Organic Growth: A Lesson from Nature


The behavior of cells provides a pattern for organizational growth that is, as far as I can tell, unrivaled.

When a cell reaches a certain size, it naturally splits in two. There are no meetings, no bureaucratic stages of approval. The brain does not need to sign off on the activity of cell division.

Yet, despite this split, the synergy between cells remains in tact
. Tissues form through a common structure, composition and function, just like teams within an organization.

And this synergy extends beyond tissues. Regardless of how much cells split and multiply, they coordinate to form organs and organs in turn harmonize with one another to form systems.

Despite the complex relational harmony of the cell with its neighbors, it retains a distinct cell membrane of separation to limit the kinds and levels of interaction that can take place between the internal and external environments.

We need more teams that imitate animal cells. We should strive to imitate their delicate balance of preserving the distinctness of the parts with the unity of the whole.

Without walls providing a degree of insulation, we lose drive, team camaraderie, focus, and that distinct inertia that happens when collaboration is free to happen through face-to-face personal relationships.

With such a balance in the internal hierarchy of cell life, it's no wonder we see such incredible examples of delicate order and spontaneity in nature. See more drawings from Haeckel: http://bit.ly/HaeckelFlickr

*Most of the ideas expressed in this post are probably not original. I am not aware of any commentary on the significance of the cell membrane and its analogical application to organizations. I owe Richard Nutley thanks and credit for drawing my attention to the importance of cities with walls. Christopher Alexander has pointed out the significance in architectural design of barriers and transition areas in A Pattern Language
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Brand Message Fail


Whether it is a punchy tagline, a 30 second story or a lengthy commercial, we’re surrounded by brands that have no idea how to talk about themselves.

This week, I encountered 3 painfully familiar examples of how to undermine brand equity.

1. Internet Services Company – This brand happens to be a medium-sized online advertisement/marketing company in Los Angeles. On their homepage, front and center, you can’t find much about the brand.  It doesn’t mention that they provide advertisement or marketing services, it just says they help “grow verticals,” which is rather ambiguous.  The blurb on the homepage introducing the company reads as follows:

Our Story – <<Brand Name>> is a unique and compelling story. Our business model is producing superior results. Learn about how we do it. Click here

So, where to start. First, this company actually does have a compelling story.  If you were morbidly curious enough to fall for the “click here” at the end of the brand’s blurb, then you would land on the “About Us” section of the site, which details some very impressive facets of the company’s evolution, achievements and distinctive characteristics.

Somehow the homepage designer decided that the best content from that page was the most vague and unsubstantiated claims imaginable.  First, you don’t just assert that you are unique and compelling.  You have to say something unique and compelling about who you are and what you do.  Unique and compelling people don’t walk around saying that they are unique and compelling; so what makes marketers think that brands can get away with it?

Another issue is that “superior results” is not a business model.  It is not only too ambiguous to count as a business model, it is a differentiating factor, which is one part of a business model.  But even as a differentiating factor, it is too vague.  How are the results superior?  Are they more efficient? more accurate?  more cost-saving? more revenue-generating? What kind of results are produced? For all I know, this could be true of an accounting firm. There’s no indication that this company’s results have to do with online marketing outcomes.

After reading this blurb, which is so vague it could apply to virtually any company in the world, who would want to “click here” to learn how they “do it”?  Not me.

2. Distribution Company – On my way to the office, I passed this large freight truck that had plastered on the side a giant, daunting logo, contrasted with the underwhelming tagline, “A Different Kind of Merchant” (albeit in equally gigantic type).

The tagline itself should tell me how they are a different kind of merchant, not simply assert it.  How about “<<Brand Name>>. Always One Step Ahead of You” or maybe, “<<Brand Name>>. We’re on it.”  Or perhaps, “<<Brand Name>>, zoooooooooooooom!”  or maybe “<<Brand Name>>: the sound of your business delivered on time.” Okay, so these aren’t the most sexy taglines.  But they are certainly more interesting and suggest a “different kind” of distributor.

3. Bank Ad Campaign – On a drive through LA, I spotted a billboard that I was later able to find online. This campaign, while not necessarily tied to the core brand message, does directly impact the brand messaging because of the way the brand name and logo is used.

What is wrong with this?  It may not be obvious at first.  I can sort of sympathize with the marketers behind this campaign and their desire to be customer-centric and identify their customers with the brand.  But there is a reason you don’t see major brands making the mistake of using their brand name and logo in a generic sense, as a word other than the brand name.

This works against the goal of distinguishing a brand by excessively or arbitrarily employing the brand name or logo. Altering the brand name meaning impacts trademark strength as well as brand perception.  It raises the question, “So how do I know whether future uses of the ‘U’ name and logo are referring to the brand or to the word ‘You’?”  Suppose I read an ad that says, “U can do better.”  Is this saying “You can do better” or “<<Brand Name>> can do better”? This ambiguity creates an interesting double-meaning, which is why it is tempting to use.  But the long-term impact of this ambiguity dilutes the brand equity.

The only time it may be acceptable to violate this rule is when you use a part of a brand name in an alternative way.  For example, “X Marks the Spot – The Official Xbox 360 Geo-caching Event”.  This is debatable though, and I’m not sure I can claim this is always acceptable or advantageous.  It seems to work well for product promotional offers tied to a product/service, but the risk to brand equity seems to increase when you mess with the integrity of the parent brand.

Lesson Learned: Tell Why You Matter & Own Your Name
From the first two cases mentioned we learn that there is nothing unique or compelling about the mere assertion that you are unique and compelling.  It comes across as lazy and arrogant to say so.  Articulate the specific attributes, events, characteristics that make you unique.

The second lesson from these examples – own your name. I don’t walk around my office calling my co-workers “Chad” or calling my stapler “Chad.”  It would just cause them to think I was having an identity crisis, or some more severe neurosis.  So don’t go around putting your name on random things.  If you are going to extend the reach of your brand identity to sub-brands, have a carefully deliberated strategy behind the architecture.

The point of this post isn’t to mock sincere marketing efforts of others; it is to highlight common mistakes that come at a high cost to brand equity, with the hope that fellow marketers would learn from these examples and deliver unified, unique and compelling brands.

The Real Danger (and Opportunity) of Pro Bono Consulting


Much has been said about the dangers of consulting pro bono: it may diminish the perceived value of your brand or service, it can lower your short-term and long-term revenue growth by creating a reputation for free service.

All of these warnings are valid.  But I think that they can be easily navigated without completely doing away with pro bono work altogether.  From my (albeit limited) experience, I believe there is a way to leverage the offer of free service to help build a portfolio, build clientele, and open up potential relationships with future clients.

The actual danger of pro bono work is serving clients that provide no indication of grasping the real value of the service rendered.

Even more concerning are the slightly more severe case in which a client responds to the “free” offer as if it was really just an implicit admission that “any college student could do this in like 30 minutes.”  Graphic designers and web developers are painfully familiar with this attitude.

So how do you avoid this situation?  First, you need to come up with ways to interview your clients without them realizing it.  As you walk them through your past work or concepts for the project at hand, listen carefully to the responses you receive.

For myself, I have learned to nix the discovery process after a few soft attempts to persuade a client of my value.  At that point, I just politely suggest alternatives and end it there. It is not because I don’t believe in my work and it is not because I don’t want to put up a fight.  It is because I will ultimately fail any client and fail my reputation if I decide to move forward with a client who thinks my work ought to be provided for free.

“Free” makes sense if, and only if, a potential client meets these requirements:

  • Client sees the need for your service or at least willing to learn more about the potential benefits you offer of and threats (of doing without you)
  • Client is willing to provide constructive feedback at the outset and responds positively to an informal interview questionnaire.
  • Client shows some interest in learning how to contextualize your service within the broader context of their business and maximize the potential benefits.
  • Client is unable to move forward with a project financially and the project is light-weight enough to tackle for free (or can be scaled down appropriately)

That’s it.  It sounds too simple.  But from my experience, it is really the attitude and willingness to partner that counts.  It isn’t readiness to spend money or eagerness to get a project underway.

It is the simple things on which communication is built that have defined my best pro bono projects and developed into the most valuable and enjoyable business relationships.

The Psychology of White Space


You can tell a lot about a person by how they fill the empty space in their home… or anywhere.  Even in conversation.

People talk too much when they’re nervous, if they talk at all. Often, the nature of this talk is haphazard, a little too loud and somewhat self-centered.

I think it often ends up that way with insecure brands as well.

But insecurity isn’t always the cause.  Some people talk excessively because they think it will help them control their surroundings and manipulate people around them. Some have a gift, and can usurp unsuspecting victims, wowed by charisma.  But many are completely put off by such shameless displays of narcissism. 

Why Space Matters

It is a tragedy that we respond to empty space on a page, in a conversation or in our daily routine with angst. Something in us tells us to hastily fill every trace of quiet with noise, because that space challenges us to become aware of our environments, our spaces, both internal and external. 

Empty space also challenges us to give up control and to assume a receptive attitude. Space frees us to become focused and mentally present, a precondition to any relationship. 

Your Brand has a Persona

If you want any semblance of a relationship between your brand and your customer, however abstract that relationship may be, you had better dignify your audience with space – in video, radio, graphic design, messaging, typography and any other possible means of communicating.

Attracting qualified customers and retaining them requires an art for communication.  You can’t spam or shout yourself into capturing marketshare.  You have to woo and, however far-fetched it may seem, find ways to use creative mediums and methods to converse and listen to your customers.

For better or worse, your brand has a perception, one associated with a persona – real or imaginary.  How you engage your target audience will determine whether they like this individual or not.

Listening is how good friendships are formed. And what marketer really enjoys shouting constantly?  I don’t.

I’m just not that into me.


Where does the “silo” idea come from?  Well, as I understand it, if a manager considers the intrinsic functions of a department as the chief value and aim of that department, he or she is demonstrating “silo thinking”.  He or she has lost site of the structure and goals of the organization as whole. 

This mindset tends to lead managers to structure and run departments within an organization in a way that protects and maintains growth within that department, possibly to the detriment of the organization as a whole.

The implications are intuitive enough. Communication and collaboration tends to suffer. Sharing resources is precluded by self-interests and pet projects. Even if the silo mentality helps bottom line to some extent in the short-term, it is likely to derail success in reaching long-term organizational goals.   

All of this sounds like a round about way of describing selfishness in a business context.  Not only selfishness, but a philosophy that assumes a lot about the baseness of human nature.

Ayn Rand praised the virtue of selfishness; but I’m just not convinced – on a personal or professional level.  There’s too much evidence to suggest that selfishness is not the only thing that motivates people and makes them happy or successful. 

We actually derive enjoyment from playing a part on team that is bigger than us and working towards a bigger purpose.  This enjoyment translates into motivation, which translates into loyal, honest, smart, and hard work.  I recommend Daniel Pink’s recent release, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for more reading on this subject.

I recognize, however, that if a work environment does not protect the psychological possibility of being part of the broader success of the company, Managers will become self-interested in protecting their department and his or her employees are more likely to become focused on their own personal achievement. 

Some see this as evidence of our inevitable selfishness.  But I don’t see it that way.  I think our attitudes and behavior are strongly afftected by our environment, and if a work environment exudes apathy and self-interest, people will absorb it. 

Alternatively, a positive, collaborative company brand will affect workers for the better.  I’ve seen this on sports teams, project teams, in families, groups of friends and nearly every social structure I can imagine.

What am I saying?  Well, I suppose I’m just trying to point out an observation: humans aren’t necessarily motivated by self-interest.  I think that this feature of human psychology entails that silo-based organizations are bound to fail and miss out on a vital resource that could help their company succeed in the long term: the dedication of the human spirit. 

While a blog entry just isn’t the place to exhaustively cover, well, any single subject (except, perhaps, a blog about Lindsay Lohan or something roughly equivalent in nature), I hope to have presented some plausible claims worth exploring for yourself in your work.

OK. But who are you?


Have you ever met someone with no sense of identity? You ask the person about their interests, beliefs, hobbies, etc. and get no closer to knowing them…  Maybe you even tried to put words in their mouth.

Try as they may,  desperate and painfully self-aware, their efforts to frantically distract from the question only make things more awkward.  Maybe you have been on the other side, feeling you just weren’t being yourself.  It’s a terrible feeling.  You almost feel dishonest. 

And that makes a lot of sense.

Similarly, we have all stumbled upon brands who had no idea who they were or how to articulate their identity. If you stuck around long enough to see if the company could tell you who they were, the response you probably got was less of an answer and more of a distraction – pushing a sale of a product or service. 

I know it is important to be able to sell your product by talking about it’s inherent qualities.  But branding goes farther than this.

A brand involves a story that involves the passion of individuals for something  greater than profit.  A good brand implants a coherent and compelling concept in the mind.  If a brand is great, that concept takes shape into something almost robust as an actual person.

But few companies have the confidence in their vision to discover, articulate and execute their brand across all communication scenarios.  This doesn’t just bore the customer, it will also affect employees.  A company that fails to consistently articulate it’s brand story, vision, core values and demonstrate them in their norms and structures will fail to develop and retain talent. 

People and brands lose friends and customers and many opportunities for loyal friends and loyal customers just because they were unwilling to face their fears and ask the question, “Who am I?  Why do I exists?  Why do I matter?  Why do others want to be a part of my story?”

The Careful Craft of Building a Brand


The most pivotal lesson I have learned in my short experience discovering and building an online brand is patience.  In fact, the valuable things I learn as a marketer can usually be reduced to some elemental virtue.

In my first months as a web marketer I encountered industry “experts” who tended to view websites as mere transaction machines.  They did not see it as a way to drive engagement, provide rich and relevant content and cultivate relationships with customers.  Most of all, the concept of a larger, far-off goal of brand loyalty was not on their radar at all.

Now, I can understand, at first glance, where they were coming from.  They’re probably thinking of transactional conversions as the most valuable metrics for evaluating the health and success of a website.  These marketers were, after all, not aware of the robust variety of measurements possible online. From their point of view, you slap up some nice stock photos, put a left-hand nav, some bold “buy now” buttons, and you’re done.  Pretty simplistic.

I tried to see the web as a transaction machine. But this short-sighted view seemed only to obscure the customer-brand relationship. Not only that, but even our short-term goal – more transactions – was failing!  That was a red flag.

I became quickly convinced there was a better way and that it was possible to approach the customer relationship as something more than a transaction; as something, well, relational.

My rationale was this: If you want to build a brand, you can’t just stop at getting people to prefer your brand.  You have to drive them up to the point where they actually identify with your brand, where they view themselves differently (even if in some small way) as a result of associating with your brand.  This high-level of brand loyalty will guarantee retention of a company’s market share through the years, empower customer evangelists and even, if you are lucky, bring your target audiences close enough to learn from them desires and needs you couldn’t have possibly uncovered in a rigged focus group or broad market research project.

After conducting some research, my first small step (working with almost no budget) was to run A/B tests holding the performance of emotive/conversational copy I wrote up against the traditional direct-response up-in-your-grill copy we had usually been provided by consultants.   Through these tests I obtained vital insights into the motivation of my audience.  First, I found that they were twice as likely to respond when I spoke to them as individuals in a tone that was emotive and conversational.  Additionally, response rates would go through the roof when I addressed the customer’s connection to the brand and recognized it in a meaningful and authentic way.

What was pivotal for my discovery process was patience.  It took time and the willingness to reflect deeply on the core identity of my organization and gain insight into the feelings and motivations of our target audience.

I recognize that I spoke to my audience in a very specific way, given the caused-based nature of the organization I work for and the very particular profiles making up the bulk of the organization’s constituency.  The conclusion I drew from my tests was not that speaking emotively disproves the value of direct marketing.  It only provides support for the idea that everyone has a unique audience that needs to be spoken to in a way that builds a relationship extending beyond a mere monetary exchange.  There has to a be a mind exchange, an emotional exchange, a personal conversation.  Particularly when communicating through web media, I am convinced it is essential to view customers in this light.

It didn’t stop their.  We began to survey our constituents and ask for their advice on improving specific products.  On social media channels, we began to ask pointed questions to gauge the health of our brand awareness online.

But all of this takes patience.  Under the pressures of revenue goals, threats of budget cuts or even the fear of losing your job, how does one take up such a fight?  It is easy to change email copy, but how is one supposed to go about investing the time and resources in building such a cohesive, intentional and relational brand online?  Well, it isn’t easy and it is a never-ending dynamic process, at least as far as I can tell.

I don’t have a simple answer, but I do have an encouragement: marketing is so much more fulfilling when you allow yourself to see customers as humans. I can’t vouche for measuring my theory across offline channels.  But I can present the little experience I have in web marketing and emphatically state that there are plenty of industry reports to support my case.

When you acknowledge the potential of converting customers into valued members and people who just buy your product into people who buy into who you are (social media is already forcing some to wake up to this fact), it can revolutionize your product or service and even influence the company culture around you.

To be a healthy person requires acute self-awareness and an ability to understand the unique needs, wants, feelings and thoughts of those around you.   The same is true of a healthy brand.   Both take patience.

Get behind your product or service, discover your core identity, build your brand around it, listen to the voice of your customers and learn to open a valuable two-way conversation online.  You will see results.