only three try it and love it, how many of their church friends will they spread the good word to? How many of their neighbors and friends and book club pals and children and neighbors? See where this is going?

I had a great experience at the Los Angeles Standard Hotel back in September, and I wrote a piece praising them for all the things they did right. When I find a restaurant or tea bar I really like, I tell my friends. When I find a type of gum I really like, or a new band, or a new movie, I share it with my friends. If I ever find really, really great toilet paper, I will also be sure to tell my friends about it.

Jack, people like to talk about stuff they really enjoy and stuff they really hate. No... they love to talk about them. As a matter of fact, they spend a huge part of their day doing just that. The difference between the world today and the world twenty years ago is that where in the past, most people had a limited scope of influence, the social tools of today (blogs, personal sites, and Squidoo mainly) have given every-day citizens the power to reach millions all over the planet.

Think of it this way: There are about 30,000,000+ blogs out there right now. Even if 20% of them are spam blogs (oh the humanity), that still leaves 24,000,000+ genuine blogs created by people who felt that they had something to talk about. Sure, maybe lots of them just want to talk about their cat or complain about their jobs, but at some point in time, they will share their experiences with a product or brand that made an impression (good or bad). People will read. People will listen. Information will spread and grow and be aggregated by search engines and other handy new media social tools.

(By the way, for a great little piece on spam blogs, click here.)

WOM happens whether you like it or not. It's wired into us. We're deeply social animals. We'll talk to each other about great toothpaste and horrible toilet paper all day long if given the chance. (Clubs only focus the scope of these conversations.)

If you aren't tapped into what your customers are saying about you, if you aren't encouraging feedback from them and a healthy dialogue, if you aren't empowering them to help you improve your company for them, a) you're missing the boat, and b) they will find someone who will. WOMM shouldn't be another control strategy. WOMM is about facilitating dialogue, not controling it.

Jack, the world that inspired the books you wrote is fading fast. Command & Control marketing is dying. Consumers today are too sophisticated for the old model. They own your growth. They own your success. If you can't find a way to turn them on (and keep turning them on), they will simply turn you off. A well-crafted message won't get you very far if you can't back it up with a whole lot of substance.

Another Jack Trout comment that's worthy of note:

"Buzz can kill you if you don't have the right product. You've got to have a product or service people want to talk about in a positive way, and there aren't many of these around."

Bingo. Jack's 100% right, and that's just the beauty of WOMM: It forces companies to actually produce great products for their customers. (Wow! What a novel idea!)

My question to jack would be this: Where are the ethics in crafting marketing/advertising/PR campaigns that take average or cheaply made products and try to make them look better than they are?

It's exactly this kind of slide-of-hand model that has all but deflated the advertising world's superpowers to begin with. The thought forty years ago was: Hey, if they say so on TV, it must be true. Today, the thought is: Don't believe anything you see in a commerial or print ad.

The truth is that photoshop sells makeup and cars. Orthodontists sell toothpaste. Cosmetic surgeons sell diet plans. Fitness models sell gym memberships and home fitness equipment.

And you wonder why we're so jaded. Why so many people are turning to trusted peer networks for information on products. Why word-of-mouth is making a huge comeback. You want to talk about truth and ethics? I'll buy the first beer, Jack.

Here's more:

"This all brings me to my word-of-mouth on word-of-mouth marketing. It's not the next big thing. It's just another tool in your arsenal. If you have a way to get your strategy or point of difference talked about by your customers and prospects, that's terrific. It will help, but you're going to have to surround it with a lot of other effort, including, if you'll pardon the expression, advertising. You just can't buy mouths the way you can buy media. And mouths can stop talking about you in a heartbeat once something else comes along to talk about."

Again, you're absolutely right. Word-of-mouth alone isn't enough... But you have to start there and align your campaign with the discussion surrounding your product or brand.

And for the record, you should never buy mouths. Ever. (Unless they're actors pretending to be doctors or housewives or hamburger eaters in your commercials. It's okay to pretend on TV, after all.)

Tip to Jack's clients: Keep giving mouths great stuff to talk about, and they will keep talking about you. It's that simple. Make better products. Make better packaging. Give your customers better support and service. That's your jobs - Not Jack's.

"I certainly would never tell a CEO: B.J., I just put a big chunk of our budget into word-of-mouth."

Jeez, Jack, I certainly hope not. Keep reading about WOMM from those of us who are working to keep it clean, and you'll hopefully realize that when done right it's... um... free. (Or at least very cheap.)

"Now for the really bad news. There's no way to control that word-of-mouth. Do I want to give up control and let consumers take over my campaign? No way. They aren't getting paid based on how many widgets get sold. If I go to all this trouble developing a positioning strategy for my product, I want to see that message delivered. Buzz can get your name mentioned but you can't depend on much else. Not too many mouths will do a stand-up commercial about your product vs. its competitor. Nor will they check with you in advance on what to say."

Oh Jack... This is the part that got you into hot water. And that's the part that's been addressed by folks a whole lot smarter than I am. Go check out what they had to say here, here, and here (don't bother with the piece itself, but check out the great links).

Transparency heads-up: I am the editor of the Corante Marketing Hub, but I have absolutely no affiliation whatsoever with WOMMA.

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Broaden Your Experience


photo by monamiclea

I was reading Francois Gossieaux's piece on hyper-specialists yesterday (hyper-specialization is not always the right thing to do), and it suddenly occured to me that a whole lot of people just don't take the time to take their noses off the grindstone and broaden their skills. It isn't their fault; unless they come from a true liberal arts background, it's just not something that's really part of their educational makeup.

Having spent years heading product development projects, Francois' observation that hyper-specialization stands in the way of innovation rang very true to my non-specialist ears:

"First off, hyper-specialization may very well stand in the way of breakthrough innovation. Indeed, most breakthrough innovations happen not at one level of specialization - but they increasingly happen at the confluence of multiple disciplines. People who have the capacity to scan across multiple businesses or vast amounts of information, and who can translate innovations from one field to the next are as likely, if not more, to come up with breakthrough innovations as the specialists.

Which brings up another important negative side effect of hyper-specialization. Hyper specialists know very much about very little - which means that they do not understand what happens in adjacent spaces. What should be valuable information coming from other sources within the company or markets now looks like data - with no meaning, nor the ability to influence the hyper-specialists' work. Worse, in hyper-specialized environments, you could conceive that the hyper-specialists will not understand the impact of their actions on the broader picture - which can have especially dire consequences when it comes down to environmental impact of innovation."

In other words, it pays to broaden your horizons.

Take IDEO's hiring practices, for example: IDEO is careful to hire mostly people with one very deep skill and a dozen or more broader skills. Why? Because the powers that be understand that having the ability to think outside of your contextual silo is crucial to fostering functional innovation.

So... an accountant with twenty years experience is a lot more likely to help her company develop successful financial programs if she's also a writer, an athlete, a mom, a gardener, a photographer, a world traveler, and somewhat of an expert when it comes to architecture and design than just... a really knowledgeable accountant.

Perhaps more interestingly, she may be one of the instigators of her company's next marketing campaign or web-based initiative.

Bear in mind that I am not talking about an accountant with one serious hobby (like building model airplanes out of toothpicks or growing Alain Blanchard roses). I am talking about folks blessed with a pretty high degree of intellectual curiosity. These people draw inspiration from a variety of sources and apply some of their observations and insights cross-contextually on a regular basis.

Functional innovation isn't about inventing. It's about taking a design characteristic from industry A, and applying it to industry Q.

Like the chew-proof dog toy that inspired the crush-resistant grip of a heavy-duty hose gun. Like the retractable safety handle in VW sedans that inspired the slow-return trigger on a commercial spray valve.

Those Eureka moments rarely emerge from linear/tunnel-vision research. They come from leaving the lab and going outside. They come from investigating new cultures and subcultures. They come from stepping out of your element, of your comfort zone, and going out to challenge your senses with new experiences and points of view. Inspiration doesn't come from same-old, same-old. It doesn't come from routine. Ever.

Don't get me wrong: Hyper-specialists make fantastic technicians. They know no equal when it comes to performing highly precise repetitive tasks - from calibrating sensitive machinery and preparing your taxes to applying clean sutures or landing an F-18 on a wind-tossed carrier. But when it comes to strategy, innovation, leadership and creating lasting brands, hyper specialists tend to have little to offer outside of their narrow range of expertise.

So my advice to you if you're in a rut (or if you're looking for your next big idea) is to just relax and go outside. Take a road trip. Take the afternoon off and go ride a bike. Go into a computer store and find out everything there is to know about inkjet printers. Go pick up a graphic design magazine and hang out at a tea bar. Take a stroll through an antique shop or your town's hippest interior decorator's gallery. Read a book about something you've never read about before. Go have a drink with a friend or a colleague or a competitor.

Fellow blogger Andy Woolard puts it this way:

"At some point, you have to hear the clink of ice in a glass and listen to a person's tone change during conversation. You have to be humbled by bound books and black and white photographs of authors who would kick the cyber ass of most bloggers on the 'Net. You have to change your chatroom url to a local bar address. You have to unplug."

His point was about something completely different, but the principle is the same. Unplug. Give your senses something new to play with.

If you don't, you'll end up like this guy - A hyper-specialist with more experience in the field of marketing than I could ever hope for, but painfully clueless about some of its most important developments in the last three years. How does this stuff happen? Simple: When you don't stop to look around once in a while, when you only stick to what you know, you lose your ability to see anything outside of what you want to see.

You stop learning. You stop innovating. You stop growing as a professional. As a person. As an artist. As a leader.

It's the hyper-specialist's trap, and it's a dangerous one. This is the kind of stuff that can invalidate an illustrious career in one misguided speech or article. It can destroy brands inside of a couple of years. It could turn even companies like Apple, Google, Coca-Cola and Starbucks into "have-beens". (It only takes one guy. One narrow-minded CEO or CMO. One misguided or out-of-touch consultant. One obtuse board of directors.) Scary? You bet.

So don't fall in the trap. Broaden your experiences. Broaden your horizons. Step outside of your comfort zone. Don't work with or for people who don't understand the value of challenging what they think they know. Don't waste your time with people who are afraid of change or too set in their ways.
Be bold. Reinvent your world regularly. Watch miracles happen as a result. Your career and your companies depend on it.


Wagging The Long Tail


(Corporate leaps of faith rock my world.) photo by toimaginetoo

Note to my faithful readers: Usually, the stuff I write for the Corante Marketing Hub doesn't really work for this blog, but today is a bit of an exception. I hope you won't mind my doubling-down.

Here you go:

Today, Grant McCracken points us to Coca Cola's apparent new shift to the long tail:

"Given its pending portfolio of coffee soda, gourmet teas and Godiva drinks, Coca-Cola is expected to expend more time and energy on low-volume, high-margin categories than ever. (...)

Rather than look at beverages on a category by category basis, Mary Minnick, head of marketing, innovation and strategic growth, has said Coke is looking at how beverages fit into consumers lives. She has described the need states as, "Enjoyment today," "feel good today," and "be well tomorrow."

- Kenneth Hein, from Strategy: Coke Seeks Relief (Again) By Scratching The Niche. (Adweek. March 06, 2006.)

And that's fine and good, but... whatever happened to... just... great taste?

When I order a latte from my favorite coffee shop or buy a bottle of Orangina or and IBC cream soda, it isn't because of "enjoyment today," "feel good today," and "be well tomorrow." It isn't because of clever packaging or image or transference or projection. It's because I'm in the mood for a particular flavor. This is about mood and palates and lifestyles, not "feeling good" and "being well".

Oh, I know... I don't have TCCC's millions of dollars of research at my fingertips... but you know what? I'm wired just like everyone else, and I know why I buy drinks. I know why my friends and colleagues buy drinks. They like the taste. They look for context. Catch-phrases have nothing to do with it.

You can make any study and any set of numbers and statistics and results say anything you want. Especially when you have a whole lot of time and money invested in new products whose development needs to be justified to a board of directors.

Could this be a case of the tail wagging the dog? (TCCC's need for some kind of ROI from its product development programs?) Is TCCC's real strategy just a numbers' game? Is it to throw as many products at us and see if anything sticks? Where ten years ago, none of these new drinks might have ever seen the light of day, now they've found a chance at life in "the long tail." Could this just be a front? I guess the question is worth asking, even though I'll assume - for the sake of this discussion - that this isn't the case.

TCCC, here's a tip: Drop the gimmicks. Focus on taste. Whether you love wines, beers bubble teas or kefirs, it always comes down to flavor. Most people who choose to drink Coca Cola do so because they prefer it over the taste of Pepsi. It isn't because the cans are red or because Coca Cola makes them feel happy or look cool. (The glass bottles might be the exception.) The taste, before anything else, is at the core of the Coca Cola experience.

Whether you're The Coca Cola Company or a startup with a great idea for a product, before you spend millions overthinking your strategy, just focus on making a really great product. One that people will love to discover and use and talk about. If you love it, chances are that lots of people out there will love it too. If you really want to grab hold of the long tail, you have to start with you. The game isn't about pleasing everyone - or the majority of "the market" (which has been TCCC's strategy for decades). It's about creating a product for a very specific core of rabid fans/customers.

The trick though, is this: You can't do it by trying to fill a need based on market research (American women between the ages of 32 and 46 with a median annual income of $68-97K responded favorably to XYZ... yadayadaya...). It's what TCCC has been doing for years, without much success. It's what everybody's been doing too. It's what you do if you want to be an "also in". Your only recourse once you've greenlighted a new product launch is to outspend your competitors in everything from advertising to POP displays to licensing rights, and then try to hang on as long as you can. It's ridiculous.

The right way to do this is to do the work. The real work: Instead of quantifying a culture, penetrate it. The supertool here isn't statistics, it's anthropology. Here's another tip: the moment you start quantifying tastes, you've lost your focus and drifted back to the lukewarm center, just like everyone else. This is the easiest mistake to make, and also the most common.

The way you develop a chocolate-flavored drink isn't by talking to 10,000 people on the street. It's by talking to 10,000 chocoholics. These might even be people who love chocolate but hate chocolate drinks. (How cool would it be to have 10,000 people with such specific tastes tell you why they love chocolate but hate chocolate drinks? Tell me you wouldn't crack that code with that level of feedback.)

The point is: Do your research at the extreme edge of the bell curve.

The way you develop a new endurance drink is by talking to rabid cyclists and triathletes and marathoners. The way you develop a new game console is by talking to avid gamers (not casual gamers). The way you develop a new Pop Tart flavor is by talking to people for whom Pop Tarts is a major food group. This isn't about talking to 0.3% of American shoppers who are representative of the 60% of shoppers who place Pop Tarts in their Top 10 likeliest breakfast foods. It's about talking to the fraction of a percent of people who live and breathe the stuff that is at the core of your new product's identity and raison d'etre and will buy your new flavor of Pop Tarts every other week.

Not just talking to them, but understanding what makes them tick and embracing them completely.

The long tail, after all, isn't about markets. It's about cultures. Subcultures, even. The more specific, the better. Think skateboarders. Think triathletes. Think online gamers. Think photography hobbyists. You either become a central part of those cultures, or you go home packing.

(Incidentally, the Pop Tart team absolutely gets it.)

If TCCC wants to grab hold of the long tail and make its new strategy work, it needs to un-Coke itself. It needs to shed the TCCC formula where these offshoot brands are concerned. It needs to create truly independent subsidiaries staffed by people who live inside the cultures they are trying to cater to, and completely outside the reach of the Coca Cola culture.

Think of it as United Artists trying to produce "independent" films with $100,000 budgets. The only way they could do it well would be to create a smaller studio managed and staffed by people who live, eat and breathe the indy culture... and let them do their thing without corporate interference, bureaucracy and big business politics. Anything short of that would result in total and utter failure.

Will TCCC be smart (and courageous) enough to pull it off? Eventually, yes. I think so.

Will it be this time around? I guess we're about to find out.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone.

Transparency heads-up: I am the Marketing Hub Editor for Corante.

Note: In case you're wondering, the artists and photographers whose images I have been featuring lately are all - like me - part of the Buzznet community (think Flikr, but with a whole lot more personality).


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