Saturday, May 31, 2003


In the 1950's Advertising giant Rosser Reeves created the Unique Selling Proposition, USP. The idea was that successful marketing requires identifying and then promoting a product's singular point of difference. Since most products have more than one attribute, adopting USP means making a choice and then having the discipline of sticking to it. While hardly the last or only compelling marketing concept, the Reeves approach remains relevant to this day. USP is a great and powerful approach, but there is a catch. It must be grounded in truth and substance. Lie to the consumer and you'll be in big trouble. You may get away with it near term, but, to paraphrase one of the smartest marketers I know, if the dog doesn't like the dog food you're dead.

USP has sold a lot of dog food over the years and it's been applied to more than just consumer products. In fact, while we may not realize it, most of us employ marketing techniques, including USP in our daily lives. In the most elemental sense, we use it in selling our ideas to others even in ordinary discourse. Instinctively, we understand that you can't make your case compelling without focus, optimally with singular focus. We too chose our words and arguments with care. USP has also come to government, big time.

It is in this context that I received Paul Wolfowitz' statement about how we sold the American public and some of the world's willing on going to war in Iraq. ''The truth," he said, "is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason.'' There were many, including those much maligned French and even UN Inspector Hans Blix who were unconvinced. At this moment, the jury remains out, but I've always heard that extended deliberations usually lead to acquittals. With every passing day there is more reasonable doubt.

The grave yards of Iraq on the other hand do seem to corroborate that this was indeed a brutal and evil regime. In all fairness, the Bush Administration always said it was, but, it was an augment at the margins. It was also a hard argument to make because, given the level of brutality around the globe, it simply didn't have the necessary USP to get things going. More than 3 Million innocents have perished in the Congo alone, something that hasn't brought Colin Powell to the UN clamoring for action. In the long run, regime change in Iraq may work and the world may indeed be a better place, but that won't erase the lie of this USP and hence the credibility of this administration. The immediate, though still relatively unspoken result, is that we shouldn't expect a coalition of the willing for some other adventure any time soon, even a truly compelling one. That has consequences of its own.

As a marketer and a believer in USP, however, I see a problem of more moral proportions. The great danger of applying marketing propositions to matters of State is it is not the life of some dog food that is at stake, but human lives. To put people at risk on the basis of a knowingly erroneous USP – and Wolfowitz' statement suggests just that, borders on the criminal. Decent people in the world community should be intolerant of governmental brutality, but they should be straight forward and evenhanded about it. In a democracy, the means by which we reach ends, even ostensibly good ends, does matter. We moved on Iraq the way we did, when we did based, at best, on unproven supposition and, at worst, on a willful lie. Given the euphoria, albeit premature, about the potential of a free and benevolent Iraq, some people are finding ways to justify that, but I simply can't, nor do I think any of us should. We will pay dearly for it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Tom Friedman has been writing

Tom Friedman has been writing from Iraq. He has discovered in his travels that Iraq wasn't much of a military match for the US. Some global threat, right? But his most interesting report was of a General's response to his question, "can we do Iraq right." "It is doable," the General said, "I just don't know if we can do it." Woops, someone is going to be hearing from The Donald, and I don't mean Trump. An honest answer, to an honestly posed question. Sadly, not a surprising one for those of us who have been critical of this venture.

We are really out of sorts these days from terrorists with car bombs to a thus far incurable virus that terrifies. Both lethal. Mad cow disease has shown up in Canada. Not that I eat beef any more, but some of my best friends still do. It is raining and cool again in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. Ugly winter, absentee Spring? Even the weather is against us. And that is only the tip of the ice berg. I've gotten into the habit of turning on BBC World at 7 AM rather than the silliness of Matt and Katie and their Network counterparts or the drama-as-news offered by CNN. Guess what, a lot is happening out there in the world, each and every day. Millions are dying in African Civil strife, floods are ravishing the unprotected and there is big trouble out there again in the environs of Indonesia. Much to address, much to do. The question is, "can we do it?"

Of course we can't. Even if we had the resources, we couldn't. Even if we had the will, which we don't. Why is it that our media can't report more than a single story on any given day despite 24/7 news? It's ADD, stupid. And it isn't only the attention deficit of the public (a learned attribute, thank you), but of our government. Moreover, much as I hate to admit this, it's a bi-partisan problem. We love this new kind of antiseptic fighting, mostly from the air with limited face to face encounter. But in a larger sense, we like it quick and clean much as we do a good quarterly report and an uptick in the price of our shares. We love the party, but we don't particularly like setting it up and we certainly don't like the cleanup after which, under the best of circumstances, dirties the hands.

We're powerful. We're rich (even if not quite as rich as we were under those tax and spend Democrats). But we're too devoted to the good life to be great scholars. We don't really understand what we see as arcane cultures and we're definitely not linguists (myself included). "It's all Greek to us," we say with a cute little smile and George Bush wink (perhaps smirk is more accurate) thinking that our ignorance is a badge of superiority and honor. What the hell, let's just continue looking inward – freedom fries today, freedom dressing, freedom potato salad tomorrow. Did I mention that we were powerful and rich?

Transformation is a tough business. Ask any chief executive who has tried to transform a private company; ask the guys running the US Postal Service. Sears may have a softer side, but it's hard goods at the core. Getting service at the Post Office is still like standing in line for that Welfare check that the clerk doesn't see as our entitlement. We're certainly not "the customer" here. Transforming a country with a different history, culture and set of mores is a tall order indeed. As much as we might want to pay tribute to the late Frank Sinatra, we can't keep on telling the world to "do it my way." We're clearly comfortable with locals who were lucky enough to attend our universities and speak our language decently, but that alone doesn't qualify them for leadership. In the end, as much as they can benefit from communicating with us, they can't function without being the soul mates of their own people. Can we live with that? In theory, of course. Actually? I'm not at all sure nor is Tom Friedman's General.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Blue Skies, Black Clouds

When I run in Central Park on crystal clear day, my mind inevitably wanders to September 11, one of most crystal of all days. I was also making my way around the reservoir when it happened. I don't know what it is about us, this embedded memory of where we were and what we were doing on historic days, but it's there. What was most striking about that particular day was the extraordinary contrast between spectacular almost pristine weather and the absolute devastation and darkness that occurred in its midst. To me it was, and continues to be, the central metaphor of our times.

We live in a world of sharp contrasts and sharp divisions. For the most part, we stay on our side of the park, ideally in our own sunshine, and pretend that what we see and experience is the way things are. Vast amounts of ink have been expended on analyzing the disparity between immense wealth and abject poverty and the growing schism between the haves and have nots. You don't have to be a sociologist to understand the explosive implications.

In the past week, the Bush Administration began to radically revamp its occupation team in Iraq. One of the problems mentioned by analysts was the paucity of personnel who spoke Arabic. Deja vous! Those of us who have questioned this war, and many who supported it, have been concerned from the start about the lack of a real "after" plan. Here again is that two world split, separate and unequal, but that's the least of it. We simply can't and don't relate to what most Americans see as alien territory. Democracy is natural and easy to us, why isn't that the case for others and why aren't they standing in queue to get a cookie cutter piece of what we cherish so much?

We've also seen another terrible terrorist attack. More innocent lives. Again the contrasts, our run in the green park and their pulling out bodies from the rubble. There are those who argue that terrorism is in the eye of the beholder. What one person sees as a mindless act, another sees as an act of liberation. Let's not put too fine a point on it. Killing done by organized states or itinerant revolutionaries is fatal nonetheless. There is a German expression that says it all, "hang me or behead be, I'm still dead."

The real challenge here is for those of us sitting beneath the blue skies to stop pointing fingers and start moving ourselves across the street to address the black clouds. I'm not suggesting killers not be routed out and punished, but let's stop assuming that eliminating the symptom will irradiate the disease. More to the point, let's stop assuming there is no disease. We need to learn the language and we need, as a counseling friend says, "to change the conversation." That will require some give-ups.

As a youngster during World War II, I remember vividly the letter "A" on the rear windshield of my father's Chevrolet. It dictated how much gas he could purchase in times of rationing. Being a clergyman, he had preferred status. Most people displayed a "C." In time of war, it wasn't business as usual. Things have changed. Was your basic life standard or mine altered one iota during the Iraqi or Afghanistan conflicts? Of course not. Perhaps there was a bit more security at the airports and tunnels, but it was hardly a blip. That's important because we no longer "ask what you can do for your country" (which even in 1960 didn't mean what it did in 1940). Consequently, it's not surprising that we are both uninvolved and protective of the status quo. The world in our heads has an order, a preconceived set of rights and wrongs and we don't even question its superficial, not to mention underlying, assumptions.

Things are not going to get better until that changes. And change won't come until we can put ourselves in the shoes of others, some of whom we have grown to distrust or even hate with an unthinking passion. I keep on remembering candidate George Bush's debate comment about humility in dealing with other nations. He obviously didn't mean it, but I wish he had. Humility and abandonment of the know-it-all mentality is the only thing that has a chance of pushing away those black clouds. We must learn the language and start assuming the other guy is also right. Which means, we can be, and are, wrong some, perhaps much, of the time. We have to stop bemoaning the black clouds and start solving the atmospheric problems that keep them in place. That will take a great deal of work and may require putting letters on our rear windshields. The alternative is that those black clouds will spread and nothing will protect our run in the park.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

The Card Game

It's not clear who in Don Rumsfeld's shop came up with playing cards depicting the most wanted, but I was flabbergasted by the very notion when a General announced it in the $2Million briefing theater in Qatar. Since then, not a day passes without me being offered an authentic deck or three along with my other unending spam. The Pentagon is outraged by these fakes. What were they expecting? More important, what were they thinking at the outset? What's obnoxious about these cards is that they trivialize war, suggesting it's all a game. It is as if war were only a made for TV reality show, lot's of drama and bruised egos for losers but no one really gets hurt. Well I don't think the parents, husbands, wives or children of the fallen, the majority of them barely in their twenties, see it as a game. Nor do Iraqi's who have lost loved ones and homes, whose health care system has collapsed, who still have no electricity and little (if any) safe drinking water, who are still the victims of looting and lawlessness and who are wondering what today, much less tomorrow, will bring. Nor should we.

But there is something even darker in these cards. Last week, the Senate released heretofore secret transcripts from the McCarthy era hearings. Many Americans are too young to remember the 1950s, but I was in High School during that period and coming from a family of Liberals and intellectuals I remember vividly the impact they had on all of us. It was a time of fear and black lists — a black time. But you don't have to reach back to McCarthy. The cards also evoke memories of Richard Nixon's enemies list. Perhaps you think I'm over reacting here, but sure enough yesterday's batch of junk included an offer to buy a "Deck of Weasels playing cards", sporting the photos of dissenting Americans like Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen and Barbara Streisand. Perhaps Rumsfeld's minions didn't dream that one up, but it's a logical witch hunt extension of the Iraqi's most wanted deck and clearly cut from the same mentality cloth. The Bush, Nixon and McCarthy eras brook no criticism with the patriotism of those express contrary views put in doubt during what they like to remind us is "a time of War."

It's hard to say which is worse, trivialization or black lists, but there is little question as to which is the more insidious. Black lists are horrible but transparent. In contrast, trivialization, because it is slickly packaged as something else, appears benign. John Dean saw Nixon's tactics as "a cancer growing on the Presidency." Far from being benign, I think trivialization is a cancer growing on our society. Look at how the media cover serious, often tragic events. Is it any wonder that viewers think it's a game when war is presented like a mini-series complete with specially composed music and catchy titles like Carnage in Iraq? While the trivial may not have destroyed all journalists, it has all but destroyed journalism, certainly its credibility.

A card game. What next?

Friday, May 9, 2003

Getting There in ‘04

Bill Clinton, it is said, won the presidency with his laser-like focus on the economy. Don't believe it. Bill Clinton was elected because of his laser-like focus on winning. Remember that stuff about "fire in the belly?" When Roger Mudd interviewed candidate Ted Kennedy decades ago, it was clear that the Senator simply didn't have it. He folded his tent a few weeks later. Perhaps George Bush doesn't have the same level of Clintonesque focus, but clearly Karl Rove does and that's enough for both of them. Without question, we want a President who has depth and who will lead us in the right direction — all of us, regardless of our political views, want that. If we're learned anything in the past couple of years it is that content, where a President stands on issues, matters. But you can't deliver content without winning first, and takes a laser-like focus.

I watched the Democratic South Carolina debate last week on C-Span. Decent credentialed people and, while I would argue with some of their specific positions, each would be an improvement over George Bush. But Bill Clinton didn't seem to be present in the hall. Not Bill Clinton the man (though I sorely wish he had been there), but someone with a discernable laser-like focus on winning. I think this is going to be a very tough race, even though that shouldn't be the case. No one can claim that we're better off today than they were before Bush took office, at least not with a straight face. The arguments for change are compelling. The war, even if deemed "successful," represented a new and ominous turn in foreign policy. I continue to believe it to be inconsistent with who we are however obscured that may be by hype and superficial flag waving. Patriotism is not the issue here, but why we should have reason to be patriotic. The future of both Afghanistan and Iraq is by no means a certain. History is not on the side of promised transformation. The war on terrorism is mired in building a new and cumbersome bureaucracy, shockingly inadequate resources at the local level, a grab for our civil liberties and a still elusive Osama Bin Laden. The economy sucks. Real issues are not the problem for Democrats here. They abound. I would love to see some new approaches and ideas, less of the "same old, same old," but I don't think that's the problem either.

In the end, someone has to have the burning desire to win, a passion for victory and the unmistakable energy that always goes with it. That has yet to be exhibited. Joe Lieberman says he knows George Bush is beatable, "because (exhibiting a little smile and wink) Al Gore and I already did it." Really? Well why is Bush sitting in the White House and why has he been able to change our course so dramatically in so many ways? Perhaps the Supreme Court, rather than voters, cast the deciding ballot, but it was legal and with it came the considerable power of the Presidency. Hello, Bush won and he's made more than the most of it. It will take far more than a wink and claim of electability. Remember when Walter Mondale asked Gary Hart, "where's the beef?" OK, guys where is the focus on winning? Please don't tell me that none of you have it. And a Karl Rove of our own wouldn't hurt.