Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Smith’s Art

Back when US postage stamps were boring, the countries that belonged to the Warsaw Pact had much neater stuff. The Soviet Union, Communist Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria – they couldn’t produce a working refrigerator to save their lives. But they had TERRIFIC stamps.

The old-school artists of these countries combined 1960s “contemporary design” and art deco elements to produce damn outstanding philately…everything from Soviet space ships (factual and fictional) to folk heroes, holiday celebrations to sports figures.

Well, this post started because the American Marketing Association-Houston has been using several pieces of stock art by Laura Smith to advertise its upcoming Crystal Awards. I’m fond of Art Deco styling as well as good illustration. And I was curious about this particular “Laura Smith.”

As illustrators go, Smith is famous enough. She’s been written up and written about, with her growing up in, “a mid-century modern house in Manhattan Beach, CA (literally on the beach), where no one but her mother locked their doors.”

When she graduated from Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, Smith moved to New York City to jump-start her career. After developing her style in New York for 12 years, she returned to California and set up shop in the Hollywood Hills, where she’s been ever since, producing dramatic or dynamic creations for advertisers, magazines and organizations from the American Public Works Association to the Hard Rock Cafe.

Given how many illustrators there are in the world – and from how many sources they draw inspiration – it’s awkward to single out just one, saying, “This is cool stuff.” There’s lots of that.

But after looking at Smith’s current work at, I realized, here’s an illustrator who had to have been looking over my shoulder when I was collecting Warsaw Pact stamps back in the ’60s.

She wrote me: There have been many artists that have influenced my work. I never tire of the French poster artist A M Cassandre. Otis Shepard always feels fresh to me (he was known for all the work he did for Wrigley’s). More recently I have been inspired by Mary Blair.

My earlier work was originally shaped by Ludwig Hohlwein. The pieces that you have singled out are probably a cross between Otis and Cassandre. And I believe that all the aforementioned artists with the exception of Mary Blair had work produced as poster stamps. I am not familiar with the postage stamps you refer to. Maybe we are talking about the same thing.

I think we are. The resemblance between her work and the postage stamps of Soviet-era Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary is remarkable. Examples? If Blogger cooperates, two Smith pieces are on top; then a Soviet Russian stamp and then a Polish stamp, circa 1965.

I testify to the similarities. With Smith’s work, I set Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine and return to the days when the War was Cold and a gallon of regular (leaded) cost 31¢.

Today scholars call this sort of thing “ephemera.” For me, it’s reminiscence. So thanks, Laura. Who says nostalgia isn’t what it used to be?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Rowena’s Read

How to make a little go a long way when it comes to marketing?

Remember, back in February, I blogged about The BIG Read – the national program that tries to interest everybody in reading?

One marketing effort I particularly mentioned was the program being developed by White Light Advertising. The agency’s principal, Rowena White, promised to fill me in on what her team created for The BIG Read of Bridgeport and Shelton, CT – the featured book is The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

The agency created and produced a 13” x 19” double fold, four-color calendar brochure. White says: 11” x 17” was too small –we upgraded at no additional cost. The front cover (6.5” x 9.5”) opens into a book and author profile (13” x 9.5”). Then the second fold opens into a 13” x 19” Calendar of Events. The back cover (6.5” x 9.5”) lists locations to pick up free books, and sponsor support.

White Light created a 4-column x 7" newspaper ad to run in the hometown weekly papers for Bridgeport and Shelton for two weeks; then wrote the radio announcements and had them produced for the local full-service AM and NPR radio stations. White notes: The NPR radio cash schedule is 100% matched by a no-charge schedule, in exchange for which we included about 300 of their programming brochures in the BIG Read Goodie Bags.

All the media was negotiated “hard-core” at not-for-profit rates plus added value items. The brochure fee was strictly the hard cost paid to the print manufacturer. The newspaper was at a discounted combo rate of 20% off, plus additional 10% for being not-for-profit. (White is sure they’ll also include an editorial story based on press releases that went out and the Kick-Off Press Conference with Bridgeport’s Mayor Bill Finch.)

White’s final comment: I can say with confidence that we maximized the little total marketing dollars and are receiving far more than double the value.

So the BIG Read gets a big boost in Bridgeport (and Shelton). And White Light gets a tip of the blogger’s bonnet for demonstrating how to make passion work for a heartfelt campaign.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Additional new INEXS collateral – thanks to Prism Design for the extra photos. (Terry, you look marvelous. Really.)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Rebranding INEXS™

Human beings power a better brand story. For INEXS, the geological and geophysical (G&G) consulting company, we’ve used its human focus to re-define its brand. Created a new logo and brand graphics. Spread the word about its new, copyrighted slogan: “Human-Powered Geoscience.” And begun to reinforce emotional attachments among customers and prospects.

This post won’t be the first or last time you hear that a good brand is built on a good story, or rebuilt on a new one.

INEXS used to be an acronym for Interactive Exploration Solutions. Now it stands alone…we joke about it’s being “the other rock group,” an internalized sense of humor that matches the company’s human-ness.

We’ve been working the past few months to re-invent the INEXS brand and its marketing because the company President/CEO has strongly felt the need to refine the focus of his G&G consulting company; to differentiate it from the competition; to make it more distinctive in a very noisy marketplace.

To create the new INEXS brand story, we started by examining the company’s stakeholders* and how INEXS interacts with them.

Revealed: Since the early 1980s, plenty of major oilfield companies have made their fortunes creating, packaging and selling increasingly more sophisticated G&G software (i.e., technologies) to help oil & gas companies find more hydrocarbons. Conclusion: There is intense competition for the “technology mind-space” in G&G consulting.

INEXS has to be “other,” to position itself against the technological emphasis of its competitors by its personability and its human imagery.

It’s not technology that finds oil and gas reserves. It’s human beings. That’s the distinctive new brand story. For almost 20 years, INEXS has emphasized the long-term relationships they have with their customers. INEXS people connect their customers to successful prospects.

For INEXS, the value of every project to every client has to be obvious. When INEXS people help customers find one more drilling opportunity that leads to a profitable discovery, they fulfill the INEXS part of the relationship.

INEXS is not only about the project or the assignment – a decisive brand benefit. It's about the asset team members and managers the company works with every day. They trust INEXS to deliver success.

We re-constructed an INEXS brand story on the new theme: “Human-Powered Geoscience.” No other company in the G&G consulting arena emphasizes the human part of the exploration equation so thoroughly.

New communications, like the revamped INEXS website, will continue that emphasis…creating visual messages that are clear and concise.

The team that’s making this story come to life for INEXS includes Prism Design for the new logo and brand graphics. Naumann Blanchard LLC is handling public relations. Zephyr Salvo is the web enabler. And me? I’m the strategist and stakeholders’ storyteller.

I’m grateful to everyone at INEXS for allowing me to help develop this superb, tightly focused rebranding effort. They’re ensuring that the story and the brand meet their customers’ expectations.

*The Stakeholder Rule says a company’s position ought to take hold – and take place – in the minds of all its stakeholders. “Stakeholder Rule” © Richard Laurence Baron. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Poison, Again

Have you marketers noticed? Plastic is back in the barrel – it’s the awful, no-good-for-you-and-especially-your-babies ingredient that so common in everyday life it might as well be oxygen (which is also bad for you in certain concentrations).

The attention paid to the “evils of bisphenol A (BPA)” seems to have reached a sudden crescendo. Now, like saccharine, Alar and a host of other products, the media has started fear-mongering big-time. In fact the issue surfaced months ago and been tracked by bloggers, industry and government consistently.

What I haven’t seen is widespread witch-hunting of the plastics industry, a nice change from the days of the dreaded polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and their widespread contamination. It’s worth noting – at least for marketers – that plastics companies like Dow Chemical and Bayer are responding sensibly but cautiously.

I realize this makes me sound like an industry apologist (also again). However, the media makes a balanced and fair examination of the issue difficult. Remember that these BPA-related suspicions are founded only on experiments involving mice. A good deal of space has been dedicated to the warnings of Frederick vom Sall, who’s a biology prof at the University of Missouri and an anti-BPA advocate. According to the Houston Chronicle, vom Sall “…doesn’t eat or drink anything from a can and never heats food in plastic containers. He doesn’t use plastic silverware or drink from plastic cups, though he freezes food in some plastic containers. He doesn’t put plastic in the dishwasher, because the chemical escapes when heated.” This seems extreme to me.

Still, it’s so difficult to figure out what’s safe and what’s not safe in today’s world, common sense and intelligent marketing will go a long way. For example, my friends at Thermos have pushed up notice of their stainless steel bottles and jars.

You can also try the Kleen Kanteen sippy cup (shown above left) which has a certain style – also in steel. You can’t beat steel and think of the advantages of your prospective reduction in recyclables, as I noted in this January Signalwriter post.

Friday, April 18, 2008

OTC Precog

Precognition – “precog” – is knowledge in advance of an event, especially by extrasensory perception.

I can’t see much further through a brick wall than the next fella. But last night, at the American Marketing Association Houston second annual pre-Offshore Technology Conference networker, I wondered if anyone could see lightning far off on the watery horizon.

Here’s the price of oil holding at US$115 a barrel and attendance at this Mixer was down compared to last year.

This is no fault of its excellent hosts and sponsors: It was a good time at a good venue. However, to justify this post, I ought to be able to find something reasonably profound to say about all this.

What I learned is that every person I spoke with has had a different business experience through the first quarter of this year. Some people have been struggling and this is in a market that feeds off the Energy Sector, which continues its growth. To be clear, no one I met last night had to testify about his or her “obscene profits” before the US Congress – obviously I am hanging with the wrong crowd.

Here’s the deal about OTC .08: One of the world’s largest trade shows, it opens at Reliant Center here on 5 May. It’s the Houston version of the Texas State Fair, Ringling Brothers Circus and a Bob-the-Builder Convention rolled into one huge event, with more than 70,000 “offshore E&P professionals” and more that 2,000 exhibiting companies.

That lightning you see on the horizon? I sense that’s the sparking of opportunity, precognition of fresh business for marketers. The truth is out there. Get your rear ends down to Reliant Center when the OTC doors open.

All the official OTC hotels are sold out, but if you’re serious, you can stay here with us. And thanks to the hosts and sponsors for last night’s get-together. (The AMA’s Sherri Scott caught me with my enthusiasm showing…again. I have got to be careful around that woman!) Have a great weekend.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Collier’s Back

Having explored the Wild West (living in Seattle, hiking the mountains, etc.), Steve Collier has returned to Houston. We saw the back of him in 2004, when he left town to join GalleryPlayer, a digital imaging start-up in Washington State. He’s appeared several times on Signalwriter – here, for example.

Michael Strickland put together a welcome-home party for him last evening at Jim Goode’s Armadillo Palace. A lot of the old gang was there (I’m certain to leave out a few names…Lord, I should have written them all down): Ron Scott, Hugh McDonnold and Frances Theil, Bill Large, Brad Gaber, Jim Sanders, John Brannen, Buddy Pritchard, Jay and Carol Loucks, Kent Simmons, Amber and Doug Timmermeyer.

Steve makes a wicked gumbo and creates pretty good art, too. I (for one) am glad he decided to return to the city.

Since he is a “full-service” creative director, graphic designer, packaging professional, type expert and illustrator, it’s a gen-u-wine pleasure greeting his return and drinking a couple Shiners to celebrate it. We just have to make certain that he stays put this time.

Steve’s “The Wild West” is available as a fine art print from – just too good to pass up.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hope Springs

The year I was born, there were no flying cars. You may find this hard to believe but it is true. Since then, only getting the mail to and from Europe by rocket hasn’t worked out. And those submarine cruises to Antarctica…I remember some magazine assuring me those were just around the corner.

Everything else has pretty much arrived as predicted, from television in color (National Geographic) to the rise of nationalism (George Orwell). In fact – screwy as this sounds – some Republican commentators are trying to return “Communism” to its previous position as bugaboo-in-chief, forgetting that we’ve all been there and done that.

If I had to pass along anything to you on my birthday, it’s that [1] people are generally a lot more solid, and less capable of being frightened, than the politicians believe; and [2] politicians on virtually every level of government have to be continually reminded that they work for us and not the other way ‘round.

No one – a district attorney, a governor, a presidential candidate, a CEO – has an automatic right to my respect. It deserves to be earned by good acts and right actions.

I expect a company to stand behind its product or service 100%, but I recognize that breakage may occur and I may be the one doing the breaking. I expect the president of a major corporation to take responsibility for the actions of his (or her) company. Although I have been frequently disappointed in my expectations, I continue to live in hope.

I hope Doug delivers my flying car today.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Refocusing CLARION®

Some of us talked about green chemistry at lunch last week. It’s a new way of looking at chemicals, not banning them one at a time but using them more smartly in the first place: Eliminate waste, use renewable or environmentally benign materials and avoid relying on toxic reagents and solvents when designing chemical products.

Now, thanks to CITGO, there’s a spiffy example of repurposing an existing brand to answer the dictates (real or envisioned) of green chemistry. Like many vertically integrated oil companies, CITGO has produced a wide variety of industrial and commercial lubricants for many years. Many of these were purposely formulated years ago to meet the rigorous demands of, say, the food processing business, or pharmaceutical manufacturing. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established standards for cleanliness and purity of these “white oils.”

CITGO had branded many of these lubes with the name Clarion, a word derived from Latin meaning “clear,” some years back.

Today, CLARION is the newly established brand identity for an entire line of specially formulated white oils – you’ll find them on this new website, just launched last month. Credits for this rebranding effort start with the CITGO Lubricants Division itself, which recognized that there are more brand marketing opportunities (and channels) available than there used to be.

BVK in Milwaukee, CITGO’s advertising agency, created the new CLARION logo (“it looks pure and simple”) and is working on the look of the new line’s sales literature.

CITGO marketing personnel have been responsible for getting the new website up and running. And Richard Laurence Baron (c’est moi!) created the strategically oriented copy platform for these materials, starting with “The Earth deserves a new standard in lubricants.”

None of this would work if CITGO didn’t have the R&D and product history to back up the new line. Company chemists and blenders created oils and greases that help reduce ecological impacts, from pure “water white” oils for food manufacturing to environmentally tuned lubes for marine operations – without sacrificing on-the-job performance.

No product line (especially one from CITGO, for political reasons) will survive contact with the marketplace without being able to deliver on its promises.

But if CLARION White Oils take off, look at the corporate benefits: CITGO has a real, proven, environmental product/program initiative to add to its overall social responsibility story. It’s an honest story. And by assembling all the green chemistry products under a single brand name, it offers the potential of a concentrated revenue stream, instead of fragmented earnings from an SKU here and an SKU there.

Thank you, Jennifer Stanley and Yvonne Hale, Roger Tucker, Dave Kunkel, Karl Schmidt and Mark Betner for involving me in the start-up. CLARION will be supplementing the new website with print advertising, literature, product PR and marketer presentations.

This is how you refocus an existing brand. Can the company build a new market for it? Stay tuned; maybe we’ll find out together.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

No Absoluts?

You think this is a pile-on post but you are mistaken – maybe.

In fact, it’s relatively rare for just one ad to raise such a ruckus. But that is what the Mexico City agency Teran/TWBA has accomplished with this particular execution of the year-old IN AN ABSOLUT WORLD advertising campaign. Unless you live in a hole in the ground or work on Wall Street, you have to be aware of the hell that’s been raised over this ad.

The best tracker of the story – and chief hell-raiser – is Michelle Malkin. Head for her website to review the whole tale…the good, the bad and the ugly.

What’s odd is that the goofy (and rather jejune) campaign premiered a year ago, its various executions got a lot of praise – the US TV and print executions came out of TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York City…and you can review various examples on Duncan’s Print. TBWA Creative Director Rob Smiley said at the time, “As the story unfolds you can expect commentary on topics and ideas big and small, serious and humorous, timeless and of the moment.”

Depending on your POV then, Absolut creative is either cutting edge or overly obvious. I put the “Pregnant Guy” into the latter category but quite a few people loved it, apparently believing that this was a fresh idea.

Yet in a semantic sense, IN AN ABSOLUT WORLD represents a contradiction in terms. Either you drink enough the trademarked vodka to enable yourself to view men as capable of becoming pregnant – or you deny the “absolute” that only females of mammalian species can bear young. That’s not commentary, that’s contradiction.

Interpreting the Mexican Absolut ad offers choices. One, it is about contradiction –Mexico might be better off if its ruler of the moment hadn’t sold a huge portion of the country to the US some 150 years ago.

Two, it’s about guzzling too much vodka – envisioning the country as it used to be takes a bottle or two.

Or three, this is a very funny ad (which it actually is) because Absolut’s world is NEVER about the real world.

Over-reaction to a single ad in a single campaign about a single product may be a fact, but it’s hardly crucial in the life of the world. It’s not as though, as one commentator suggested, Absolut’s agencies created an ad showing a map of “Greater Germany” circa 1942, covering France and Poland. Is it?

PS: I’m sending a note to my Dialogue International contacts in Europe to see if they have any opinions about this nationalistic shouting match. I’ll be interested in their comments, if they choose to share ‘em.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Billboards, Farewell

I suppose it is official, now that it’s been announced: the City of Houston has struck a deal with Clear Channel Outdoor to make 831 outdoor boards “disappear” before the end of 2008. Another source indicates that Clear Channel Outdoor has 4,500 facings in Houston, so it’ll lose 18% or so of its displays. (Is my math right?)

Everyone that could be reached before press time is elated: Mayor Bill White, Ed Wulfe of Scenic Houston, Mack Fowler of the Quality of Life Coalition. Clear Channel Outdoor lawyers, however, could not be reached for comment. Clearing out the “visual pollution” of billboards is part of a renewed national trend.

Elation is no doubt a relative thing. Clear Channel Outdoor is the world’s largest outdoor advertising company: “In the United States, the company operates just under 200,000 advertising displays.” This makes the boards it will remove from the Houston area a drop in its national bucket. In any case, there’s been a deal cut and the company gets some profitable arrangements for its trouble, as you can read from the article.

The deal just affects the Clear Channel Outdoor boards – don’t you be thinking that outdoor advertising’s going to vanish from the city. There are other owners and operators like CBS Outdoor, SignAd, Reliant Media…the deal doesn’t have anything to say about these hoardings.

If you’re a true believer in the evils of outdoor signage, history is against you. Billboards (UK: hoardings) have been around for centuries. There’s a marvelous engraving of “Modern Advertising: A Railways Station” in A History of Advertising that shows outdoor ads for everything from sherry to insurance policies of Ede’s Patent American Eye Liquid – “Every Disease of the Eye Cured.”

That same book indicated that the growth of advertising in general “has been attended by an almost entire revulsion of mode.” That’s in 1874, mind you. I suppose the anti-billboard crowd is filled with such revulsion.

Now I am against your general overall ugly city look. As Houston (especially under Mayor White) becomes greener and more attractive, taking down 800 or so billboards may be a help.

However, here’s my self-confessed that’s-how-I-make-my-living aspect.

A great billboard is a thing of beauty – often a visual delight, like the one above created for Adidas for the 2006 World Cup. Anita Bath blogged last year, “Due to the abundance of bad roadside ads, I typically admire cool, funny, or just amazingly creative billboards while driving.”

Me, too. Because, in print, you just don’t get many opportunities to make people laugh or cry or buy when they’re driving past your message at 60 miles per hour.

Bye-bye, billboards.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Yarrow’s “Thoughtcrime”

If you’re of a certain age and thinking (even distantly) about getting out of your 9-to-5 job, Andrew L Yarrow will scare the living crap out of you.

In advance of the
publication of his new book, Forgive Us Our Debts, Yarrow is hitting the opinion pages (like this one) and university campuses with a message that talks about baby boomers behind their backs – and accuses every one of them of being “unpatriotic.”

Why? Because he’s convinced that Americans who retire early are unpatriotic and selfish…and his telling the world about it is being powered by a fairly impressive media push. So this is a post about propaganda rather than PR…or the borderline between the two.

In his opinion pieces, Yarrow says that “dropping out of the workforce while still in one’s prime means ending one’s contributions to American’s strength.” He’d have us believe that deciding to stop working after 20 or 30 years (35 in my case) means “mortgaging our children’s and grandchildren’s future and leeching trillions of taxpayer dollars from the economy.”

This is profoundly wrong on many levels. Since when is freedom of choice in this country unpatriotic? If I choose to retire from the workforce, surely that’s my option and not the government’s to mandate? Yet here is Professor Yarrow lauding the efforts of US Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wis) and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill) for attempting to eliminate this choice by increasing federal taxation on Social Security payments.

People who retire after decades of work are NOT leeching millions of taxpayer dollars from the economy – they have [1] created those dollars in the first place because they are the taxpayers; and [2] paid into the Social Security system for all those years, working hard to secure their own futures.

Yarrow would seem to be well qualified to make these accusations, since he’s vice president and Washington director of “non-partisan” Public Agenda, teaches modern US history at American University, and is a former reporter for The New York Times. He’s also, it is clear, a big fan of the book by George Orwell called 1984. Because Yarrow’s screed against baby boomer retirement is a classic example of double-think – when a set of words is given an entirely new meaning and we buy into it.

Yarrow’s vision – and his deep misunderstanding of the American workforce – is dystopian in the extreme. He wants the government to step in and make it difficult (if not criminal) to retire “early” because retirement is not patriotic, because there’s something about the “middle age retirement program” that deeply disturbs him. He seriously wishes to “help middle-age workers fund their retraining and education.”

Yarrow is dangerous to the American way of work because he appears to be convinced that the only class of people who can continue to support our way of life are between the ages of 55 and 65, it seems.

What’s going to happen to this country if the baby boomers take a time-out? Yarrow calls people who think of retiring “profoundly selfish.” This IS propaganda. And it is a remarkable accusation considering that it’s precisely today’s so-called young-old workforce that has built this nation into one of the economic wonders of the world.

We have kept America at the top of the list when it comes to productivity in virtually every global ranking. I can only presume that Yarrow recognizes that 20-somethings or 30-somethings aren’t going to be able to contribute their share of the national tax base. Lower tax revenues always frighten Liberals.

It’s like the next chapter in the 1984 Thought Police manual. And recall if you will that thoughtcrime does not entail death – merely indoctrination.