Monday, October 5, 2015

An alternative, please.

I keep waiting for an uptick in Hillary Clinton’s standing and, indeed, campaign.  That Bernie Sanders nearly matched her fund raising in the recent quarter only underscores the “frontrunner’s” (and our) problematic prospects for success next November.  By the way, I get solicitation emails from Bernie daily, none from Clinton. Reports of attempts to reposition and humanize herself are ominously reminiscent of Al Gore’s wardrobe adjustments in 2000.  They didn’t alter our perception of him as being wankishly wooden and distant; only solidified it.   While Gore still edged Bush out in the national popular vote, his thin margin enabled Florida and what followed.  We paid a high price.

There is a difference here of course.  Gore’s big problems came in the General; Clinton’s face her (and us) in the still early primary season.  If she isn’t able to overcome these challenges, there is still time for an alternative.  Most of the negative noise around her candidacy is focused on the still mystifying email fiasco.  But I think focusing on that is to ignore her much more fundamental problem.  Interestingly, it’s one that we’re seeing played out most dramatically in the Republican contest and only recently being given attention on the Democratic side.  As it happens, it is precisely the same issue that proved Hillary’s undoing in 2008 — dissatisfaction with the ruling political class. Obama represented something different.  She tried to undermine his candidacy by stressing his inexperience failing to understand that not being from the tried and true was exactly what made him so attractive.

The last six plus years should tell us that talking change and making change are two entirely different things.  It turns out that presidents — all presidents — are more captives of the Oval Office than its masters.  The ship of state is bulky and complex, more cumbersome than nimble.  It’s hard, if not impossible, to get one’s hands on the tiller to say nothing of turning the vessel’s direction to any appreciable degree.  Obama calls democracy “messy”, but that’s a gross understatement, especially in our time.  However one assesses his presidency — I view it very positively — we continue to find ourselves more frustrated than satisfied.  For Republicans that feeling may be intensified because they don’t hold the White House, but that’s an elusion.  Holding office, as Obama himself has discovered, is not the issue, not enough.  That said, and elusion notwithstanding, there is great frustration across the land, and its ultimately pan-partisan.

Hillary Clinton’s problem is not her use of emails.  It’s not stylistic or likability.  It certainly isn’t a lack of capability or qualifications for office — few on either side can match hers.  More than anything, it’s her last name, not so much Clinton per se but as a marker for the established and failed status quo.   Like Jeb Bush she doesn’t only carry the name burden, but more the feeling of déjà vu —  “been there, done that”.  Regardless of the Clinton/Bush records and how they are perceived, we simply don’t want a replay, a repeat of the past.  Reports that, concerned for her situation, Bill is getting more involved only reinforces that feeling.  Hillary’s fundamental problem is that, with all the good that she brings to the table, she may simply be the wrong candidate for the time.  In any event, she may be perceived so, which in politics is all that matters.

Bernie Sanders’ appeal thus far sends a clear message.  An unlikely challenger for reasons I’ve discussed in earlier posts, his candidacy nonetheless screams, “we’ve had enough”.  Does that translate, whoever wins, into the potential of a substantively different kind of presidency post 2016?  Don’t count on it.  Again, consider Obama’s tenure.  But that may be irrelevant.  We the people are feeling powerless and want to stir things around, turn them upside down.  We may not be thinking objectively — who really is the most qualified and supports policies with the greatest chance of success.  In this cycle, it’s the visceral that counts — just throw the bums out.  That’s what drove the Tea’s and continues to give them so much leverage in their own party.  Their rightist ideology may represent the fringe, be seen to some of us as abhorrent, but their frustration is broadly shared.

Bernie Sanders is not the solution.  Given what I’m saying, much as I like him, neither is Joe Biden.  The resultant vacuum is a huge problem for Democrats, and I think for the country.  At the moment, Martin O’Malley hasn’t made even a first impression, which suggests he may not be right either, or up to the task.  We need someone else, someone who fits the time and, in my view, we absolutely need a woman.  It’s long overdue to break through that glass ceiling, not to mention have someone who, in their person, represents the majority of our citizens.  Of course it has to be the right woman, a qualified leader.  At the moment, the only individual who fits that profile may be Elizabeth Warren.  She has said no, but we can’t accept that answer.  We need and real alternative.  We need one now.

Warren is in the senate, but remains a new face, apart from the establishment that Americans are resisting.  She sees income inequality as the priority issue it is, understanding that many of our corporations (not only banks) have become far too big and not only because they pose great risk in failure.  Perhaps most compelling is that Warren is a serious person, the right candidate for serious complex times.  Sloganizing and trite showmanship won’t cut it in the real world.  Despite all the simplistic tough talk from Republican candidates — Carly Fiorina’s eagerness to deploy our troops and arms everywhere makes John McCain look like a pacifist — Obama has read us correctly.  We have no stomach for boots on the ground interventions.  But remote and surrogate warfare is, like change, easier said than done.  Drones pose huge moral issues and thus far our “training” of locals to fight their own battles has met with little success.  We look at all that, critique the failed execution, but don’t seriously or objectively address its implications for our role in the world.  I think we’re afraid of what such a discussion would reveal and where it might lead.

It’s hard the envy the next president and at times truly frightening to think of who might end up in that job.  But there is little doubt that we need the right person — right also for our time.  We need someone who can seriously lead us forward and I don’t yet see that person on the campaign trail.  Elizabeth Warren might be the one, and we can only hope she is thinking about it and reconsidering a run.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Francis: postscript.

It’s hard to imagine today that Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy struggled to overcome the worry that, as president, he would be taking orders from the pope.  Clearly he faced lingering anti-Catholic prejudices, but more important his ascendency signaled a real sea change in a country dominated by majority Protestants.  Catholics had long held sway locally including his grandfather “Honey Fitz” the legendary Boston mayor, but not at the highest federal level.  Beginning with Brandeis in 1916 a Jew held a seat on the Supreme Court, but it also remained largely a Protestant domain.  While Kennedy remains our sole Catholic president, times have changed.  Joe Biden’s religion got little notice in and after 2008 and Catholics, including Chief Justice John Roberts, hold a numerical majority on today’s Court.

In this changed environment, Pope Francis’s appearance before a joint session of Congress was greeted with an unspoken but loudly heard “of course, why not.”  His speech touched many hot spot issues including immigration, greed-motivated capitalism (my words), poverty, human culpability in climate change, the death penalty and his concern that “the very basis of marriage [is] being threatened”.  While cloaked in a rhetorical religious tone, it was a highly political talk.  Francis has returned to Rome from his whirlwind visit to Cuba and the United States.  Aides said he was a bit tired by the time he reached Philadelphia and no wonder.  He continues to be, among others, a master of optics from arriving at the White House in his modest Fiat sedan to interspersing events of state and high church with visits to the poor and incarcerated.  Our American politicians — all of them — could learn a lot from this savvy son of Argentina.  Of course, what makes the Pope’s optics work is that they ring true — “he walks the walk”.  That’s something we don’t see much of on the current presidential trail or, for that matter, from most of our political class.

Francis delivered both sermons and speeches during his visit.  Beyond addressing Congress and the United Nations, his words were heard by the faithful during mega-masses at every stop from Havana to Philadelphia.  Given his established star quality, listeners probably heard what they wanted to hear hanging on the words that fit their own ideology but equally their perception of the man.  Despite all the adoration, no matter how merited, we should remember that there is hardly a more opaque institution than the Catholic Church, most especially the Vatican that he now runs.  Information and messaging tend to be both controlled and intentional.  So reports on behind the scene doings, including assumed conflicts, must be taken with a grain of salt — more “it is said” than unquestionable fact.  Elections of popes are held in deep secret.  Many significant deliberations are held behind closed doors.  Only the results are revealed, and at a time of the pope’s choosing.

That said, the divisiveness that Francis encountered both in Washington and at the UN, were probably familiar to him.  “It is said” that his Church is also deeply divided, also between “conservatives” and “liberals”.  I put those descriptors in quotes because they should be viewed in the context of an institution that has seen, and probably will see, little doctrinal change.  Indeed as Adam Gopnik wrote in a post visit New Yorker piece, “this Pope is no more a “liberal” Pope than he is a secret Muslim Pope—he’s the Pope”.  As I alluded to earlier, we tend to read what we want into public figures (Francis included) — people we don’t really know but merely observe from afar.  What we hope for and are sure we heard is often far from the case.  This is not to suggest that Francis isn’t unnerving some of his colleagues in the Church hierarchy, but they may actually be more upset about the optics than about matters of doctrine or faith.  As I’ve written before, many of those bishops and cardinals like their opulent digs and limos; Francis is making their optics look bad.

What Gopnik’s piece suggests to me is that what we perceive as the conservative-liberal controversy in Catholicism may be overblown or considered in the wrong context — our secular and political one.  At the very least, it doesn’t have to do with fundamentals, but rather touches merely the outer edges.  When Vatican II allowed prayer in the vernacular, it didn’t change the underlying text or the essence of the mass.  Francis may have been reading the prayers in English during his visit, but their content was no different than when he officiated in Buenos Arias or Rome.  There is conflict within the church about both ritual and dogma, but it is one that is more of the pew than the pulpit or between the two.  That between pew and pulpit is unlikely to be resolved; so many Catholics throughout the world (and certainly in the West) simply ignore their church teachings when it comes, for example, to matters of sex and marriage.

Not being a Catholic (or Christian), I always, as the Prophet Micah might say, “walk humbly” in commenting on the Church.  My analysis might be way off base.  So I’m always interested in what Catholic writers have to say.  As it happens, among the best New York Times columnists are such people.  Two especially reflect the opposite religious (and in their case political) poles: liberal and conservative.  On the left is Maureen Dowd, someone who can at times be a little too flippant for my taste, but is consistently serious when it comes to the faith in which she grew up, especially as it relates to what she considers its moral lapses.  She was among the most relentless critics of the sex abuse scandal — especially its hierarchy-enabled cover-up.  On the right is Ross Douthat who is unabashedly conservative both politically and religiously.  I rarely agree with him, but there are few columnists for whom I have greater respect.  He is always thoughtful and interesting and evokes an essential integrity about his views and beliefs that is compelling.  Both writers wrote columns at the end of the pope’s visit.

While finding him “cool”, Dowd, like Goptik, questioned the liberalism attributed to Francis.  Even more sharply she writes, “…his very coolness is what makes his reign so hazardous.  Watching the rapturous crowds and gushing TV anchors on his American odyssey, we see the Francis Effect.  His magnetic, magnanimous personality is making the church, so stained by the vile sex abuse scandal, more attractive to people — even though the Vatican stubbornly clings to its archaic practice of treating women as a lower caste.”  When it comes to religious modernity, Dowd sees Francis as more of the 19th century than the 21st his continued refusal to change the status of women in the church the subject of her most damning critique.

Ross Douthat worries about just the opposite.   He sees religious liberalization as a threat, one that weakens the Church’s future.  He contends that, “…the marriage of Christian faith and liberal politics [which has been happening] seem doomed to eventual divorce. Since the 1970s, the mainline Protestant denominations associated with progressive politics have experienced a steep decline in membership and influence, while American liberalism has become more secular and anti-clerical…liberal theology inevitably empties religion of real power”.  Douthat sees Francis’ as “a gift to liberals who are also Christians, to religious believers whose politics lean left” and that concerns him not merely as a conservative but as a traditional Catholic. 

From a different vantage point, I happen to agree with Douthat about the affect of liberalism on religion.  Without question, progressive religion that invites unfettered questioning and turns once mandated ritual into optional practice has the potential, perhaps greater potential, to endanger faith.  A large number of those who have left religion behind come from liberal rather than orthodox religions.  Those in the Church who feel Francis comes off as a liberal likely share Douthat’s concerns.  Conversely, Goptik and Dowd would probably argue, their concern is unwarranted because where it counts, change is very far away, if ever. 

In the last days of his visit, Francis invited Kim Davis to meet with him.  The meeting was secret, revealed only after he left.  The pope was said to have encouraged Ms. Davis’ moral disobedience.  The Vatican has since tried to downplay the meeting and the idea that the pope was taking sides on the issue.  The fact is that, while he met with other individuals, Francis singled out this non-Catholic woman for a private talk.  The walk back notwithstanding, it should remind us that, as Goptik wrote, “he's the Pope”.   In the majority on the marriage equality decision were two Roman Catholic justices — one, Justice Kennedy, wrote it.  The pope in the 1960s didn’t make decisions for another Kennedy and, when it comes to our laws, the Constitution prevails.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Why the new look?

Back in 1985, we undertook perhaps the most instructive branding assignments of my career — creating the look of “New Coke” and for the return of Coca-Cola Classic.  My partner Ron Wong and his team designed both.  To announce the formula change we put a “New” flag on the packaging — a pretty common practice.  Before we knew it, the public had incorporated the flag into what became a pejorative single identity.  New Coke is considered among the all time greatest marketing blunders.  Others have been blamed, but it was the company’s CEO, Roberto Goizueta, who ultimately pushed the reformulation forward.  Sweetening the brand’s iconic recipe came in response to its multi-year sales slide in self-service outlets.  In quickly admitting their huge mistake and restoring the original formula management did what few companies ever do.  Need-to-know security had been so tight that we were given but two weeks to create New Coke graphics; the subsequent decision for a super fast response afforded us only thirty-six hours for Classic (the designation added because the Coca-Cola name had been transferred to the new product still in market).  

The challenge in creating the return graphics was to confirm and reassure that the cans and bottles contained “The Real Thing”.  Hoping to convey more youthful modernity, packaging graphics in the preceding years had headlined Coke deemphasizing the traditional Coca-Cola Spencerian Script.  New Coke packages followed suit and for the same reason.  For the relaunch, and to offer reassurance of authenticity, we recommended doing just the opposite.   Now the Coca-Cola script logo dominated with Coke taking a back seat.  The relaunch was a massive success.  The brand, with its antique trade dress, took off resuming the leadership it had lost.  I learned many things from that assignment including that consumers take ownership of the brands they use, but perhaps even more important a deep respect for the equity and value of an established brandmark.

Inventor John Pemberton’s partner Frank Robinson created both the Coca-Cola name and script brandmark in 1886.   Aside from modest refinements, it has remained essentially unchanged ever since.  Over time a product’s brandmark can become as valuable than its name.  The cursive rendering of Coca-Cola exemplified that when it helped save the brand and the company.  Using the iconic script made all the difference; to paraphrase another brand’s tagline: it was and remains priceless.

Google is a trademark of Google, Inc
I couldn’t help thinking of my Coca-Cola experience when Google announced a change in its ubiquitous brandmark.  That may seem odd since one is a century old and the other less than two decades.  But in the Internet age time compresses and Google’s visual identity is seen many million times a day, both at home, at work and on the go.  It took the Atlanta beverage company many years to reach as many consumer eyes.  Yes Coca-Cola may refresh, but the multifaceted knowledge enabled by Google sustains — it’s not a momentary sugar high.  What is most puzzling about Google’s change is that if you know anything about typography the new logo comes off as a generic downgrade.  Of course, esthetic appeal can be subjective, so you may well feel differently in that regard.  Design is a tricky business, especially when it must uniquely convey the essence of a company or product/service.  Hopefully, a brandmark will reflect well on both.  There are many ways of achieving this, but among them is to put forward the unexpected or even a surprise.  Google was rendered in a serif (more traditional) typeface, consistent one might argue with the seriousness of delivering authentic information.  But the bright multi-color letters were unexpected, a clear statement that finding information can be easy and, yes, fun.

But I’m not really talking here about design per se.  In fact, had Google introduced itself with its new logo, I might be arguing in reverse.  It’s not the typography, but the equity.   Now don’t misunderstand.  There are times when a company should absolutely consider changing a brandmark.  For example, when the brand no longer accurately expresses what it is meant to identify, say a dramatic change in the offering or company’s product line or direction.  Logos and even names can change when something has gone terribly wrong or when ownership changes or a merger takes place.  You get the point; there should be a substantive reason.   Getting tired of the “old look” may motivate “updating”, but unless there is some real upside to change, it’s a poor excuse of a reason.

We all know that Google’s founders have decided to reorganize the company and also that they have been turning their attention to other non-search products and ventures in the recent years.  They are dreamers in the best sense of the word and we wouldn’t have this great information tool without that.   At the same time, one senses that, despite being the source of their wealth and the underwriting of new exploration, they may have gotten bored with Google.  At least, that’s what a generic looking revision of the brandmark may be communicating.  And, one wonders if they even considered the New Coke case history with its dual message of visual equity and consumer ownership.  Those who protested New Coke essentially felt that the company had taken “their” beloved product away from its real owners.  Has the management of the company taken away “our” Google, signaled that its identity no longer has value?

I’m sure that wasn’t and isn’t their intention; I certainly hope not.  We are living in an era where changes can be made with a keystroke.  That’s what makes our time so exciting, especially since we are so often in command of the keyboard.  But unreasoned change is also unnerving and more importantly can be devaluing.  I know what Google management said to justify this change, but frankly I’m not buying it.  Like many of you, hardly a day goes by — sometimes an hour — when I’m not doing a Google search.  The new graphics won’t keep me from doing so, but neither will they command any loyalty if something better comes along.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Out-of-control Pope.

If President Obama were to propose an expansion of coal production and of fossil fuels, be assured Republicans would be screaming bloody murder, going to court, and finding ways to kill the plan.  Clearly any such thing, they would argue, will be bad for people and for the economy — the death of job growth.  Remember their paramount rule: before evaluating if something is good, one must first consider the source.  Obama = a no vote.  Well, we know one person who was applauding when the president announced new restrictive EPA standards some weeks back, the Pope.  Francis will be here in the days ahead.  He speaks in New York and then at a joint session of Congress on September 24.  He is likely to say some things there that won’t get him standing ovations from its majority members.  In fact, he’s likely to give many on the right, including some presidential candidates who conflate their religion with party affiliation, some very uncomfortable moments.

First he didn’t want those red shoes or to rest his head in palatial environs.  He told bishops to stop building their own palaces.  Then he opted for a modest car and started making telephone calls to ordinary folk.  Just yesterday he traveled in that Ford Focus to his Rome optician trying out new eyeglass lenses which he then purchased — cost kept him from replacing the frames.  Early on he did some reorg of the Vatican and its bank.  Out of control for sure.  They should have known the moment he took the name Francis — one associated with modesty that no pope had ever used — and could be seen enthusiastically washing the feet of the meek, sick and disadvantaged.  Two plus years in, the man who speaks in a quiet oratorical voice, is delivering what the NY Times described as “fiery speeches”.  Out of control and making a lot of high placed people in and out of his church very uneasy.  Some of them, of course, are counting on outliving him, of quickly putting things “right” the moment he’s been put to rest.  A transitional pope, but that’s what they said about John XXIII and you know how that went.

If it weren’t so pathetic the pushback of the religious right against Pope Francis would be laughable.  What’s so obviously absurd is that the same people who cheered the clearly partisan statements of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson or the fight waged by American Catholic bishops against the ACA are now complaining that the pope is treading in political waters where he doesn’t belong.  Yes, it’s okay for clergy to oppose a woman’s reproductive rights or a gay couple’s making the ultimate commitment of marriage, but not for a pope to take the side of science when it comes to climate change.  It’s also okay, even desired, that clergy bless this or that public event, but not for the spiritual leader of Catholics worldwide to challenge the kind of capitalism that is leaving most of its inhabitants behind.

It must be awkward for the Rick Santorum’s of this world — devout Catholics — who claim “not to be scientists” and dismiss the impact of human actions on the atmosphere as unproven theory much as many of them have rejected Darwin and evolution.  What to do for those who are so fast to do so, and with such unquestioning conviction, with a spiritual leader who said early on, “Who am I to judge”?  This is not to suggest that Pope Francis is a doctrinal liberal — he has yet to make any substantive changes on matters like celibacy, women priests or family planning. He is unlikely to do so.  He proclaimed with compassionate reasoning a year’s grace when priests could absolve a woman’s sin of abortion.  Yet he hasn’t changed his church’s views on that or on birth control.  At the same time, he clearly doesn’t want his church to be disconnected from the world, from either its many problems or from human progress, including scientific exploration and findings.  That along with his apparent mistrust of judgments made for purely self-serving economic reasons, puts him on the side of the poor and against those who deny either climate change or our role in bringing it about.  He knows those who deny our complicity are, either those whose enterprises are at play or politicians financially dependent on the same vested interests.  Mitch McConnell isn’t speaking for the people who go down into dangerous and dirty mines but for the owners who finance his campaigns.

Pope Francis is an appealing and provocative man.  He has attracted admirers in and out of the Church.  His message resonates for our time and it’s interesting how well it plays into one of the themes of our current politics (certainly for Democrats), income inequality.  He is particularly critical of capitalism gone wild, something that makes me think about what’s happening in the Republican controlled Congress and across the land where the GOP has taken old of governorships and legislatures.  The consistent message of this group, one that has been central to conservative thinking for a long time, is that government is too big, that we should rely more on free enterprise and the market place.  We’ve heard that claim so often that it has blinded us to a simple fact: it’s just the opposite.  I think the out-of-control pope sees that with clearer eyes than do we.  It isn’t so much that government has gotten too big, but more that business and the free enterprise system has become dangerously bloated.  It’s business that is too big to fail and on some profound level too big to employ fairly and serve.  Yes, the pope’s views on climate may make some on the right squirm in their seats, but his view about inequality — and by extension out of control capitalism — is what they find truly threatening.   That really makes him out of control.