In a recent blog, “Corporations Need a Reason for Being”, Ed Cotton writes about the gap between what consumers care about – social issues, purpose, human rights, and what companies sell – stuff, stuff and more stuff.  He says:
“It seems like we’ve confused marketing with purpose, that marketing is something that helped us out when we didn’t really have a clue about who we wanted to be and what we wanted our businesses to stand for.”
Ed is thinking clearly, and every corporation needs to hear what he’s saying. But Ed, can we go one step further? You also write,
Continue reading ‘What you say, Ed Cotton’


I have always been aware of what I call the “habits of an industry” – unspoken but sacred common ways that every company in an industry represents itself in communication. For example, luxury fashion ads are always graphic and close up; if there is any hair shown it’s being tossed gently by an off-camera fan. For years all car ads were shot on tops of mountains or driving at high speed through brooks and streams. Liquor ads are all pretty much alike (sorry, but it’s true). Same with fast food, sporting goods, laundry soap, toilets, insurance, hair color, and on and on. Yes, there are minor differences, but in the big and obvious ways, they are the same.

The reason for this is that they need to put themselves in the same “consideration set”. If a consumer is in the market for a new moisturizer or anti-aging cream, every product needs to look enough like the others to be a viable choice in that category. If you are selling an expensive moisturizer, you have to look enough like the other expensive moisturizers to be a reasonable alternative to them, even though it

Continue reading ‘You don’t say.’

This poster from WWII is surprising. Not for its portrayal of disaster, since that’s become mundane, but as a reminder that at one point we believed talking actually had the power to change things.

Oh right, there was the little indiscretion in Rolling Stone last week, but what difference did that make, really? Careers were ensured and careers were destroyed, and Rolling Stone made some money from someone’s pain, but we weren’t really surprised, and didn’t hear anything we didn’t know and anyway, we’re over it.

We possess endless time and appetite to over-communicate about things once they happen. So much analysis of what BP, Obama, Congress, the oil industry should be saying now to us and to each other in both these conversations (one) and (two) on

Is it only for BP’s image that they run ads with a phone number to call for help? Don’t you want to call and ask them “How could you let this happen and why don’t you shut up and fix the fucking leak?”

So much talk, still, about whether or not climate change is real, like here on

As a society, we spend thousands of times more energy on after-the-fact communicating than we do on the talk that could prevent these things from happening in the first place. Is it because we’re addicted to blame? Is it because it’s so much easier to have hindsight than vision? Is it because we have given up?

Have we forgotten how to use talk to change things and make a real difference? Maybe it’s when we talk about things that’s wrong, not how.

The Dalai Lama believes that this is the century of dialog. Let’s not wait for the next disaster to begin.

I wonder if in ancient times – Egypt, Rome, the Ottoman Empire, even our cave dwelling ancestors – females ever talked among themselves about the need for women to exert their influence more powerfully on the dynamics and fate of their worlds, as men clubbed each other to death, went off on crusades, or just generally raped and pillaged and plundered.

In our current lifetimes, for a long time we have heard that we are entering the age of feminine energy. I have heard it said in many communities and many countries, by men as well as women.

When does this age actually begin? Continue reading ‘Last call for Womankind’

Listening for a way to be while drowning in oil.

Last night at a party in our little town in Connecticut, a friend confessed that she turns her head away from the news any time she hears about the nightmare in the Gulf, and won’t read about it anymore because it’s too painful. The emotions we all feel are overwhelming – pain, anger, horror, frustration, helplessness. Continue reading ‘There are no words’

The rhythm of the F Train is something I have come to love since we moved to DUMBO in October. It’s a magic train that seems to go everywhere I need to get to in Manhattan. I hold a false belief, though, that every trip should take about half an hour, whether I’m going to the upper east side or Soho, so I’m frequently running late. I can’t help thinking, if I get to the platform just as a train is leaving, about which 6 or 8 second activity I might have forgone before I left if I were to perfect my timing so I didn’t have spend a precious ten minutes waiting for the next one. In other words, if I hadn’t responded to one last email, put on lipstick, talked to somebody for a few more minutes, or whatever. Continue reading ‘Communication from the universe’

In 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a man she hoped would become her mentor. In it, she asked, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive? The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask. Should you think it breathed, and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.”
And Brenda Ueland tells us, in her gift of a book, If You Want to Write, that Tolstoy explained “the mystery of ‘interestingness’ and how it passes from writer to reader. It is an infection. And it is immediate.”

It may seem a bit deranged to begin an article about “branding” with references to Dickinson and Tolstoy. Or least a little too much drama for the average CMO. But I wanted to start out at this high level – at the rpm of language that makes the heart beat faster – to paint a comparison between this and the language of business we’ve come to accept. Continue reading ‘If branding is dead, what is alive?’

I feel about the word “branding” the same way I feel about leather pants. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them, it’s just that too many of the wrong people wear them. It’s the same, for me, with the word brand – ruined because too many of the wrong people use it – and for the wrong reasons. This is not as glib as it might sound.

A corporate “Brand” has come to mean a vessel to hold whatever good will has accrued from the past. It has value because of the equity that a company has stored in it –- hard-won respect and loyalty. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it’s just that it’s about the past, and while “branding experts” will tell you that it has great relevance and potency for future success, that’s simply not as true as it once was.

Continue reading ‘A personal movement to ban the brand.’

Late one night in early fall last year I was sitting in the breathtaking Eastern Sierras, having spent the day teaching the Rainer Arnhold (social innovation) Fellows with Kevin Starr, finishing an article for JustMeans that was a few weeks overdue. I was high – from spending time with young people who do not accept as inevitable any of the flawed models we currently live and work within and who are, without an ounce of reserve, devoting their lives to developing new ones – and from a walk in woods so beautiful that I literally could not help but hug a couple of trees along the way.

Today is the first day of spring, I’m down a whole lot closer to sea level in the foothills of the Berkshires, and I noticed that the article’s been published on the JustMeans site. For me, it will always be connected to that night in the mountains, and from that sense of optimism and connectedness.

Since last fall, I have continued my work, split between helping established businesses shift their way to a viable future, and helping social entrepreneurs who are starting fresh and honest in a world that plays by a different set of rules than their own.

Six months later, and in the cold light of day, I remain convinced that these two mightily different ways of being must become one. But in order for us to find our way, we have to speak the same language so that we can see the same path.

A failure to communicate, and a new opportunity

Give up your Mission Vision and Values

Last Sunday evening, I spoke to a group of 130 StartingBloc Social Innovators at the NYU Stern Satter Program in Social Entrepreneurship. It was a bright, engaged group whose collective mood was improved when StartingBloc’s Program Director, Taryn Miller-Stevens, made everybody get up and dance for three minutes before I took the podium.

The program said I would talk about “Design for Social Innovation”, which for me means intentionally designing communication systems that will align us all in co-creating the change we need to survive in business, society and nature. And every time I teach, I learn.

Continue reading ‘What you learn when you teach.’