I am a Downwinder

Luther and Jane Turner (1937)--my great grandparents

I was in Seattle visiting my family recently and someone noted the scar on my neck from a thyroid tumor. She said, “You’re a downwinder, aren’t you?”

Hadn’t heard that word in a long time. I actually grew up in Spokane, on the eastern side of the state, in the path of the prevailing winds north and east of the Hanford nuclear reactor. Hanford was developed in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project. Residents and workers alike heard about the true nature of the work going on there with everyone else—on the morning of August 6, 1945. Plutonium from Hanford was used in the bomb that fell on Nagasaki.

It wasn’t until 1986 that the Department of Energy released a 19,000 page report on both routine and accidental leaks of toxic byproducts that spread over 75,000 square miles. In “Atomic Farmgirl”, Teri Hein tells the story of growing up in the rich soil of the Palouse and almost every family’s loss to cancer of one kind or another.

That single word, downwinder, took me back to my childhood and my heritage. I am the great granddaughter of a homesteader, Luther P. Turner—also known as the Wheat King of the Inland Empire. A part of his once vast farm holdings in the state still belongs to my family.

What really struck me was the power of a single word unlocking a slew of associations and vivid memories. It’s what we all try to do as communicators—know our audience well enough to actively draw them into our cause or product with just the right word or phrase.

It is a good communicator’s skill to find that keyhole opening at the top of the pyramid of your offering that literally sucks people in because it resonates so deeply.

Catherine needed a great facilitator

I just finished reading “Catherine the Great” by Robert K. Massie—a favourite author of mine. One of the things that made Catherine a great empress of the vast Russian Empire was her attempt to reform the legal code in 1767.

As a benevolent autocrat, she could have simply declared a new code, but she wanted to hear from the people. She drafted a guiding document and then brought together 564 delegates from every region, religion, rank and social class for a discussion. The delegates were to bring the needs, grievances and hopes of the people they represented to the table in order to craft a more just set of laws for the nation.

Catherine often sat behind a curtain and watched as the delegates argued, strutted, postured—and made no progress at all. There were power issues, of course, and language barriers. General mayhem ensued as everyone began to fight for their rights. These delegates met until early 1769 when a convenient war against Turkey drew Catherine’s attention and she dissolved the assembly.

Catherine’s intent was the right one, but she lacked a process and methodology for effectively gathering the wisdom from all the voices in the room and coming to some conclusions. That’s was a good facilitator or team of facilitators does—craft a careful plan of engagement, set out the questions to be answered, and then guide discussions to points of resolution and action.

I recently worked with a wonderful team of facilitators doing just that with a Canadian cancer taskforce. People from all over the country and world came together to draft a nation-wide treatment protocol and then regional action steps for addressing adolescent and young adult cancers.

With the help of a careful plan and targeted questions, these brilliant and passionate (and opinionated) researchers, doctors, care-givers and survivors left the conference with both clear action plans and enthusiasm for the tasks that lie ahead.

Catherine’s assembly left Moscow for war.

WRT naming: be BOLD

One is often called to make a decision and then live boldly into it. Big life decisions are not often absolutely clear (if ever) and the ramifications are never entirely positive. Once a decision has been made, both life and naming require the determination to live boldly.

Sometimes, despite all the process and creativity and metrics, the right new name is a tie with the runner up. A decision isn’t crystal clear. They both meet all the criteria for a great name: distinct, human and simple; possessing energy, depth and appeal—and no negative connotations.

In addition, one of the most important things a new name has to have is a story—a narrative that brings it to life in the hearts and minds of the people you want it to appeal to the most. It needs a story to live into once you’ve made the difficult decision.

During the transition from the old name to the new name, with proper handling, the broader narrative behind it begins to take hold and grow. It forms new attachments in brain cells and eyeballs. The story helps make sense of the new name to those who hear and see it.

It calls for a bold approach. You are changing perceptions.

You can even change the meaning of an old name with the right compelling narrative. “Obamacare” is a case in point. Supporters of the law in the US protested in favour of it outside the Supreme Court last week and re-minted its meaning on signs in bold letters.

The Republicans originally coined the name to signify big, bad government. Recently, President Obama turned the tables on it. “You want to call it Obamacare? That’s OK, because I do care,” he said.

It’s become a potent new rally call for his supporters. Be bold.

Brand: from skeptics to believers

A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review provides compelling rationale for one of the most difficult aspects of introducing and maintaining brand in a not-for-profit: winning over the skeptics.

“But we’re not selling sugar water,” grumbled the child rights specialist at one of my first brand sessions with a large international NGO. The resistance to the concept of brand was so strong that we considered rebranding our brand effort.

In “The Role of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector” (SSIR, Spring 2012), Nathalie Kylander and Christopher Stone listened carefully to nonprofit leaders to understand the roots of their skepticism and ambivalence to brand.

In doing so, they were able to identify four significant areas of resistance. They then turned them into positives and came up with four significant areas of pride that drive brand acceptance in an organization with altruistic goals:

  • Fear of over commercialization turns into pride in the mission of the organization
  • Fear of top-down short cuts to organizational change turns to pride in participatory planning
  • Fear of brand as an end in itself turns into pride in the values that define organizational culture
  • Fear of over-shadowing smaller brands turns into pride in supportive partnerships

Turning a powerful for-profit brand construct into one that can be fully embraced by charity leaders and staff opens the door to the clarity and cohesion that brand has to offer. The authors point out, “When an organization’s employees and volunteers all embrace a common brand identity, it creates organizational cohesion, concentrates focus, and reinforces shared values.”

In turn, that cohesion and focus increases an organization’s ability to have an impact and that reinforces the brand image and identity.

Have a look at this article in full—it’s chock full of carefully researched and articulated reasons for not-for-profits to wrap their heads around brand.

Kabisa goes a bit flashy

While there has been much ado about the demise of flash, reports of its death are premature. It’s an extremely useful tool in getting your message across in very creative and engaging ways.

Case in point here is our hot-off-the-presses flash video for a World Vision International project called Horizon. We worked initially on a name change for this program management information system (formerly known as PMIS),  followed by a full brand and identity system and a promotional website.

This flash video highlights World Vision’s continued journey of accountability and learning using this global system for designing, managing and monitoring programs. It’s meant to introduce the system’s current and up-coming features to over 44,000 staff around the world.

Kabisa partnered with the very talented and skilled Matt Ternoway for the design and animation, and with the equally talented Eric Kupp for audio production.



The responsibilities of a good name

A good name is an outward articulation of your internal strategic work. It is a first point of contact with the people you want to talk to the most. It is tireless, easy to say and remember. It can be aspirational and is always inspirational. It tells your story with colour and sound and rhythm. It is your 24/7 workhorse, used on every piece of communication you put forward and every person who goes out from your organization.

In short, it has a lot of responsibilities. It has to be:

Distinct  a good name offers a clear distinction from its competition. Being distinctive is only one element that goes into making a name memorable, but it is a required element, since if a name is not distinct from a sea of similar names it will not be memorable. It’s important, when judging distinctiveness, to always consider the name in the context of who will be using it.

Deep  a good name delivers an idea, concept or benefit. It has layers of meaning and associations that draw people in. It brings the idea of what you’re doing to life. It is rich in implications. Names with great depth never reveal all they have to offer all at once, but keep surprising you with new ideas.

Energetic  a good name is full of life and has buzz potential. It makes you lean forward and pay attention.

Human  a good name is appealing and feels comfortable right away. It exudes a sense of warmth, as opposed to names that are cold, clinical and unemotional. Try to imagine the name as a nickname you might give your child or pet.

Simple a good name is short, crisp and concise. Ideally, five to seven letters. We have limited attention spans. Less is more. It makes it easy for the essential message of the name to settle comfortably into our busy brains. It’s easy to pronounce, spell and recall.

Audibly and visually appealing a good name pleases the ear and the eye in any language. And auditory memory is more powerful than visual memory. The sound of a name is crucial. It’s two-fold – it needs to sound good and to be easily spoken by those who will use it most.

Without adverse connotations in key languages a good name has a purity about it that can’t be corrupted. This is ideal, but it’s critical to make sure that the name isn’t obviously culturally insensitive or insulting in our local or global neighbourhoods.

Let us be fishers of names

Tangent: This photo is from Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It was one of my favourite reads. Will it be one of my favourite movies?

The people who name products, services and enterprises fly-cast into the wide deep pool of language, hoping to hook a big one.

So say Steve Rivkin and Fraser Sutherland in “The Making of a Name.” In their book, they make a thorough exploration of the fascinating craft of naming, which is the applied branch of onomastics—the study of the history and forms of proper names.

Fishing can be an uncertain sport. I recall endless hours in a boat as a child with my Dad plying the small lakes in northern Washington State looking for trout. I don’t recall catching many, although I do recall simply enjoying the scenery and the long quiet chats with my Dad. While I no longer do much fishing, I do like to approach the exercise of naming with rigour, focus and a substantial dollop of patience. The linguistic scenery can be captivating, the conversations illuminating—and  it can’t be rushed.

As with most pursuits, good preparation and the right equipment improve your chances immensely. Here’s my To-Do list when I start with a client on a naming project:

  1. The first question is: Do you need a new name?  Most of my clients are looking for new names for existing products. You need a yes or no answer to this question first of all, but either way,  you’ll also need to articulate the compelling reasons to engage in a naming process—or not. Those reasons create a case for the change which justifies the effort it will take to get to that new name. You’ll need your case for change while plowing through the “messy middle” where people’s spirits and energies flag, and the goal seems impossibly far away.
  2. Craft a positioning statement to frame the exercise   I wrote about positioning statements in a January blog. Do have a look. Why it’s important here is that all the stakeholders involved need to hold the same image and understanding of the entity they are responsible for naming. Often, the compelling reason for changing the name is that it no longer encompasses the full meaning or intent of the entity. Making sure everyone’s onboard with the same understanding at the beginning of this exercise is critical.
  3. Choose the right people to be onboard  We’ll get into the process in a future blog, but for right now, the other foundational  element for a good naming process is to have the right people onboard at the right time. Ideally, you want to restrict the group who will be making the final decision on the name to as small a number as possible. On the other hand, you want to engage as wide a range of stakeholders as necessary to give your decision-makers the right information to work with.

It takes a tiny hook, a deep pool and a practiced arm to snag the big one.

Next week: The responsibilities of a good name

Where to start??

Many non-profit organizations take a shotgun approach to communications, mostly because communications is not often top of the to-do list. Programs have to be set up, staff managed, grants written, crises dealt with. The urgent leaves precious little time for getting the message out.

The question then comes, “Where should we start?” Here are my suggestions:

With the end in mind  Start by taking some time to think through what you want to accomplish with your communications efforts. Set out some tangible and realistic goals that will act as both a baseline measurement and a target.

Understand your audience  Organizations talk to a number of different audiences. List them. Write down what they already know and what they need to know about you. Figure out the best channels for communicating with each one of your audiences.

Articulate your key messages  You have a very limited time to grab people’s attention for the most important information you need them to know and act on. Refine your top level messages and set them as the framework for all you send out.

Implement  This usually means making sure your website is up-to-speed first of all—good design, intuitive flow, interactive and dynamic. It’s the home base for all of your other communication and marketing efforts. Following that, set an editorial calendar and develop content that can be used in other ongoing channels such as print, email and social media.

Live and learn  There are so many ways to monitor and analyze digital channels of communications.  Develop the discipline of looking at them regularly. Compare them with each other and with their own performance over time. The numbers have stories to tell that you’ll want to listen to. Listen carefully.

Then start at the top and do it again …

What makes us the same is greater than what makes us different

This comes from “The Rise and Fall of Poverty Porn”— a thoughtful piece with even more stimulating comments on the current state of development practice and human connection and fund raising.

Finding the sharpest nail

The saying goes, “If you don’t have the biggest hammer, use the sharpest nail.” The discipline of the branding construct delivers the kind of fierce focus needed for organizations to thrive even in the midst of difficult economic times.

I was recently approached to make comments on a strategic plan for an organization. Having only the written document to go on, I made comments as to lack of a persuasive focus, particularly in their offering to their key stakeholders. The response was that I just didn’t know enough about their organization. As I listened to them talk, they did indeed have a compelling offer and some great stories to tell, but they were hidden in the hearts and minds of the leadership.

The art of branding is to listen, listen, listen and ask strategic questions. In that manner you extract the wealth of information, insights and stories out of those collective heads and weave them into a framework that allows a rich narrative to be delivered in appropriate doses time and again as people come into contact with your organization.

The starting point for branding is the positioning exercise, which delivers the kind of fierce focus needed for organizations to thrive even in the midst of difficult economic times. I find it helps my clients open the doors to new ways of thinking and seeing things. And it’s when I most often hear … aha! It forces you to collectively think about three key things that help you understand your unique offering:

  1. Primary target audience:  These are the people you want to speak to most powerfully because you know they share your values and you are certain you can make the most meaningful impact with them. It doesn’t mean you won’t speak to other audiences, but it does force you to focus on what will give you the most impact. It also reinforces the principle that marketing and communications starts with understanding and responding to your audience.
  2. Category of Competition:  We all live in a market context, and people who will choose to affiliate with your organization either by offering their voice, their influence, their talent or their dollars have choices. Going through the exercise of understanding the comparative landscape in which you exist strengthens your ability to be fiercely focused on the best you have to offer.
  3. Reason to Believe:  This is where you articulate the specific and unique benefits that only your organization can offer. The best benefits are not just practical, but emotive and inspiring. Dig down deep to explore what turns your crank about what you do—and that often translates into what will excite others.

Done well, the process of developing your brand brings your organization into alignment. But don’t jump into branding unadvisedly. It is like a marriage and you have to be in it for the long term. It is the outward expression of all you are and do. It is about saying what you are going to do and then doing it. If you don’t deliver on that promise, it’s grounds for divorce. Donors and clients will move on quickly.

You cannot succeed in difficult times trying to be all things to all people. The key is to be the sharpest nail, find your niche and deliver. It’s the simplicity on the other side of complexity.