Category Archives: insight

Happy Labor Day

I always remember my father with fondness on this day because of his tenacious embrace of the labor movement.

As the American economy becomes more and more service based we may forget labor’s historical gravity. The first Labor Day celebration was on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, promoted by the Central Labor Union. The Union held its second Labor Day celebration the next year on September 5, 1883. Labor Day has been celebrated on the first Monday of September ever since. Its launch came at a time when America was moving into the industrial revolution and the conditions of workers were often difficult.

My dad, a WWII vet, frequently teased me about Rosie the Riveter and powerful women. I was young and didn’t understand how much her iconic image meant to him. I’m guessing that in some small (and not so small) ways I must have reminded him of the power she signified. Doing a little research on her image this morning, I learned a few things I didn’t know before.

There were two iconic Rosies.

Rosie Riveter norman rockwellThe first Rosie – the one most of us remember – was painted by J. Howard Miller. He was commissioned by Westinghouse to make a series of posters promoting the war effort. Miller inspired the Saturday Evening Post, whose covers tended toward civic inspiration. With WWII raging the Post hired Norman Rockwell. Rockwell’s Rosie appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post (May 29, 1943). It was the Memorial Day issue. She’s muscular and dressed for a hard day’s work, just like the Rosie most of us might recall. We also know she’s Rosie because of the name inscribed on her lunch pail. However, what might surprise many of you, as it did me, this Rosie is stepping on a copy of Adolph Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. Now this is serious symbolic propaganda.

We_Can_Do_It! J. Howard MillerOn the heels of Post’s highly successful cover, stories about real life Rosies began appearing in newspapers across America. The U.S. government took advantage of Rosie’s popularity and embarked on a recruiting campaign named after her. The campaign, done by J. Walter Thompson under the auspices of the Advertising Council, used J. Howard Miller’s Rosie. The campaign brought millions of women into the workforce. To this day, Rosie the Riveter is considered one of the most successful government advertising campaign in history. On May 25, 2012 the Ad Council threw a 70th Birthday Bash for Rosie, noting that Rosie the Riveter remains an enduring emblem of empowerment for women everywhere.

Dad, thanks for teaching me the value of a hard day’s work. I miss you.

Happy Labor Day everyone!



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Czechs: The Code of Contradiction

I say black. You say white.                                                                                                                                               You say beer. I say wine.                                                                                                                                                        I say happy. You say sad.                                                                                                                                                You say dog. I say cat.

And always with a knowing wink and an ironic nod.


McCann croppedThis is the Czech Republic. A country and culture of contradictions, the meanings of which are often inaccessible to outsiders. For the past ten days I have immersed myself in the Czech Republic. I explored Prague (it is too beautiful to miss), Brno (it is too desolate to disregard) and Beroun (it is too quiet to forego), each with ethnographic treasurers abound. I visited three ad agencies: Leo Burnett, McCann and Ogilvy – Agency of the Year, and two global clients: Mondelez and Unilever.

The more I learn about Czech culture the more normal the awards wall at McCann appears.

It is my third visit and still the cultural contrasts, the irony of nearly all things surprise me. This land was invaded and occupied during World War II, and on and off in the centuries that preceded the war. World War II was followed by a brief glimpse of democracy from 1945-48. Then communism arrived. Not until the velvet revolution of 1989 did the Czechs breathe anatomy and freedom. Its history fuels a deep and abiding cultural distrust, with displays of apathy from silence to brusque irony. But the truth behind these markers is not what you think.

As Clotaire Rapaille, author of The Culture Code, has said, people do not tell you what they actually think. Czechs are no different. But they are more extreme in this regard. No self-respecting Czech will tell you his or her personal truth. In fact, no self-respecting Czech is even likely to admit to speaking English, unless they are working and it is required or they know you. And even then, there will always be a wink and a nod.

This is not just an us versus them behavior. It is a cultural norm that pervades interactions among themselves. I once termed it “cultural shyness.” It may be. But on my third visit I have come to think of it as an all too knowing nod to the absurdity of their history, to life as they know it.

It shows itself in their advertising with over the top ironic self-deprecating humor. Consider Bohemia chips sending a Czech guy to Austin Texas, behaving ridiculously while handing out bags of Czech potato chips unavailable in America. It bubbles up in a barrage of characters and creators in sectors we Americans would never dream of. How about a cheetah (think Tony the Tiger) for Gepard mortgage services? And it reveals itself in the repackaging of the Clavin capsule (Czech Viagra) in the upright position. These are Czech, spreading joy wherever they go.

BrnoSuffice to say that the contradictions that surround you as you travel this lush land are beloved. They amuse the Czechs. And so, there is no surprise when riding the bus across the country the attendant rattles on in Czech, while the screen in front of you provides the following English translation: “Dear Passengers, please pay attention to the announcements that is being broadcast. Thank you.” You smile and think, but of course.

Nor was I surprised when in Brno two beautiful baroque buildings frame a lovely modernist structure. Indeed its colors compliment its neighbors and the rectangular shapes on the facade rather musically play off the windows of the adjoining buildings. Yet, it is a massive contradiction to the nearby structures. It is so Czech. B Esclator

In the end it is the escalators in Prague’s metros that perfectly signify the Czech cultural code of contradiction. The stairs move at one speed, while the rail travels at an all together different speed. But, of course, it is subtle. Keep your feet on the step and your hand on the rail and – with a wink and a nod – you will arrive at your destination on your face or your derriere, surly not upright.

In the Czech Republic you must always chose. In the metro the Czech generally choose their feet.


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Observational Stew

Prague is not the Czech Republic. This any seasoned ethnographer knows. However, it is a hard concept for students to grasp. Or perhaps they simply fell in love with Prague. This I understand.

BensovTo shake them loose I crafted an ethnographic experience outside of Prague. Dividing them in half my assistant, Alex, and I boarded two trains heading in different directions. Alex headed to Benešov (photo on the right), a former political meeting hub to the southwest. I set off for Beroun (two photos below), an old German merchant and garrison town east of Prague.

The goal, cook up observational stew. With four specific tasks they spent two hours exploring the town, collecting observations and cooking up insights to craft a town cultural code.

B FlowersOne, conduct detailed sensory observations. What does the town’s architecture look like? What do the streets feel like under your feet? What are the sounds of the town? What scents do you encounter? What does the food taste like?

Two, behaviorally document the people. What types of people are in town? How do they interacting with others or are they alone? What are they wearing? What is the cadence of their speech?

B StreetThree, interview the town’s people. Find out what it emotionally means to them. We wished them luck. It’s hard enough to get people in Prague to speak with you. Now imagine a town where few speak English! This task required tenacity and patience.

Four, photographically documenting the town and its inhabitants.

Once they collected their observations and cooked them into a stew of delicious observational insights they worked to define a town culture code. For Beroun, my students decided the cultural code was “library.” Learn why and check out more about the process on my class blog.


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Ethnography at Borough Market

Borough SignageI arrived with my students at Borough Market on a grey day, a London day. However, the oldest freestanding outdoor market in northern Europe is anything by grey. One’s senses explode with color, if we but let them. And that is the ethnographic task I set forth for my students.

In pairs they worked their way through the market. Sunglasses pulled down as they squeeze their eyes shut, trusting their partner to guide them safely through the maze of stalls, as if blind.

Borough foodRound one, explore Borough with your nose. Let every scent come to you without the bias of sight. Let each aroma take you to that emotional sweet-spot hidden somewhere in your brains. Describe with your heart what you smell with your nose.

Round two, explore Borough with your ears. Switch roles and be guided, blindly, along a different path. Let each sound take you to that same emotional sweet-spot hidden somewhere in your brains. Describe with your heart what you hear with your ears.

Finally, I tasked them with taking their sensory experiences and shaping them into insights that focused deeply on one of their senses, a sense they perhaps too often relegate to the back of their brain. Visit the class blog and see what found sounds and smells they were able to observe. See what their noses and ears stimulated from deep within their hearts.


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Branding 9.11

Brands that try to leverage 9.11 generally do more damage than good. CBS58’s Bill Walsh did a nice exploration of the convergence of culture, commerce and national identity and I added commentary.

ATT tweet Never ForgetDid AT&T really think using 9.11 and rays of light where the twin towers once stood in their “never forget” tweet was patriotic? Consumers can see though this charade. They know full well AT&T is trying to sell them a new phone. Worse, consumers are insulted and the brand is tarnished – and when it’s a big brand consumers will “never forget.”

LakersDid the LA Lakers honestly believe Kobe Bryant had anything to do with 9.11? And Kobe Bryant of all choices! What were they thinking? Whatever their thoughts, they were delusional. Kobe Bryant and 9.11 are a pairing I’d prefer to forget.





Go Alabama and remember Bear Bryant on Facebook on 9.11. What? OK maybe it is the day Bryant was born. But what his hat has to do with commemoration of 9.11 I do not know. I suspect there are other anniversaries that can be used to promote the Alabama brand. Ouch!



Some poor schlep at a California Marriott franchise decided to give free mini-muffins, “in remembrance of those we lost.” Oh my! But then, the corporate apology – if one can call it that – added salt the wound. “We sincerely apologize for the perceived insensitivity.” Perceived! Really, spare us the “apology.”

WI golf

The topper – 9 holes of golf for $9.11. Shame on Tumble Down Trails and shame on The Wisconsin State Journal for taking the ad.

9.11 might best be remember without brands. And for brands who just have to make a statement – go dark. Silence is golden, in this case.


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Leaning In

Yesterday, after class, I was thinking about how much of what I discussed, about the abysmally low numbers of women in advertising creative in the U.S. and Spain, was a surprise to my Italian students. I almost dread Thursday’s lecture where I will share my global research, with equally discouraging findings. My students will no longer be surprised. Perhaps, only disheartened. Then I took a breath and thought – I’ll also share the “Unspoken Rules” on how to succeed.

Screen Shot 2013-03-12 at 8.32.12 PMThis evening I settled into my most recent e-book, “Lean In,” by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. For two hour I could not move – my kindle glued to my hand. This book is an inspiration written with soul. Not even halfway through I decided I needed to gift it to the feisty Italian woman I am staying with – a talented videographer working in Reggio Emilia. The Malaguzzi Center is very fortunate to have Sara De Poi on staff. I was hoping to find it in Italian. But, so far the only translation is in German. Ah, but this will help improve Sara’s English, which is far better than my Italian!

Suddenly, words just flow off my fingers and I posted a review on Amazon. I rarely post reviews. But this book is smart, honest, inspiring and written with soul. Wisdom with feet to get you where you need to go because we need more women leaning in to lead. The world will be a better place with (more) women and men leading us into the future.

Buy this book. Practice your English. Rock your career.


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Branded Codes

Finding the essential brand truth – the brand code – is like a treasure hunt. Circuitous routes, long roads, many dead-ends, endless clues, but ultimately a treasure worth its weight in gold.

Brand planning, particularly planning that utilizes ethnography, semiotics and projective techniques can provide a client with rich data leading to the brand code. From there it’s up to the creatives to create stories that link the brand code with consumers, many of whom may not yet know their passion for the brand. Amassing the legions of qualitative data (in my opinion the only way to find the sweet spot) is where the best planning begins. Distilling the data down becomes the challenge.

Understanding the cultural myths that surround your brand is essential. So too is understanding consumers’ earliest memory of your brand or product category. Clotaire Rapaille has a lot to say about finding out how brand experiences imprint young minds. More importantly he has a lot to say about how imprinting impacts how marketers speak to consumers today.

Yesterday I presented two models to my Italian and Austrian students. The first helps identify the brand essence on a bridge between consumers and the brand. Using their work from the ethnographic class exercise and pairing it with fieldwork in cafes the brand code for illy coffee, targeting Italian college students (not the expected target), might look like this.


From there we moved onto a great model that employs the concept of brands as friends. Among a list of nine possible friends students considered what Italian and Austrian or German brands might be soul mates or close friends. Considering that the idea of brands as friends is culturally bound to an American ethos, I found their choices spot on. Almost. Two Italian brands battle for the two tops spots. Perhaps my Italian students will jump on the blog and defend why their brand choice is truly the soul mate of Italy. Friend

Later a student shared McDonald’s as the forced Italian friend. How often does a brand lust for this position? Almost never. But to be the forced choice of fast food in Italy could not be better positioning. Rapaille would be delighted. There could be no better imprinting, as fast food roots itself in Italy. Ah, but the thought of fast food in Italy seems a sin. A pitiful sin McDonald’s happily commits.

I’m off to lecture on early Nike women’s advertising and The Gender of Branding. Ciao!


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