Tag: "tate linden"

A peek at Stokefire’s latest brand identity work:

One of DARPA’s [Ed: a client] strategic thinkers started up her own firm called Foxfire. We’ll post detailed information and back-story about the project another time – but we figured that given our recent silence we owed you a quick peek at the recently approved ID Kit! Til then… Enjoy!

(And if you’re a senior business executive or retired general or admiral looking for one of the best advisors and speech writers in the world? Get in touch with Courtney at Foxfire Strategies ASAP.)

An Open Letter to the Stewards of the Progressive & Democratic Brands

Hello Stewards,

You may not realize it yet, but you need help.

I’ve been told by many in politics that there are no well-known (or even proven-effective) brand strategists focused on helping Progressive causes. (There are an astounding number of political strategists but that’s a different animal.) This may be due to the common belief that Democrats won’t pay for core brands to be developed. Dems spend a fortune on polling, message crafting, and message testing, but when it comes time to actually develop the unchanging core of progressivism or the Democratic party there’s no one willing to buy more than a quick logo invariably containing some combination of red, white and blue. And perhaps this would be fine if this were universally true across the political spectrum…

But it isn’t. Conservative leadership has long understood that without a deep and powerful identity they’re lost. The world’s greatest branding minds are regularly paid immense sums to work for Conservative initiatives. These strategists have worked hard to develop, execute and maintain a consistent Conservative brand that appeals to a broad spectrum of Americans from every economic class.

Think it’s a coincidence that every conservative issue comes down to just two things? Every thing is about either Liberty (or it’s cousin “freedom”) or faith (in our founding fathers, our business leaders, our capitalism, or our God). I have yet to find a conservative cause that couldn’t be summed up by some combination of the two ideas. And they’re a brilliant combination. The freedom and liberty to do whatever is in your best interests, backed by faith in whatever it is that you believe? That means that so long as you maintain belief in whatever floats your boat the details on any particular issue are irrelevant. It’s true because of our belief system, not because of the intricate details of an issue.

It’s one of the most impressive feats of branding I’ve ever seen.

But it’s beatable. Just not by progressives as they’re branding themselves now. Progressives (and their current host, the Democrats) we put all their eggs in the fairness basket. This is fine when our country is stable and the masses believe we are well served, but when the system is rigged to consistently sacrifice the ability of one group of our citizens to survive in order to benefit another it seems to me that “fairness” is a bad fit.

Think about the rulings and legislation passed recently. Conservatives have successfully argued that corporations are people. Money is speech. Unlimited anonymous donations can be made from individuals and organizations to any candidate through Super PACs, arguably protecting and legalizing the buying of favorable treatment from our government.

The only reason Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” has not “perished from this earth” is that corporations are now people. Astonishingly powerful people.

This isn’t an issue of fairness anymore in much the same way that it wasn’t about fairness when we abolished slavery, gave women the right to vote, or allowed workers to protect themselves from doing crazy things like, say, becoming an ingredient in the sausage they made.

I’ve recited the Pledge of Allegiance countless times in my life and I’m pretty sure that there’s no mention of fairness there. It’s not in the Constitution either. Nor the Bill of Rights. We have no right to fairness other than perhaps the right to attempt to achieve it in our pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of fairness seems better suited to squabbles involving siblings and nannies in modern vernacular.

So what might be a better fit? When we look at the pledge most of us recited daily as school children there’s a phrase that may be key. The Progressive Promise of “Fairness for All” isn’t there, but “and justice for all” is. Justice is a focal point of the first sentence of our Constitution, and makes a repeat appearance in Article 4 section 2, ensuring that not only will there be justice, but that within the borders of our nation one cannot escape it.

The recent Occupy movement isn’t just demanding fairness. They’re demanding justice. And it’s when that level of emotion and passion is stirred that progressives become effective agents of change. It’s a shift from “we need to adjust things” to “this is criminally unjust” that seems to help America make progressive leaps forward.

Progressivism’s biggest weakness is that it must necessarily ebb and flow as the perception of our government’s ability or willingness to provide equal justice under the law shifts. When the government leans toward treating everyone equally progressivism has trouble gaining a foothold. When it is perceived as oppressive to the common man progressivism inexorably rises up to rebalance or rebuild the system. Once fixed the progressive movement fades until the oppression becomes visible again. If the oppression isn’t fixed it gradually becomes the accepted way of life and we move on.

What does this mean? Well, it means that progressives have a very limited window of time in which to rebalance the system now that oppression is perceived. If progressives can’t unite their distinct voices into a single call for change that is connected to the core of their cause they will fail to have an impact in our era. And it’ll be because they couldn’t simply and powerfully define themselves.

As for who the progressives area at their core? I’m pretty sure they’ve never been able to powerfully describe it. The progressive promise shouldn’t be “Fairness for All” or even “Justice for All”. It’s should be about the willingness and responsibility to defend the rights of every American, not just the ones with money or power.

I’ll take a shot at defining the progressive core. How about:

No American Stands Alone.

I’m pretty damn sure that this is the sentiment behind every great step forward that America has taken since the time of Lincoln. It all fits. And it seems to align with almost everything that progressives are aiming to achieve today.

But time is short, the election is coming, and the Democratic brand and message is a horribly confused mess.

It’s fixable. And the election is winnable. And change can happen in this era. If only progressives would invest and believe in who they are instead solely on what they say.

If you’re not one of the stewards of the Democratic brand and think there’s merit in this idea then perhaps you can forward this letter or link to someone who is. Your Democratic Congressman, someone in the DCCC, or the White House would be a good start.

If you are one of the stewards? Don’t be shy. Comment, call, or write.  Mostly because I haven’t a clue who you are. Unless you’re President Obama, of course. (And if that’s you, Mr. President, please do reach out because as I understand it you’re not yet taking my calls.)

And in the unlikely case that there isn’t a steward for the brand, I humbly throw my hat into the ring. Or I would if someone could tell me where the ring is.


Tate Linden
(A proven brand strategist.)


Three Steps to an Irresistible Brand

I know you may not think of Gandhi as irresistible, but bear with me. It’ll become clear shortly.

Irresistible… It may sound impossible, or at least too good to be true. And you’re not alone in thinking that, but the great brands do achieve the impossible. They get people to change behavior in much the same way that Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln put themselves on the line to create monumental societal change. If you want to create  real change there’s no more consistent way to get there.

And here are the basic steps you can follow to get there yourself:

Step One: Become Self Aware
Know your unwavering core motivation then unquestionably prove its truth.

Brand-building without understanding why your organization exists is pointless. Without self-awareness your time, money and energy spent on brand is just as likely to hurt as to help reach your goals. But you need to do more than just know what makes you different and communicate it. An irresistible brand proves that you’re different. To do that you must be able to communicate your difference in a way that lines up with your real-world performance – and sheds light on the fact that your organization ‘gets it’.

In Stokefire’s world of Gandhian brands, becoming self aware is the beginning of your Gandhian pyramid development. We’re looking to bring what you think, say and do (or in brand-speak, “what motivates you, what you communicate, and how you perform”) into harmony. Any brand that has a disconnect between those three elements is a brand that capable competition can destroy – even if the competition doesn’t have a strong brand.

Proving your brand true involves communicating your unique commitment or understanding of your industry or the change you represent in a way that cannot be easily undermined. A few examples of this that we can attest to include our work for an HR firm showing that it understands the core issue in human resources, a campaign for concrete that made people care about what roads are made of, and identity work for the US Department of Defense that enabled them to be perceived differently by our allies and enemies.

The result of those campaigns? The HR firm became one of the fastest growing firms in its industry and region; the concrete industry’s single-market test campaign earned over $57 million in new transportation project, and DARPA reclaimed its rightful place at the head of military technology.

Step Two: Gain Perspective
Understand how your motivation relates to the core motivation of your competitors and of your target audience.

Perspective doesn’t come easy to people passionate about their cause. You do what you do because you’re invested in it and believe in it, so putting that aside and seeing where you’re weak and where your competitors are strong isn’t comfortable and can makes you feel fragile. The key is to understand and address the weaknesses before a brand launches and harden your identity against competitive threats or alternative solutions your audience may consider.

The perspective you need is that of your target audience, competitors and a sense of the environment at large. While you can begin to define your core identity in a vacuum, in order to refine it you’ll have to see how what you think, say, and do relates to what your customers and competitors are saying and doing – and what that might indicate about their motivations.

A brand can become a powerful tool that helps people rediscover their own core motivations and can create a wedge between their past and future actions. Those actions can relate to which products are bought or whether we believe (for instance) that slavery or oppression is just. It can even become a part of how an individual, competitor or era defines itself. In our own era we’ve seen technology brands uncover truths about thinking differently and coffee stores that can enhance one’s perceived station in life.

But these brands and those movements behind the ending of oppression didn’t just have a spiffy logo and slogan. They had enormous requirements in terms of infrastructure to create a lasting identity with consistent performance. They needed execution.

Step Three: Deliver Consistently
Deliver messaging and infrastructure that uses your proven identity as a lever to change the behavior of your target audience and competitors.

Even with an apparently compelling brand identity, if the mechanism to keep all the parts of the brand (messaging, performance, intent) doesn’t run consistently then the brand falls apart. This is why BP’s brand is so reviled – because they chose to brand themselves as “beyond petroleum” when they were still 95% invested in oil, and for the discord evident in the company’s response to their environmental disaster and their supposed commitment to being green. Any perceived disconnect between intent, message, and performance is an opening for your competition.

Infrastructure can be comprised of anything from consistently materials in support of your cause, or the people, processes and relationships that enable you to get your message out through every channel quickly and effectively. For every situation the infrastructure is going to be different, though you may find it helpful to look at the top players in your industry to see what they’re doing to stay at the top. Your infrastructure must work at least as well as theirs – and in some cases your infrastructure might be called upon to tear theirs down.

An excellent example of this in practice is Newt Gingrich’s disbanding of both the congressional Republican Study Committee and its counterpart on the Democratic side as unnecessary after ensuring that non-profit entities had been established to provide the needed research for the Republicans. The Democratic Party’s lack of external infrastructure to develop and communicate the brand and platform has been seen by many inside and outside the Party as a major weakness, and has allowed Republicans to pick off candidates one by one rather than having to take on a unified movement.

And A Warning: It’s Not For Everyone
It’s for the greatest of challenges.

At the start of this post I mentioned three great leaders. While they all to a large extent had their goals realized, none of them lived to enjoy the world that this enabled the rest of us to experience. Creating a truly irresistible brand takes courage. You must take big risks to achieve the biggest rewards.

Apple didn’t become the most prosperous technology firm in history by following the path of others. It did it by staying true to its core, understanding the motivation (rather than opinions) of its audience and consistently delivering products and services that connect the two over time.

Brand irresistibility takes more than courage. It takes a worthy cause – and people who are willing to take risks to move the cause forward.  Looking at America today there are dozens of movements that could benefit from taking these steps, but few that are going to do it. The Occupy movement has such potential, but without a core identity (other than “we’re not going to take it anymore!”) and without an understanding of how they are perceived from the outside (as extremists and anarchists rather than those that have had their jobs and homes taken from them) there’s no chance for infrastructure and consistency to develop and move the cause forward.

If you have any ideas about what brands or causes are likely to be taking the three steps to irresistibility in 2012 let me know. I’d love to look into them or discuss them in a post.

The Difference Between Good Designers and Great Designers

Posted by Tate Linden


Are you a good designer or a great designer?

No… Wait. Don’t answer that until you get to the end.

There seems to be a common belief that any designer can become great if they just work hard enough on their technique. Most of our design schools are built on this very premise. And of course there’s Tippy the Turtle who remains infamous (long after most have forgotten what art program he represented) because many bought into it.

I don’t believe it.

I find that in most of the interviews I’ve had with design school grads and even journeyman art directors, their big moment seems to be when they show me their mad skillz when it comes to using Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. Or maybe it’s their charcoal technique. They’re usually truly excellent at one of these, mind you, so they’re justified in bragging a bit.

But none that went this route got a job offer, because in our world that’s not what commercial design is about.

Of course a designer must ensure that their design is strong technically before it goes into production. That’s a given. But isn’t it more important that the design is strong conceptually before advancing beyond sketch stage? A designer who doesn’t understand how to read a creative brief and develop a concept that not only fits within it, but can expand or enhance the effectiveness of the entire campaign or brand identity? Well.. that’s a designer that doesn’t work here.

And a designer that can’t stand up for what matters (at least once) with a client, creative director, or professor? You’re probably not seen as a designer, you’re seen as a tool. Most likely a paintbrush, but if you have other definitions that fit, maybe try ‘em on for size.

Pay attention to how your peers, bosses, and clients discuss your work… I’m betting that what’s true here at Stokefire may be true elsewhere:

Good designers are praised for their technique, great designers for their impact.

So, which are you? And how do you know?

EVENT: “Branding? Meet Gandhi.” with Tate Linden


Be a part of Tate’s first-ever public discussion on the topic of kickass Gandhian brands. One day you might even tell your grand-kids you were there. (Note: said telling is far more likely to occur if you already have grand-kids, and if they just so happen to be visiting around October 4th.)


Topic: Gandhi’s Secrets to a Successful Brand
Presenter: Tate Linden, President & Chief Creative of Stokefire Branding and Advertising
Sponsors: The DC chapter of ASTD and the Chesapeake Bay Organization Development Network.
Cost: Free! (Thanks sponsors!)
Date: October 4, 2011, 7 to 9 PM
Location: Bethesda Regional Library7400 Arlington Rd. Bethesda, MD 20814.


Only about ten seats remaining.
Call Peggy Linden, Coaching SIG Leader at 301-424-0860 or send her an email.

About The Session:

Organizational brands large and small struggle and fail every day. Many chalk this up to bad luck or poor timing, but that’s a cop-out. In most cases the situations leading to failure can be recognized and turned around before it’s too late. In this session you’ll learn to recognize and decode the warning signs, and to understand the steps needed to fix the problems. Tate Linden may be conveying the information, but it’s Gandhi’s words on alignment and perception that are the foundation of the session.

By the end of his 1 hour interactive session you will:

  1. Understand what a brand identity is and why it matters to the success of every organization, be it a sole proprietorship or industry titan.
  2. Easily recognize the three signs of brand misalignment and three indicators of weak brand elements – and the negative consequences of each.
  3. Learn why a critical ingredient in brand success is provided by the audience, not the branded organization.
  4. Know where and how to effectively focus your efforts to build a solid foundation for your own brand’s success.
Tate’s discussion starts after brief introductions from the attendees, and following his discussion there will be Q&A and networking.

About the Presenter:

Tate has over 15 years experience advising, managing and developing brands for the likes of Discovery Communications, Heinz, Charles Schwab, ADP, and the US Department of Defense. He’s also an in-demand speaker for audiences from 10 to 1500, with recent appearances for the US Congress, HOW Design Conference, ASAE Great Ideas, and the ACCE annual conference. He’s in the midst of writing a book and developing workshops that show in detail how and why to incorporate Gandhian philosophies into organizational identities.

About Time You Pull Over And Ask For Directions:

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LEGO’s Beautiful Failure

Posted by:
Tate Linden

“When people look at LEGO, they see an innovative company; they’ve come to expect great things from it. So when LEGO put out its first official iPhone application, and people get excited, it just continues, and builds on, that brand affinity.” –  Jason Apaliski, Associate Creative Director, then from Pereira & O’Dell. Quoted in Communication Arts Interactive Annual 17.

It’s a nice sentiment, and an easily believed one, but I think it may be untrue. To build on brand affinity you have to connect with what makes the brand appealing, and with LEGO that’s more than just the look and sound of the blocks. With LEGO’s successful line of video games the look and sound of the blocks are an afterthought, not the reason for success. It’s the interactivity, nearly endless options, and creative play that take top billing. If they weren’t then the epitome of LEGO success would just be a bunch of randomly falling bricks on a screen. (I’m fairly certain a falling LEGO bricks app would not be particularly successful, but don’t quote me on that.)

Mr. Apaliski says, “Our challenge was to extend the brand to something that wasn’t just for creative people.” and the application (still available here for free) indeed gives non-creatives a chance to interact non-creatively with the visual and audible aspects of LEGO. The application lets you take pictures using the iPhone camera or images saved on the phone and convert them into flat LEGO images. It’s a nice way for people who already love LEGOs to bring that affinity with them.

But it doesn’t give you any of the joy of interacting with the LEGO brand if you aren’t already a fanatic.

I wonder what the team at LEGO believes is at the core of the brand. Here’s what a Google search turned up from fans and other folks around the Internets:

  • “[The] freedom to create and build”
  • “Being able to express something that I see in my head so that other people can see it”
  • “Combinability is the very essence of LEGO”
  • At the essence of LEGO are”products [that] can be assembled and re-assembled into something else: building blocks of the imagination
Those seem a lot closer than what LEGO’s own CEO came up with as related to the essence of LEGO:
  1. When it’s advertised, does it make a child say ‘I want this’?
  2. Once he opens the box, does it make him go ‘I want more of this’?
  3. One month later, does he come back to the toy, rebuild it and still play with it? Or does he put it on the shelf and forget about it?

To me what Jørgen Vig Knudstorp has identified isn’t the essence of LEGO at all. It would be at the core of any toy company trying to stay popular and relevant for the long term. He’s identified symptoms of having a great child-focused product that is advertised effectively, is collectible, and is addictive or multidimensional.  To Jørgen it seems that the essence of LEGO is exactly the same essence found in Barbie, G.I. Joe, Play-Doh, and Hot Wheels. Each of these brands has successfully advertised, up-sold, and addicted kids and adults around the globe using the formula. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just not different. And it’s not what truly attracts people to the toy.

There’s an essence beneath the advertising and playability that is missed. There’s something about structured but limitless creativity here that none of the other toys have. If LEGO’s leaders can’t define why people will select LEGO over the other iconic brands then they can’t work on making that aspect more visible and attractive. They won’t know what to put in front of the prospective user or buyer to make them want to play.

And that insight, folks, is what’s missing in the LEGO Photo app. It’s a beautiful idea, but entirely ineffective at getting anyone to buy more LEGOs. It absolutely deserves an award for visual creativity, but it doesn’t serve as a tangible business driver.

And it should have. And could have.

In the referenced article, Mr. Apaliski spoke of giving non-creative types the ability to use their ideas instead of their creativity. But any iPhone app that applies a filter to a photo does that. What LEGO brings to the table should be more tangible. LEGO’s product (and associated experience) crosses the line between imagination and reality with ease, but this app gives access to neither.

We already know that people can turn LEGOs into art – and folks like Sean Kenney do it for between $450 and $1695. So why wouldn’t we help someone with an iPhone do something similar but on a budget? Give people a way to transition from the virtual world to the real one – to embrace and share the possibilities that only LEGO can provide. How? Well, how about these for starters:

  1. A simple Email Me The Parts List button so the user could sort through their stash at home or bring it to the lego shop so they can build the picture themselves.
  2. Custom-packed and shipped Let Me LEGO Artwork boxes from LEGO.com that allow people to send a kit of custom parts and instructions (or perhaps without) for self-assembly. Maybe even include backing board and glue.
  3. For the creatively lazy you can have the high-end LEGO-Made Artwork for the sorts of prices Sean Kenney is charging – or allow him to fulfill for the brand. (Though at this level I’m fairly certain that some sort of human screening would be required or everyone will be asking for copyrighted works and naked people.)

Successfully executed that’s an app that’s not just a nifty advertisement to be tried and discarded by all but the most diehard fans, but creates an entirely new revenue stream, helps the product sell itself through viral distribution, and even off the walls of our living-rooms as well. Better still (for LEGO’s bottom line), once LEGOs are part of a glued piece of art it takes them out of circulation, meaning that if the buyers want to play with more they’ll have to buy more.

I’m pretty sure that the essence of LEGO is different for every user – and that’s the joy of the medium and maybe even the brand. It is what you make of it. And what you can make of it is constantly being pushed beyond what you thought possible. By creating an app that didn’t let us do or experience the one thing that LEGO encourages – the making - LEGO has failed (albeit beautifully) to deliver on the promise of the brand.




Defining Brand Strategy – with Gandhi?

Posted by:
Tate Linden

This post follows on my post from last week in which I introduced a basic brand philosophy, but neglected to define all the terms. Thanks to those of you who asked that I back up and give a bit more context before moving forward.

I use two of Gandhi’s famous quotes as the basis for Stokefire’s system of understanding how and why organizations or causes succeed or fail, and what can be done to fix them. I began working more seriously with his ideas (with the very capable help of my team) as I was preparing to speak to members of Congress about why Republicans consistently represented not only their own brand, but also defined the Democrats, while the Dems could neither represent themselves nor define their opponents.

A Definition of Terms

  1. Gandhi’s Trinity or Gandhi’s Pyramid: The three distinct elements that together result in the happiness mentioned in Gandhi’s quote, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
  2. Do: Whatever it is that your organization gets paid to deliver, whether it’s a product, service, or cause, is your ‘do’. Within an organization you likely have a larger ‘do’ that encompasses what is offered to external clients, and smaller ‘do’s for internal departments such as HR, Payroll, and the like that are tasked with ensuring that the organization can survive to provide the intended service. My focus will most often be on the larger externally oriented definition, but lessons can usually be applied to either.
  3. Say: The sum total of externally viewable organizational communications. This includes almost any sort of communication that can be perceived by the senses. Verbal and visual are obvious, so you’ve got marketing, advertising, design, logo, and PR covered. But we can communicate using scent, non-verbal sound, touch, and taste as well. If the purpose of the experience is to communicate with the audience outside of the use of the product or service then chances are good that you’re dealing with ‘say’. Most importantly, any internal ‘confidential’ communication is also part of ‘say’. As you will see shortly, what we say is a window into what we think – so if we’re keeping secrets they’re going to be seen as more representative and believable than what we intentionally distribute to the world.
  4. Think: Perhaps a better word for this is ‘intent’. This is the true motivation or cause behind an organization. For those outside of the organization’s leadership circle, ‘think’ is typically only deduced by analyzing what is said and done and computing the probable cause. It takes a truthful and well communicated motivation to succeed for the long term. But it is only under extreme pressure that the true motivation can be proven. Intense positive or negative pressure reveals what is most important because in those periods we tend to embrace what we hold most dear.
  5. Perception of Intent: Somewhat related to Gandhi’s Pyramid, a second quote from Gandhi helps to explain this idea: “The moment there is suspicion about a person’s motives, everything he does becomes tainted.”
    Since our true intent (or our ‘think’) is usually not provable it becomes critically important in competitive situations to understand how our motivations are perceived by our audience. Perception of Intent is almost completely unrelated to truth or genuine motivation. It is affected by the biases of the originators, deliverers, and receivers of the intended message, and can be easily manipulated (to the detriment of the originator) when the elements of Gandhi’s Pyramid aren’t in harmony.

Those are the key aspects within the developing philosophy.

But why define these terms at all?

Because I believe that all successes and failures can be attributed to either a lack of alignment between, or insufficient strength within, items two through four (‘think’, ‘say’, or ‘do’). It is this weakness that, in competitive situations, enables competitors or the media to manipulate Perception of Intent (item 5) and impact the likelihood of success.

Anything I’ve missed? Let me know.

Design is an Opportunity to… Turn Around Please…

Posted by
Tate Linden

Design is an Opportunity to Continue Telling the Story, Not Just To Sum Everything Up.

Seems that these words are at least as meaningful to others as they are to me.

This picture just came across twitter:

Design is an opportunity to continue telling the story, not just to sum everything up

Via @LordLeonMachi


I wish I’d had that on my bucket list because “say something tattoo-worthy” would be a really cool one to cross off.

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