Our beloved Brew.

Our beloved Brew.
R.I.P. Big guy.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Radio is all about "Right Size" These Days.

I listen to a lot of news/talk radio. It might say something about my politics that I have never listened more than a sentence to two of Rush Limbaugh, or any of the other right wing ranters In a spirit of equality, I've never listened to Air America, either. Politics bore me except when presented on National Public Radio. Mostly, I prefer listening to hosts and callers who exchange views on topics of the hour. My greatest pet peeve about talk radio are the relentless traffic and weather updates. Is it really necessary to tell me every ten minutes "on the sevens" or "eights?" Well it is if your real motive is to create properties for advertisers to sponsor.

Radio executives bemoan the fact that listeners tend to flip the dial every few minutes. Maybe they'd be less inclined to do that if the station didn't repeat itself every ten minutes. It might also help if traffic, weather and sports were presented in a more meaningful manner than merely rattling off a couple of key statistics. the format of talk radio today doesn't give thoughtful hosts the opportunity to delve into topics because about the time they present their point of view, it's time for traffic again. 

There is a noticeable trend in Chicago stations to which I listen. Other than an occasional exception, the commerials promote free "trials" for wight loss products, ranging from "smoothies" to pills and meal packages as well as medically related topics. Have unsightly vericous veins? Suffer from some newly identified nervous disorder? Feel bugs crawling under your skin? There's a trial product available for that. Howver, you must call within the next ten minutes. "If the lines are busy, keep trying." Want to find ways to get rich from real estate, gold or silver? Yes, Virginia, there are "free" programs available to help you find the path to wealth. The only break from these seemingly relentless "get well, get rich" ads are the pleas to donate your car, RV, or boat (on trailer only) to one alleged charity or another. I am particularly aware of the jingle from the folks who spell cars and kids with "K's" and offer a "free" weekend getaway for your donation. Does it surprise anyone that the company behind this effort is being investigated by various attorneys general and good business practice watchdogs? Is there anyone left in America after the Cash for Clunckers program with an old used car that doesn't know these charities typically consign the cars to a third party who pays them a flat fee of a couple hundred dollars regardless of the condition or value of the car? In the case of the "K" people, it's not even that significant.

It seems commercial radio, at least the stations I hear on the Chicago dial, have become vehicles for snake oil sales, and assorted scams. Like most listeners, legitimate advertisers have gone elsewhere. It almost makes you want to hear more frequent traffic reports.

The Real Legacy of David Beckham to Soccer in America

The Real Legacy of David Beckham in America

By: Jim Paglia
Just before the public announcement was made that David Beckham was coming to America to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy of MLS, I predicted his impact as a guest columnist in Soccer America and my views were reprinted by a reporter for the New York Times. Much of what I wrote has come to pass:
He proved he still has world-class skills;
He only enhanced his already astonishing celebrity and has expanded his endorsement across a wide variety of products sold in the US;
His first visit to each MLS city drew phenomenal record crowds;
Future visits didn’t draw anywhere near as well;
He was largely, singlehandedly responsible for the huge increases in MLS merchandise sales;
The Galaxy record is no better as a result of his presence;
His soccer camps got a big boost;
Aside from publicity, his impact on the professional game in this country is the equivalent of his wife Victoria announcing she was reuniting the Spice Girls. (I had no way of knowing that only days after this story first appeared, she did indeed announce the Spice Girls were launching a limited engagement world tour in selected cities. Apparently, they selected the wrong cities, because the tour was cut short due to lack of ticket sales.)

However, despite what appears at first glance to be my rather “spot on” assessment his impact to the game in America, I must admit I really couldn’t anticipate what I now believe will be his greatest legacy to the sport in this country.

Beckham has reinforced the notion among some self-serving coaches, administrators, parents and at times, players that it’s perfectly alright to walk out on your team and your commitment if a better offer comes along.

It’s well documented that I am not a fan of MLS, but the embarrassment caused to that league by the Beckham debacle is of little concern to me. It should have been no surprise to Beckham or anyone else that the caliber of play in MLS is well below the standards at which he has played most of his life. He had to be aware he wasn’t going to gain international match readiness playing against the likes of the Columbus Crew.

For all the obvious good his presence has done to promote interest in the sport among young players, I worry that Beckham’s greatest legacy will serve to demonstrate to generations of players who follow that individual self-interests outweigh commitment to a team and a club.

Before I go any further, let me be clear that I am a big fan of David Beckham, the player. He has been, and remains today, one of the most gifted set-piece players, and passers in the game. I’m thrilled to see him back in uniform for England. I even enjoy watching him play for AC Milan.

But I can’t help but wonder how many coaches, parents and players see his example as license to expand the already epidemic proportions of “hopping.” Coaches recruiting players to advance their own careers, parents living vicariously through their young children and praying for an unrealistic NCAA Division I scholarship, and players just looking for free snazzy warm-ups and gear, or a trip to Disney World; all conditions that are polluting the game. Sadly, Beckhams’s example, and ultimate legacy may be further opening the floodgates of this mentality.

Soccer: Where Are All the Children Going?

People know soccer is one of the most popular youth sports in America. But it might surprise you to learn it is also one of the fastest declining youth sports. Every adult connected in any capacity with the sport should be concerned. Research conducted by a variety of bodies including the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association suggests that while soccer does the best job of attracting young children among all sports, it loses them at an alarming rate after the age of eight or nine. The decline continues through the age of about twelve or thirteen. Beyond that age, the number of players modestly increases again through high school.
It’s widely accepted the falloff is largely related to the way soccer clubs are structured and parents and society influence the equation. The theory goes like this: Up to the age of eight or so, kids play mostly for fun. At about eight or nine years of age kids are told by coaches and parents they have promise, or they do not. Teams that were once defined by friendships and carpooling convenience are now being reorganized by skill level and training programs. Among some soccer administrators, the expression that is widely used, but never to a player’s or parent’s face is, “You are either good, or you suck.” Players and their families are aware of this through the Premier, A, B, C, and Recreational designation of teams. The concept of “playing up an age group” is introduced.

For every child that is encouraged to strive for greater advancement in the sport, there is at least one child who is given signs that even at the ripe old age of eight, they just do not have what it will take to be a standout player. Players are separated from friends, and assigned to teams for the less gifted. The theory suggests that children are being discouraged and thus leave the sport.

While I do not argue with this theory, I think it is one part of a complex, multi-faceted problem. I contend that what soccer is facing is not unique to the sport. Retailers and fast food restaurants have been dealing with the dilemma for years. McDonald’s invented the term “tweens” to describe customers between the ages of nine and twelve whose motives changed when they outgrew the Ronald McDonald® experience.

Briefly, McDonald’s learned a love of Ronald, and a commitment to visiting the restaurants is directly motivated by a child’s sense of fun and imagination. When a child reaches eight or nine years old, their influences and motives change. There is a desire to break with habits and interests that defined them as a “little kid.” Peer recognition and the element of “being cool” become much larger influences. Ask any parent of a child who used to love a visit to McDonald’s, and they can pretty much pinpoint this age as the one where their child was no longer interested in visiting the Playland®, or ordering a Happy Meal®. Try as they might, McDonald’s could not convince tweens that there was anything cool about Ronald.

People who study consumer habits recognize unique patterns and influences in this target market. What do most nine-year-olds want to be? Teenagers. What do most twelve year-olds want to be? You guessed it, sixteen - for the range of freedoms associated with driving.

The experts also agree that once a young consumer goes away, it extremely more costly to regain their allegiance than it might have been to hold their interest. The experts also agree that once lost, a large percentage of consumers will NEVER return.

The way children from nine to twelve define fun is radically different from their earlier years, yet coaches, administrators, and parents often fail to recognize this in relation to soccer. Not only is “fun” different for tweens, but also a host of other factors influences their interest in the game.

It’s true, the same age drop off happens in other sports. So why are the numbers leaving so much more dramatic in soccer? It’s the GIRLS, silly! No other mixed gender sport has such a high percentage of girls. 52% of all soccer players in this country are females. Eight and nine are also the ages when girls and boys take even more pronounced separate directions in the way they socialize, are influenced by their peers, and are affected by media and other societal factors.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A message from a Marine

I did not write the following, cannot vouch for its authenticity, but thought it was a very powerful message worth sharing with as many people as possible so I copied it and pasted it here. As you ramp up your Holiday celebrations, take a moment, reflect, and remember these men and women in a meaningful way. God Bless our troops.

Subject: [Fwd: Enhanced understanding of Afghanistan - Though the eyes of a Marine]

Not Pulitzer prize material but much better than those that win the "P".

Subject: Enhanced understanding of Afghanistan - Though the eyes of a Marine

You'd have to be there in order to write it this well. Interesting reading.. Writing dated Nov 25, 09.

From a Recon Marine in Afghanistan.

From the Sand Pit. It's freezing here. I'm sitting on hard, cold dirt between rocks and shrubs at the base of the Hindu Kush Mountains, along the Dar 'yoi Pomir River, watching a hole that leads to a tunnel that
leads to a cave. Stake out, my friend, and no pizza delivery for thousands of miles.

I also glance at the area around my ass every ten to fifteen seconds to avoid another scorpion sting. I've actually given up battling the chiggers and sand fleas, but them scorpions give a jolt like a cattle prod. Hurts like a bastard. The antidote tastes like transmission fluid, but God bless the Marine Corps for the five vials of it in my pack.

The one truth the Taliban cannot escape is that, believe it or not, they are human beings, which means they have to eat food and drink water. That requires couriers and that's where an old bounty hunter like me comes in handy. I track the couriers, locate the tunnel entrances and storage facilities, type the info into the handheld, shoot the coordinates up to the satellite link that tells the air commanders where to drop the
hardware. We bash some heads for a while, then I track and record the new movement.

It's all about intelligence. We haven't even brought in the snipers yet. These scurrying rats have no idea what they're in for. We are but days away from cutting off supply lines and allowing the eradication to begin.

I dream of bin Laden waking up to find me standing over him with my boot on his throat as I spit into his face and plunge my nickel-plated Bowie knife through his frontal lobe. But you know me, I'm a romantic. I've
said it before and I'll say it again: This country blows, man. It's noteven a country. There are no roads, there's no infrastructure, there's no government. This is an inhospitable, rock pit shit hole ruled by eleventh century warring tribes. There are no jobs here like we know jobs.

Afghanistan offers two ways for a man to support his family: join the opium trade or join the army. That's it. Those are your options. Oh, I forgot, you can also live in a refugee camp and eat plum-sweetened, crushed beetle paste and squirt mud like a goose with stomach flu, if that's your idea of a party. But the smell alone of those 'tent cities of the walking dead' is enough to hurl you into the poppy fields to cheerfully scrape bulbs for eighteen hours a day.

I've been living with these Tajiks and Uzbeks, and Turkmen and even a couple of Pushtuns, for over a month-and-a-half now, and this much I can say for sure: These guys, all of 'em, are Huns... actual, living Huns. They LIVE to fight. It's what they do. It's ALL they do. They have no respect for anything, not for their families, nor for each other, nor for themselves. They claw at one another as a way of life. They play polo with dead calves and force their five-year-old sons into human cockfights to defend the family honor. Huns, roaming packs of savage, heartless beasts who feed on each other's barbarism. Cavemen with AK-47's. Then again, maybe I'm just cranky.

I'm freezing my ass off on this stupid hill because my lap warmer is running out of juice, and I can't recharge it until the sun comes up in a few hours. Oh yeah! You like to write letters, right? Do me a favor, Bizarre. Write a letter to CNN and tell Wolf and Anderson and that awful, sneering, pompous Aaron Brown to stop calling the Taliban 'smart.' They are not smart. I suggest CNN invest in a dictionary because the word they are looking for is 'cunning'. The Taliban are cunning, like jackals and hyenas and wolverines. They are sneaky and ruthless, and when confronted, cowardly. They are hateful, malevolent parasites who create nothing and destroy everything else. Smart. Pfft. Yeah, they're real smart.

They've spent their entire lives reading only one book (and not a very good one, as books go) and consider hygiene and indoor plumbing to be products of the devil. They're still figuring out how to work a Bic lighter. Talking to a Taliban warrior about improving his quality of life is like trying to teach an ape how to hold a pen; eventually he just gets frustrated and sticks you in the eye with it.

OK, enough. Snuffle will be up soon, so I have to get back to my hole. Covering my tracks in the snow takes a lot of practice, but I'm good at it. Please, I tell you and my fellow Americans to turn off the TV sets and move on with your lives. The story line you are getting from CNN and other news agencies is utter bullshit and designed not to deliver truth but rather to keep you glued to the screen through the commercials. We've got this one under control. The worst thing you guys can do right now is sit around analyzing what we're doing over here, because you have no idea what we're doing, and really, you don't want to know. We are your military, and we are doing what you sent us here to do.

You wanna help? Buy Bonds, America..

Saucy Jack
Recon Marine in Afghanistan
Semper Fi

"Freedom is not free... but the U.S. Marine Corps will pay most of your share."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dockers Khakis Helps Men Be Men

Please!!! The best Dockers' ad agency could do was suggest there were times when men wore the pants?  Yes, I recognize this was done with tongue in cheek, and yes, I recognize the web ad has buttons for men's and women's shopping. But seriously, when do the ad geniuses give up trying to merely gain attention and start selling something again?
Did the executives at Dockers think this was clever? Did they expect America would be swept up in the "playfulness" of the campaign? Would America flock to stores to buy their khakis to salute the progress society has made in advancing issues of gender equality? These same folks who approved this really lowered the bar on a brand that once fueled American society's shift to casual Fridays and ultimately the entire "business casual" office attire movement. With all the unique brand attributes Dockers has to tout, and defining itself as the "soft" khaki, I doubt that term was ever meant to reflect their skill at crafting ads. I expect this campaign to die the quick and merciless death it deserves. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Starbucks by any other name

Starbucks has begun opening coffee shops under different names. Each location has a different identity and and as I understand it different decor. The company is trying to appear to be a small local business in each community. The idea that Starbucks can reinvent itself as a collection of local coffee shop is plain dumb. The early sales results are confirming this. The new stores put in existing locations are generating significantly lower sales than the original Starbucks.

Be who you are. Starbucks is willing to pretend it is whatever they think the customer will buy. Naming each new location for the street on which it is located, but running it just like they do every other Starbucks is about as disingenuous as a company can get. At this rate, Dunkin Donuts, McDonald's, and even the local coffee house need only to stay the course, and wait for Starbucks to self- destruct. How long might that take? Ask Blockbuster Videos, KB Toys, Krispy Kreme, Wickes, and Sharper Image stores. Admittedly, all these major brands faced widely different and profound marketplace challenges before their demise, but in the end they all share one trait - they failed to be true to who they were while still innovating.

Starbucks is caught up in an expansion death spiral for the sake of their stock price. It’s a nonsensical grip that has many successful companies around the neck. How is it possible that every company can expect double digit growth forever? When did the definition of corporate success morph into share price above all else? When did profit through budget management succumb to growth at any price? Where is it written that companies can't have up AND down sales years and still be successful? Must every week be a 52-week sales and stock price high? Adding more stores to disguise declining year-over-year, same-store sales is what executives do at big companies to protect their bonuses, and stock options.

Starbucks stopped innovating and started replicating. Expansion trumped innovation. “More customers” does not always mean more business. One of the best exercises in the world is asking yourself, "If I didn't add a new customer for an extended period of time, what would it take for my existing customers to continue to do business with me at a rate and margin that would sustain me?" AND then, do that! It makes sense that which is authentic and encourages existing customers to do more business with you will also be an ingredient necessary to attract new customers.

Could Starbucks be a successful company if it focused on being a better company rather than a bigger company? I think so. Starbucks could be turned around but it is very doubtful it will be because the leadership is locked in to a compensation plan that is driven by a "case count" mentality rather than raving, satisfied customers.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

American Idol Runner-up Adam Lambert Stages a Huge Error in Judgment

Adam Lambert, who I think is a rare and gifted talent really blew it during his performance at the American Music Awards and fell as flat as I predict his recently released album will. His stage antics proved to be a misguided attempt at gaining attention for his political and social views as well as his sexual orientation rather than his singing.

As part of my marriage vows it seems I am required to watch American Idol with my wife or risk her scorn. If either of us are not at home on a night the show airs, Tivo takes over, and we watch it together the first chance we get. From the first time I heard his voice in auditions, I picked him to be in the top three. Lambert can sing. He's also got charm, polish and character - something the other contestants in the '09 edition didn't exhibit as well. As the show progressed from week to week, he appeared to be a man against children in terms of his talent. He is one of my three all-time favorite contestants.

As a brand strategist, I desperately hope he seeks better career counsel. Let's start with the recently released album. There really isn't a single song on it that does his voice or personality justice. This was an album that was produced for middle of the road. It's as if Baskin Robbins produced it and decided to offer 31 Flavors of vanilla.

At the American Music Awards, Lamberts risqué behavior including simulating sex, and kissing one of his male band members really distracted from and cheapened his performance. I guess, if he is to be believed and his behavior was a "spur of the moment" response, then he isn't as mature as one would hope. I doubt this was anything but a calculated attempt to "steal" the buzz from the show for the following morning's TV news.

Lambert defended his actions by claiming he believes in artistic expression. What he did had nothing to do with artistry. It was all about expressing his sexual orientation and an attempt to advance his "bad boy" image. In the process, I think he did a disservice to gays everywhere who fought hard to win the level of public and commercial acceptance he now enjoys.

His claim that people didn't complain when Madonna did it is shallow and weak. It seems that Lambert is attempting to follow in Lady Gaga's footsteps, someone he has professed to admire, for audacious her behavior. The difference is Lady Gaga isn't half the talent he is; she's just a stage act. Lambert can sing, and shouldn't dilute his gift with distracting behavior. Is he afraid to let his singing speak for itself? The first rule of branding is authenticity. Be yourself, Adam. The second rule of branding is consistency. Lambert can't bounce from portraying someone who is dedicated to honing his craft, to someone who is swept up in his "if it feels good, I do it" persona and expect to find long term following.

This inappropriate stage behavior and a weak first recording suggest his leap into stardom has been more of a misstep and may require a "do-over." Lambert has so much talent, stage presence and star potential, one can only hope he gets his head screwed on straight (not the best choice of words) and invests as much effort in taking his talent to the limits as he does his sexuality.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Giving Up on an Idea Doesn't Mean Giving Up.

The greatest lessons I've learned in life come from knowing when it is time to quit. Too often we stay with things because we can't accept loss, we are locked into a faulty belief, assigned an inappropriate value to something, or can't disown a misguided commitment. Sway - The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman explains this better than anything I have ever read.

To me, knowing when something isn't working is the true measure of wisdom. As I tell myself all the time, the only true wrong decision I make is when I fail to make the next decision that might improve upon or correct a past decision.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Baseball Past the First Week of October Should Be Outlawed

Other than a few obsessed sportscasters, the occupants of your neighborhood nursing home, and the fans in the cities involved, who the heck cares about the MLB playoffs? Not me. In fact, in the future, call me if/when the Cubs make it to the World Series. Otherwise, I think the entire baseball season is WAY too long and would require way too much of an investment of time to follow for a season, so I don't get into it all.

I hate preseason games. It's the equivolent of asking patrons to attend dress rehearsals for a musical where the performers speak, but don't sing their parts since the performace doesn't count for anything except stage direction and practice. My interest in the baseball season can be defined this way: Opening Day, a game or two each season at Wrigley Field, and on then to the Bears.

Some years I have a lukewarm interest in the World Series. This isn't one of those years.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Great Brands Know Their Constraints

Constraints are the essence of branding. Nothing can be all things to all people. In fact, powerful branding is the ability to define your target audience as narrowly as possible. That is not to say appeal to fewest people, but rather, define your appeal by its most significant impact. Keeping in mind at all times, that being well known is not the same as having brand loyalty.

Constraint knows where the edges are, but it does not mean restraints. Rather than that which holds one back, constraints define the boundaries of choice.

An example I use often, because it was an assignment in which I was involved, is the March of Dimes (MOD). Given that the mission of MOD at the time was to overcome birth defects and infant mortality, some might say that every parent, grandparent, and elected official, tax payer, and medial professional and educator is a target of MOD since they all are affected by the health of children. While its true various elements of the population have a significant stake, and we would all likely benefit from them hearing the message, that doesn't make them all a target of MOD. When I spoke on behalf of MOD at various functions, over a couple of decades, I used to start by telling the audience that babies are not the target of MOD, but rather the by-product of MOD. Branding is about behaviors. Babies are not responsible for their behaviors, so why pretend they are your target? This would infuriate various members of the MOD staff because they built their reputation over the years on showing either sickly and deformed children, or healthy, bouncy babies, and reporting on the numbers of babies that fell into each category. Healthy babies represented a goal for MOD, but not a target.

The target of MOD is women who choose to have healthy babies. If women practiced better prenatal care, we could cut in half the number of children who are born this country with birth defects. The last time I checked the US was ranked around 25th in terms of infant mortality. So, it appears education is as important in the MOD mission as is medical research and scientific breakthroughs. And who is the only person that can successfully have a healthy baby? The Mother!

Yes, men have a role in making a baby, but they don't "have" babies. 50% of the births in this country are unplanned. It is safe to assume those pregnancies were not initiated by women who chose to have a healthy baby given what we know today about the importance of preconception life style behaviors, and prenatal care. Likewise, a good portion of the female population is outside of childbearing years, or incapable of having a baby for any number of reasons. That reduces the target population further still.

In other words, MOD's target audience is limited to women who choose to have healthy babies. In tailoring messages to other influencers (fathers, coworker, employers, elect officials, etc., it is critical that MOD frame them through the experience of the mother's education: "Dad's don't smoke or drink around expectant mothers. It my influence them to engage in behavior that is not healthy for the baby they want." That's a targeted message.

The constraints represented in knowing whom their target audience really is (in the case of MOD, women who choose to have a healthy baby), and how to express the brand through the perspective of that limited audience, is key to making a brand successful.

Friday, October 9, 2009

More on what to do about youth violence

On September 28 I wrote about the murder of Derrion Albert, the high school student who was beaten to death in the streets of Chicago by fellow students who disliked him because he was from another neighborhood.

I predicted within a week another murder would move him from the headlines. Actually, there have been two student violence incidents since Albert's. In the mean time, President Obama sent Attorney General Eric Holder, and Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan to Chicago to address the issue.

Sadly, all they did was make more speeches, rattle off a list of what they consider to be the White House's actions to address youth crime, and drop off a check for $500,000, allegedly to be used to improve security at the school Albert attended. The Chicago School District promptly announced that they had already spent more than that amount providing additional bus service to that high school in the two weeks since Abert's death, implying the money wouldn't be buying any new security, but being applied to the bus bill.

And of course, Jesse Jackson jumps in front of the cameras to call out the National Guard. Michael Phlager, the catholic priest/neighborhood media darling did his usual chest beating and mock outrage while issuing some inane challenge against the perpetrators by stating "if you come after our children, you come after us," or some such nonsense. Everybody is jockeying for camera time but no one has a meaningful solution. ministers and neighborhood leaders seem more interested in where they can get another grant to advance one of their current (read: nonperforming) programs.

I touched on a couple of ideas I think can help to bring this epidemic under control in my Sept 28 post, but it seems it's time to elaborate.

40% of the children in Illinois have no adult male living in their household. 35% of all children born in Illinois have no father listed on their birth certificate. When will we as a society recognize that without strong male role models in the life of each and every child, their chances of success are significantly reduced?

In addition to more after school and peer group activities others have proposed, here are the five things I believe could be done immediately to reduce the incidence of violence among America's youth:

1. We as a society must use every means available (economic, interpersonal, political, etc.) to impress upon women that having children with multiple men, who do not take daily responsibility for helping to raise their children is no longer acceptable. New consequences need to be imposed. We must change social services, laws and cultural standards to impress upon these women that society will no longer bear the costs of their bearing children they are not equipped to raise.

2. Men who do not participate on a daily basis in the lives of their children must be made to feel the full weight of society's wrath. I will leave fathers' rights to others to discuss; my issue is fathers' responsibilities. If a man chooses not to provide support for his children, I say throw the book at 'em. If for whatever reason a man cannot be present on a daily basis, they should be prepared for another to do it. If that means their standing as a father is somehow diminished, that is the price one pays for not meeting their responsibility. If on the other hand, fathers take an active, daily role in their childrens' lives we should find new ways to recognize these successes. Nothing accelrates change like positive reinforcement and peer/public recognition.

3. In households without a daily male role model, children are left to learn men's role in society from television, movies and music. Media does not properly demonstrate to children how responsible men behave. We must restore honor and prestige to the process of being a responsible and engaged father. Let's establish a new standard. As a society, we must insist that EVERY child be raised under the influence of a mother figure and a father figure. The days of moms raising children without the assistance of a male role model must end. If mom isn't capable of finding a responsible man in her life, at least give the children a chance to find one through social services, the YMCA, churches, or other community resources. The days of children living without access to a responsible male, if none lives in their household, must end.

4. Parents and other concerned adults in each community must self-organize to provide daily and frequent parent patrols around their schools, and in their neighborhoods. A national program called Watch D.O.G.S. enlists dads, father figures and other concerned males to spend a day in school. A schedule is designed for every day of the school year, and dads take turns volunteering. Watch D.O.G.S. is especially successful in elementary and middle schools. They are not there as a security force, or do they carry specific roles. The only authority they have is to serve as positive male role models for all the children with whom they come in contact throughout the day. In some cases, they help out with math, or reading. In other cases, they just walk the halls and monitor and have lunch with the students. Truancy, school violence, and incidents of bullying all improve dramatically in schools where Watch D.O.G.S. has been allowed to flourish. It doesn't take a formal program like Watch D.O.G.S. to see improvement, just the presence of a few men in school to help set better examples.

5. Until men are willing to accept the daily responsibility for the children they bring into this world, then the privilege of molding those children should be taken on by others. Neighborhoods can organize on a grassroots level to see that every child in the community has a personal father figure, or responsible male role model, or mentor. This isn't rocket science folks. You match the kids up with men of character who are willing to give some time and attention. It is almost unthinkable that a child would be raised without a mother figure in their life, so why don't we assign the same significance to a father figure? Yes, I know there are issues of safety and screening that have to be addressed, but the sooner a child has a responsible man in their life, the more likely they are to feel the influences every child should.

A study done by Gallop and ABC News in the late 90's sought to find common denominators among the criminals in the prison systems across the country. Only one factor proved to be almost universal, and was cited by more than 85% of all the inmates interviewed. What the criminal element of our society has in common isn't race, poverty, lack of education, or the influence of drugs and alcohol -- it is father absence, or fatherlessness.

The bozos lining their own pockets in Chicago's city hall, and the politicians in Washington, DC wring their hands, call for more police, tougher laws and more funding, but the real issue is men just need to be better men on a one-to-one basis with children, and women should demand this for every child. Admittedly, many of the young men who committed the savage beating of Albert are beyond hope and a scourage to society, but there are plenty of children that can be still be saved, and they are watching the adult reaction carefully. Do nothing new, and we signal the same path awaits more fatherless children.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A WGN Radio Listener Weighs In

Maybe I'm dating myself by acknowledging I have been a regular listener to WGN Radio for many years. The truth is, when at my desk, the station was on for long stretches of the day. Radio helps me concentrate. Sometimes, talk radio serves as white noise, sometimes I find I'm drawn into the interviews and discussions. However, lately, many of the WGN on-air personalities rely heavily on the front page of the Chicago Tribune for their topics. If I read the paper myself in the morning, I don't need WGN to read it to me again throughout the day, or to bring the writers from the paper on the air to summarize the story for me. The news is the news and I get that, but why not give me a different perspective rather than repeat someone else's?

Over the past few months, management of the station has made a number of changes that I assume are an attempt to capture a larger market share, and remain relevant. Audience favorite Spike O'Dell retired as the morning personality and was replaced with John Williams. Long-time mid-morning duo Kathy and Judy were asked to leave earlier this year. These two moves set off a parade of on-air auditions, and a series of changes at the station. John Williams was moved again, and now works from 9am-Noon. Garry Meier, who was once among the most popular (and some would say abrasive) characters on Chicago radio came out of an extended, self-imposed hiatus after failing to reach a contract agreement with his former employer. Greg Jarrett was brought in to fill the early morning slot.

Ironically, one of the few time slots that have remained stable is the one held by Steve Cochran from 4-7:00PM. In recent years, Steve has earned a reputation as the station's "bad boy." He openly questions management decisions on the air, and speaks often about how he gets hauled in the boss' office to be reprimanded for his behavior.

Here's where I come out on the changes:

I've stopped listening to WGN in the early morning. I find Jarrett's style to be pompous, arrogant, and self- absorbed. I tried to listen for a while, and was willing to overlook his constant references to California, and his West Coast contacts. I was even willing to put up with his conservative political blustering. Almost from day one, he tried to ingratiate himself to the audience by rooting for Chicago's teams, and acting tuned into politics, and the culture. It struck me as completely insincere, since he has virtually no history with the city, or knowledge on any of those topics. Admittedly, the station runs Cubs and Blackhawks games, so he had an obligation to get on those bandwagons, but the rest of the time he's trying so hard to appear "with it" and "someone I should want to know," he reminds me of the high school misfit who follows the cool crowd around campus and jumps into every conversation with a "me too" story in the hopes he'll be liked. His "commanding voice," which is great for radio, suffers from his attitude, which reminds me of that pompous dimwit character played by Ted Knight on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

I have yet to hear Jarrett conduct an interview where he actually asks a question seeking any insight. In an attempt to show his command of a topic, he typically asks questions in the form of lengthy comments that generally allow for nothing more than a "yes" or "no" from the person being interviewed.

I always considered Andrea Darlus to be a credible news person, but it seems the station has encouraged her to be what I characterize as "bubbly and improvisational." I liked her better when she was more measured. Her new giddiness wears thin. Likewise, Leslie Keiling, the traffic reporter, has been given a wider berth to interact with Jarrett on the show. I liked her better when she just reported, and commented less. I admit, my morning alternative, WBBM is pure business radio, and I'm not crazy about it, but it beats "plastic" Jarrett and his harem.

Before leaving the topic of traffic, why do we need it every 8 minutes all day? Keiling's reports citing travel times on the local expressways is so formulaic, and changes so seldom that I can usually give it from memory. "If you're traveling inbound on the Edens, it 17 minutes to the junction . . ." Why not skip all that, and just give us deviations from the usual patterns and reports of accidents? I believe the frequent traffic and weather updates are nothing more than a device to create specific ad unit sales. I find the frequency gets in the way of meaningful interviews and discussions.

John Williams was never a favorite of mine, but I tolerated him the way you might a kind, but out-of-touch uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. Since the change to midmorning, I think he's found a second wind. He's showing more insight, asking probing questions of his guests, and is generally more entertaining than I found him to be in other day parts. The key differences between Jarrett and Williams are Williams understands no one is seeking for him to replace Walter Cronkite as the most trusted authority in America. He has learned people don't dial in to listen to him; they dial in because he is interested in what they think and have to say. Equally as significant, he doesn't take himself too seriously. Williams is a bright spot in a spotty line-up.

Garry Meier's delivery still sounds to me like his shorts are pulled up too high, but he adds an element of humor and irreverence the station can use. He's at his best when he's going after Greg Jarrett and Mayor Daley, and at his weakest when his sidekick "Elton Jim" interjects. Meier's sidekick lacks the quick thinking patter a sidekick should have. Again, I am reminded of the high school misfit who desperately wants to be part of the crowd so he constantly kisses up to the big man on campus while permitting them to also make him the brunt of most jokes, and accepts the bullying just to be part of the crowd.

Where did the station get this new "house announcer?" Is she someone's girlfriend, or Sam Zell's daughter? I can think of no other way she got on the air. I'm sure she's a terrific person, but the sound of her voice is fingernails on a chalk board to me. The first time I heard her I though it was bit someone was running. Her inflection, modulation, tone, and pace are ALL wrong. She talks too fast, places emphasis on the wrong words and syllables and is just plain annoying. I've begun keeping track of the products and services she hawks so as to remember not to buy them. Note to management: This is WGN Radio, not a Columbia School of Broadcasting class. Hearing that annoying voice frequently throughout the day is a factor in why I no longer consider myself a regular WGN listener.

Finally, realizing my comments have been mostly negative and somewhat harsh, I saved my greatest compliments for last. Steve Cochran's show is the only one I try to catch as often as possible. Again, the stations too frequent traffic and weather reports hurt his delivery, but Steve keeps his content fresher, his interviews more lively, and his topics more diverse. Steve's strength is interacting with and engaging the listeners.

Radio isn't rocket science. Just put someone on the air who is entertaining, knowledgeable on a variety of topics, and interested enough in me that I'd like to be sharing a private dinner with them.    

Monday, September 28, 2009

Beating Chicago's Youth to Death

The local media, and as a result of the posting of a murder video on the Internet, I suspect much of the country, is abuzz about the death of another young man in Chicago. Derrion Albert was beaten with boards and kicked to death by a group of depraived fellow students.  I guess the school uniforms everyone was wearing weren't as affective as school administrators hoped in keeping the peace. For the record, I have not seen, nor will I watch the video. Seeing a screen capture photo in print, splashed across the local papers, was sickening enough. That will teach the victim to refuse gang affiliation. But what will it teach others?

If you're in one of the gangs, you'll think twice about seeking a way out. If you are a young person trying to resist gangs, you realize that there really isn't any place you are safe. Derrion Albert was clubbed and kicked to death in the street, by his school. You'll also realize that the Chicago Police first responders are a little slow to step in when they are so greatly outnumbered by a blood thirsty mob. You realize that all the prayer vigils are street theater, and praying is an obscenity when subsitituted for meaningful action. All the passion and chanting about "We're taking back our communities!" and "The violence must stop!" is vulgar exhibitionism for the media. The clergy, politicians, so-called community leaders who take to the streets with bullhorns as well as the media people who cover it are supreme hypocrites. The kids already know better than to trust any of them.

What do the mothers of violence victims learn? They are as helpless as they have always told themselves they are. Next week, Derrion Albert will be replaced in the news by another murder or two and then their mothers will talk about what a good child she raised, and how she could never have imagined this happening to her baby, despite the culture of violence that is all around on a daily basis. The fathers? They threw their children away shortly after conceiving the hopeless bastards, so they belong back under the rock where they reside. What does the community learn? The beat goes on. The ministers and the newscasters have fodder for Sunday's sermon and the next talk show segment. In both case, it should help revenues.

The solution isn't more speeches, more pulpit pounding, or pleas for standing up to the violence. Men, who fathered these trouble makers, or other men from the community have to step in, using whatever means necessary, to forge one-to-one relationships with these young men. Admittedly, it won't be done with a Coke and smile. It will take extraordinary effort, using unorthodox methods.

Maybe it's too late for the current generation of animals that prey on one another. But somewhere, there is a boy and perhaps a girl who is still a step away from the gang influence and can be influenced by a caring, engaged, and fully present father figure.

That's it folks. Education, jobs, housing and all the other conditions that affect young people, lack the power of one good man in the life of a child. I've met lots of poor people, lots of underemployed, lots of uneducated, and even a couple of homeless people who who turned out to be rather remarkable people because there was a man in their life on a daily basis.

At what point do we recognize that lack of responsible fathers is the root problem? The rampant butchering of young people in the streets of Chicago is a direct result of irresponsible parenting -- women who lack character and self esteem as they crank out babies without the ability or resources to raise children, and fathers whose lost interest in the mother and the consequences of their actions the minute the sex was over. Many of these women have babies fathered by different men. Many of these men have fathered children by numerous women. As a society, we have to begin to get in the faces of men and women who inflict this reckless behavior on us.

40% of all children in Illinois live in a household with a male figure living there. 35% of ALL children born in Illinois have no father listed on their birth certificate. Who teaches young men how to be a man? Who teaches young people how men act responsibily toward women? Everytime I hear a women claim that she is both mother and father to her children I want to vomit. You may be a success as your child's mother, but you are a miserable failure at being their father. Until, and if we one day have a fully androgenous society, males and females have markedly different influences.  Without their mother, or a woman of equal influence in their lives, my children would be at signficant disadvantage in the world. I can see evidence that I make an equal and entirely different impact in their lives. Every child deserves, and I would go so far as to say, requires a male and a female roll model in their life.

Same-sex relationships are the business of the participants. But suggesting that having "two mothers" or "two fathers" somehow compensates for the lack of a male and a female roll model sounds cute, but is dangerously flawed in communities as unstable as Chicago's ghetto.  

Until women stop having babies they can't raise without a man, until men of the community claim young people as a personal life-long responsibility, and the community as a whole are shamed enough, the slaughter will remain constant. Doubt it? Ask yourself how long the public will express its rage over Albert's death. Then ask yourself if there is any end in sight to the slaughter in Chicago streets and elsewhere.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

5-Hour Energy

It isn't often that I see an add I admire, but 5-Hour Energy has one. How refreshing to see an ad that skips the hype, the breathless announcer, phoney actor portrayed situations, to give us straight talk. This ad tells me what's in the product (all natural ingedients, even using a mug to depict the amount of caffinne in one bottle, which they claim is equal to a cup of coffee), and what's not in the product.

I love the fact that they urge you to try a half bottle of the product, to see how it affects you, and urge you to decide then, if the product is right for you.

I am not presenting this post as an endorsement of the product. However, I can say I used 5-Hour Energy, pretty much the way the maker suggested. Last winter, I was outside Dayton, Ohio conducting a client workshop on brand strategy. Because the client wanted to conserve time for their people, we consolidated two days of content into one long day. The session started at 7:30 am and wrapped up around 6:15 PM. I was on my feet and presenting/facilitating almost without stop for the entire time. At the end of the session, I was exhausted. I still faced a more than four-hour drive back home to get a few hours sleep before rising again at 4:00 am to catch an early flight out of O'Hare to be with another client. Even with the time zone benefit of picking up and hour, I didn't have much time to rest.

Winter darkness had descended and snow started to fall as I got to the parking lot. Although I'd never tried the product before, I decided to see if 5-Hour Energy really worked. Wanting to be extra careful, and not being a regular coffee drinker, I chose to take a sip that amounted to a little less than half the bottle. Within the first hour of the drive, the snow was coming fast and furious. But I found I was feeling refreshed and alert. I wasn't experiencing the "buzz" I was expecting from the caffeine -- just a natural sharpness. I didn't even need another sip.

Despite a pretty awful winter storm, my little five-speed sports car held the road well, and I got home safe and sound. I went straight to bed and found I had no trouble getting right to sleep. I awoke fairly exhausted, but on time, to learn the storm, which dropped over a foot of snow on Indiana, had subsided. Illinois (and O'Hare) were untouched by the storm so my flight got out on time, with me aboard.

It's important that I remain on top of my game when conducting workshops, speaking engagements, and facilitating events for clients. I can't afford to be distracted, or even slightly out of sorts. If 5-Hour Energy had even the slightest negative effect on me, that would have been the first and last time I used it. Now, I carry a bottle of 5-Hour Energy with me to all my speaking engagements, presentations, and workshops. In the past eight months, I have used it one other time in the middle of a two-day seminar that called for me to do two ten-hour sessions. Again, I took a small sip, and felt no side effects.

I tell you of my personal experience not to promote the product, but rather to reinforce the manufacturer's decision to encourage people to learn what they are taking, and to take it with caution so they can gauge their own tolerance and the usefulness of the product.

Responsible advertising works. I applaud the makers of 5-Hour Energy for taking such a responsible approach and avoiding the current trend in advertising to over promise, be overly clever, or go for some quirky gimmick to attempt to attain work-of-mouth.

Remember Clara Peller and "Where's the beef?" It had everyone talking in the 80's about Wendy's ads and created a phenomenon of its own. The next pertinent questions should have been "Where's the Wendy's?" The ad campaign got the nation talking, but did little to boost sales relative to the increased ad budget, simply because Wendy's real estate strategy was to build stores in less than desirable locations. As clever as the campaign was, people weren't willing to go out of their way to find a Wendy's. At one point, JC Penny's considered acquiring Wendy's as part of its diversification strategy. The retail giant walked away after taking a look at Wendy's books, seeing the campaign created a lot of PR, but not nearly the level of sales people were claiming.

Kudos to the makers of 5-Hour Energy and the advertising people involved for having faith in their product and the ability of the buying public to decide.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Taking My Daughter to College

We spent a couple of glorious days together moving Kailey into her dorm room at Indiana University. Even after moving in bags and bags of clothing, half the possessions in her overcrowded bedroom at home, a variety of new appliances, and an assortment of decorator items, we found we'd overlooked a few things (a toothbrush, personal hygiene items, drinking cups/glasses, extension cords/surge protectors, coaxial cable, etc) and had to make trips to the local hardware store, and Target. But we didn't forget to pack essentials like a week's supply of microwavable macaroni and cheese, the microwave itself, a new HD TV, too many pairs of shoes to wear in a month of Sundays, at least a dozen headbands, and a full array of Audrey Hepburn wall posters. You get the idea -- an 18 year-old did all her own packing.

We had a ball unpacking, assembling, sorting, storing, and moving things around. Adding to the excitement was dinner with the family of her childhood best friend who I haven't seen in a long time, and were there themselves moving into another dorm on campus.

With Kailey's move complete, parting was tense and difficult. Although this wasn't the first time she's been away from home, it certainly felt like the most permanent. My little girl is going out into the world to make her own way. This wasn't as scary as sending her to intern in Washington, DC by herself as we did earlier this summer, but it was every bit as emotional for both of us. I suspect it was hardest for Mom who stayed behind to see that Tate got off to his high school classes and tend to the dogs.

Although we shared a long hug, and "I Love Yous,"neither of us was eager to look the other in the eye because we both knew we'd start crying. After I went for the door and she hurried back to the elevator, I forced myself to call out to her again. I wanted to be sure I looked her in the eye so she could see the love that will always be there for her. And as we have done countless times, I whispered "love you more, love you most."

Although no one would be the wiser if I didn't reveal this, I got slightly off route two times during the ride home. I was still struggling with the shell-shock of letting go and traveling in a bit of an emotional fog.

When I got home, everyone else was out. So after getting the car somewhat back to normal, and unpacking my suitcase, I took a shower. The glass enclosure was foggy, I couldn't see well because my glasses were off, and all of sudden I heard that sweet, familiar voice say "Hi, Daddy!" as she bounded into the bathroom.

At once, my heart soared! My little girl was home! What a pleasant and unexpected surprise! For that brief second, I wasn't even concerned about the logic of it all, or the fact that I had left Kailey 250 miles away just hours earlier. I didn't care how or why she was home, I was just thrilled to have her back! I had never noticed before how similar mother and daughter's voices are. Sandy, my wife, had come home from errands and it was she that was welcoming me. As pleased as I was to see her after a couple of days apart, I felt again like crying when the realization hit me that my sweet child is far away, and life as I have known and treasured it most, with both children under foot, is forever changed. Change is good. Life goes on. But dad is still a little sad.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Christopher Sullivan makes even ugly MLS soccer seem intelligent

Loath as I am to watch MLS soccer, it is my habit to check out whatever is on Fox Soccer Channel at all hours of my viewing day. I happened on a game between DC United and Houston Dynamo last week while flipping channels and I had my finger on the channel changer just as I heard Christopher Sullivan's voice doing the color commentary. The game was a dreadful affair lacking skill, creativity, and style from either side. And yet, I stayed with it because I love the unique perspective Sullivan, a former professional player, and member of the US National Team brings to his commentary.

I've heard other former (and some active) players who lack the polish and perspective I think Sullivan brings. His delivery is measured, understated, and at times, melodic. Because of some questionable audio work during the broadcast, the commentators were often drowned out by the stadium announcer and the crowd. I actually found myself straining to hear what Sullivan had to say. Let me tell you, with all to few exceptions, that has not been the case with other soccer announcers in this country. Honestly, if I know a game is also being broadcast in Spanish, I prefer to tune that channel even though I don't speak the language simply because most English speaking announcers tend to be more distracting than contributing. Sullivan reports what he sees in a cadence that lends a rhythm to the game without distracting the viewer. Rather than just report the game, he brings you into its unique character. Too many other former players try to provide a player's perspective, but merely report the run of play.

Sullivan is an astute student of the game. His analysis blends team tactics, individual tactics, and a coach's sideline perspective. He has an amazing command of soccer history, players around the globe, and the fine points that comprise each player's game. Like the sport itself when it is played well, he keeps his commentary fluid, concise, relevant and insightful. He knows how to assess a team's game plan quickly, and at times, his ability to predict what a team is trying to do and when it will happen is uncanny.

I think a key to his success is he doesn't watch the game the way many fans and coaches in this country do. The norm is "ball watching," focus on offensive build up, or one's own team's execution. Coaches and knowledgeable fans watch three parallel aspects of the game at once: our own team's execution of the game plan, the individual and collective execution of what we believe to be the opponent's game plan, and the combined overall dynamics of the game with emphasis on individual match-ups that offer opportunistic advantages. In some cases, it is clear to me, coaches are so busy watching their own team's performance, they can't even tell you the sequence of events or key factors in an opponent's attack. This is especially true at the high school and college level, but I believe Bob Bradley, coach of the US National Team suffers from this at times as well. He's earned the nickname, "Bunker Bob" for a reason. As an aside, I was watching a game being coached by a protege' of mine, and at half time she passed by on the way back to her bench and asked if I had any observations. I took the occasion to ask her if she was aware that all three first half goals were scored on exactly the same play by two players who alternated positions, assists and goal scoring? It was clear to me that they saw a weakness and deliberately, repeatedly exploited it. It was equally clear that the coach and her defense hadn't adjusted to pick up the play after the first or second goal. I was very proud of her that she adjusted, and each time the opponent tried it after the break, it failed. Her team pretty much shut down the opponent altogether through her astute adjustments throughout the second half.

But back to Sullivan -- he has such a thinking man's soccer mind. He would make a formidable coach. If you caught the telecast of the Marathon (Honduras) and DC United game this evening you saw exactly what I am referring to in his ability to predict what Marathon needed to do to gain the advantage over DC United. As the game progressed he accurately predicted where the American team would be most vulnerable. Unfortuntely for the right back and central defenders who had a hellish night for DC United, Sullivan was laser accurate. Again, this game was a dull and lifeless affair, as evidenced by the meager crowd in attendance, until the Marathon coach took exactly the steps Sullivan had been suggesting early in the second half. A generally sloppy and unispired game was made almost bearable by Sullivan's analysis.

I know there are people who dislike Sullivan's work because of his European influences, or sometimes quirky pharsing, but rather enjoy those trademark aspects. There are very few people with whom I like to sit and watch a game because I prefer to analyze the play in my head rather than socialize and speculate as is done at most American sporting events. However, Sullivan is one person I'd love to sit with and compare observations during a match.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Next True American Revolution

Watching the healthcare debacle that is playing out in this country embarrasses me as an American. If the rest of the world wasn't convinced before that this nation has lost its greatness, this episode may complete the picture. America is more divided today than any other time in its history other than the Civil War. Healthcare is just the latest example.

Lies and distortions are flying from both sides. Politicians desperate to protect their personal interests dance the dance of the insincere. Big Pharma, the Insurance Industry, and healthcare providers have both sides of the aisle in Washington right where they want them -- in their back pockets.

No meaningful reform will come as a result of the political "two-stepping" being done by all parties. The Democrats will claim victory if anything makes it to the President's desk for his signature regardless of how meager the change. Republicans will claim they saved the nation, future generations, and your grandmother from being snuffed out by government agents while she slept in the nursing home, if they can deny the Democrats in the slightest way. From what I've read of the actual legislation, it isn't the profound improvement some people claim, nor is it the evil face of Socialism some of the far right suggest. Frankly, much of if it is bureaucratic, bean counting and vanilla.

In the end, both sides are more interested in the 2010 election cycle than advancing the country. As such, Big Pharma, Insurance and the hospital/medical community needed only to disrupt and delay to get what what they want - to maintain the "status quo" as much as possible. Significant, and controversial legislation has a little chance of passage after January 1. The campaign season will take precedence with no candidate wanting to risk their neck being caught on the wrong side of a vote. So after the first of the year, all parties agree to "play nice" and keep hot topics in limbo until after November. Yet another reason, the entire election process in this country needs to be revamped. We'll wait eleven months for anything of value on any topic to happen. Elections, and the money tied to them, not public service, now command every heartbeat of elected officials.

History would tell us, that with notable exceptions like Germany in World War II, revolution is usually instigated by the "have nots." Given the climate in this country, I expect it will be the conservative middle to upper class that will seek to fight to protect what they consider theirs, in less than the peaceful terms we as a nation like to pretend to be our way of handling domestic disputes in these enlightened times.

At some point in my life, I anticipate I will witness a real, bloody revolution, in the form of a civil war in this country. Maybe that's not all bad. Maybe that's what every good democracy needs from time to time to clean out the cobwebs, and earn its freedom. We are certainly proving that under the veil of peaceful discourse, corruption, self-interest and profiteering have the upper hand. The foreign enemies of America who would like to see us destroyed may need not try to disrupt our way of life. Coupled with an unstable economy that is far from correcting itself, as some "wishers upon a star" would have you believe, left to our own devices, we appear to be doing it to ourselves.

Today, the real soccer season begins.

The English Premier League (EPL) starts. YIPPIE! Coupled with Series A (the Italian League) and a little assist from Tivo that means I can watch worldclass soccer all day, everyday from now through next summer (the World Cup Finals in Sout Africa). My dance card is complete.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Most Astonishing Month in US Soccer History.

Since you are reading this, I'll assume you are not media challenged, and have regular access to news sources. Ergo, it seems safe to assume you may have seen a rash of publicity about various soccer contests, or perhaps you are among the hundreds of thousands of spectators who attended international or national team games in the US this month, or pehaps you are among the millions in this country who witnessed these contests on television.

Most of this soccer enthusiasm is a result of two tournaments happening almost simultaneously around the country -- The CONCACAF Gold Cup, a regional title of little significance (not to be confused with CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying), and the World Football Challenge (WFC).

CONCACAF is an acronym for the region of North and Central America nations as designated by soccer's international governing body (FIFA). The World Football Challenge is an inflated title given to a "friendly"tournament among four prominent foreign teams touring the US as part of their preseason schedules.

As a tune-up to the WFC, Chelsea FC played a friendly on July 18 against the Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion team Seattle Sounders in front of more than 65,000 spectators. In addition, Chelsea FC who won the WFC played four matches before a combined attendance of 275,000 people ( an average of 68,700).

When playing each other, the remaining WFC participants: Club America (Mexico), AC Milan and Inter Milan (both of Italy) drew impressive numbers for their matches.

The Gold Cup showcased 12 teams playing in pool play through four groups with the winners advancing to a "knock out" round. The "knock out" round featured teams from Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, and the USA. Only Costa Rica used a team comprised of its best players. The US and Mexico excluded most of their best players from their rosters and fielded teams comprised of players with limited national team experience. Essentially, they competed with players trying to earn an opportunity to make the team.

Despite using largely unknown players, the semi-final games played as a double-header in Chicago, drew impressive crowds. To be clear, the reported attendance at game time for the US v. Honduras was 20,000. The second game of the evening between Costa Rica and Mexico had an announced crowd of over 55,000. While far from "near sellout" of Soldier Field as announced by the promoters, this was an impressive turnout driven largely by the huge Mexican population in Chicago and the Midwest. Note that the first game, with the host nation, drew less than half the evenings attendance.

The Gold Cup Championship game was played at Giants Stadium and sold out with over 82,000 spectators. Again, Mexico's participation was a key factor in this turnout. The outcome of the game, a 5-0 humbling of the US by Mexico, two teams usually well matched, is an indication of how lightly the US took this competition.

In the two tournaments, with four world famous club teams, playing the first games of their preseason training schedules, and a number of North and Central America nations playing less than their best players, drew very impressive numbers.

So what does this mean for soccer in this country? Hard to say.

This past week, MLS announced its attendance is down about 7% from last year, and this includes the spectacular numbers from the previously mentioned expansion team, Seattle Sounders who are averaging over 30,000 spectators per game. Take the Sounders out of the equation and MLS reported attendance is down double digits. This is especially troubling when you factor in the numerous media reports over time that MLS tends to inflate the attendance figures it reports.

MLS blames much of its decline on the economy. If that's true, some equal measure of the success of the two tournaments might also be attributable to the economy in that fewer people are taking vacations and attending these tournaments was a form of "staycations."

I suspect the tremendous numbers in attendance associated with these two tournaments is due largely to reputations of the international clubs and national teams who participated and is a trend toward visiting teams of fame, and will not translate into increased attendance for US leagues.

As an example, a week before the Seattle v. Chelsea game, the Sounders played Houston in a MLS league game that drew more than 32,000 people (about Seattle's season average). However, three days after the Chelsea game, Seattle played the same Houston team again in a U.S. Open Cup game that drew fewer than 5000 spectators.

The fledgling Women's Professional Soccer League (WPS) announces crowds somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 spectators per match and as the season progresses, the numbers are getting worse, not better. WPS did a good job of sprinkling many of the best women players in the world and the US among its teams. It also put together a solid business plan, and works hard at forming relationships in the community. However, the caliber of play still leaves a great deal to be desired. They may be some of the best women players in the world, but they are not yet the best teams in the world.

What this says to me is, with the exception of a few superstars like David Beckham, the soccer paying public makes its decisions based on the reputation of the team, an opportunity to see foreign national team, and the anticipated caliber of play. As I was the first to predict in a national print publication, seeing David Beckham was a novelty that wore off after one or two times, and did not translate into improved attendance for anyone when he wasn't scheduled to appear.

With the proliferation of national and international competitions coming to this country, and the ever increasing television coverage of games from the overseas professional leagues, the US spectator is becoming more knowledgeable about the game, and more discerning. This could be a double edge sword for leagues in this country. By comparison, the US professional game in general still falls far short in terms of skill, and caliber of play of that of the best men's team in the world. Given the chance to occasionally see two world-class teams play is something Americans will pay to see, but that doesn't mean they will pay to see just anyone play.

Yes, Americans will pay to see the top six teams of England's Premiere League play from time to time, but who wants to see teams at the bottom of that table, or some second division team? If my instincts are correct, the floodgates are about to open as promoters of every stripe begin enticing foreign teams of varying skill and reputation to play in the US. The diluting of product will likely result in the abrupt end of what has started as a very promising trend. But trends do not make habits.

It is the rare opportunity and the high caliber of play that combine to contribute to the outstanding attendance at Gold Cup and WFC games. Sustaining that precise balance is the key to continued success, but even then, I do not see it translating into packed stadiums for US leagues. In those rare cases when powerhouse teams like those in the WFC, and others such as Barcelona FC, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, et al, are involved, the crowds will come out. In other words, don't confuse passion for great soccer with passion for any soccer.

Friday, July 17, 2009


I stopped in our neighborhood Quiznos for the first time in many months. I noticed three things:
1. Their Torpedo product is essentially half the width of their previous sandwich and appears to be a total of three or four thinly sliced pieces of meat. 2. The width of their regular sandwiches has also been downsized by at least 30 %. 3. Prices have climbed by about 10% from what I remember.

A fellow operating the register, who I guessed was the franchisee was chatting with one of the food workers about all the attention the new Jimmy Johns was getting down the road. "They'll be back. Sure, everybody is checking them out, but once they realize that quantity isn't quality they'll come back." I watched the eyes of the worker and all I could read was "I wonder if JJ's is hiring?"

The handful of people in Quiznos, in the middle of the noon hour, confirmed he is feeling the competitive pressure. Just for the heck of it, I went down the street and saw the Jimmy John parking lot jammed. But out of curiosity, I went a block further to the Subway and found their parking lot as full, and the line of customers waiting to be served as they usually are. Directly across the street from JJ's is a Taco Bell that completed a major remodeling within the month. Looks like a brand new place. Some of the other adjacent fast food places were spruced up, with newly stripped parking lots, extra clean windows and fresh landscaping.

The Jimmy Johns has a prime location in the middle of "fast food" row, right next to McDonald's. Subway is just a short distance further past McDonald's. Quiznos is in the opposite direction from the major intersection, sits back from the road somewhat obscured by a bank that sits closer to the road, in a strip mall of "mom and pop" retailers. Although it has been in this location for more than a year, I give it less than a year before it goes under. Downsized product + rising prices + robust competition = poorer value. Note to Quiznos: location, location, location. Can't wait till Monday when I get to try Jimmy Johns for lunch.

Starbucks update

I posted the previous blog yesterday. Today, I read that Starbucks is testing a new concept in one of their stores by not using the Starbucks name. I may not have this name exactly correct, but it's something 5th St. Coffee and Tea. The point is, they are playing with their concept. I find it amazing that the Starbucks brand has never talked about coffee. In fact, their positioning has always focused on being a person's third destination (1.Home 2. work/school 3. Starbucks) which would position them ahead of Church and play as dedicated destinations. It will be fun to see how this plays out.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Decline of Starbucks

I'll try to keep this short and sweet rather attempt to detail the long and illustrious history of Starbucks that has been so well documented elsewhere.

A client made the observation the other day that he considered Starbucks to be a model brand because it established a value proposition and market leadership position while completely avoiding the typical trappings of retail competitive pricing.

This led to an interesting conversation since I couldn't have disagreed more with my client's position. Undeniably, Starbucks is a brilliant brand. I often use examples of Starbucks to illustrate points in my various workshops and speaking engagements. My usual references emphasis the various facets of its unique positioning, powerful brand, and the enormous growth the company achieved without having relied on consumer advertising, which most people consider a cornerstone of brand building. But I will leave that aspect of my opinions for another time.

While I am a fan (but not a customer) of Starbucks, I believe its market strategy has its flaws. To suggest that Starbucks avoided pricing as a cornerstone of its brand positioning ignores the recent and rather rapid decline of the company stock over the past couple of years. Dunkin' Donuts, and McDonald's have landed severe body blows to Starbucks in the battle for premium coffee supremacy by being "more affordable" and a better value than the industry leader. The situation grew so severe that the company founder came out of retirement to replace the CEO and rescue the enterprise.

In designing and adopting a positioning centered on self indulgence, meant to justify premium prices (some would say highly overpriced), the company has absolutely declared a brand centered around price.

My client argued that the current economy and consumer belt-tightening have more to do with Starbucks' decline, and while there might be some truth to that, if we were just talking about a sales decline, I might agree. But I believe market share has definitely, and perhaps permanently shifted to the lower cost alternatives. If the Starbucks' value proposition was genuinely based on something other than premium pricing, the decline in sales and market share would not have been so rapid or so severe. At no time did Starbucks' customers, or the public fail to recognize this was an expensive/overpriced cup of Joe. In flush times, people were more accepting, but make no mistake, the rub was always there.

Starbucks greatest challenge is ahead. Once this economy shows signs of recovery how will it explain what I believe will be a continued decline in its business? Once people have altered their behaviors, it is very hard to win them back. Starbucks is yet another example in the marketplace of how consumer behaviors, based on little more than instant self-gratification will erode.

One of my favorite expressions (I think it comes from Tom Peters) is: "Every condition necessary for your best customer to leave you is in place and moving full steam ahead." The challenge of any management team is to forestall that exit by adapting while still keeping the brand authentic, relevant and consistent.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The National Museum of Health and Medicine

This is my favorite museum in the world. I doubt you've ever been there. It's inconveniently located at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, DC. While it is a public museum, you are still required to show a photo ID at the guard gate to get on the base. Then, you have to wind your way through a maze of stately buildings to find the museum tucked away on the ground floor of the Armed Forces Institute for Pathology.

As part of an effort by Congress to trim military costs, and consolidate resources, Walter Reed is closing. More accurately, portions of it are moving and other portions are being what I call "decommissioned." In other words, put out of business.

A couple of years ago I was invited to assist the museum in formulating a strategy to keep it open. That was the beginning of my love affair with NMHM. First a little history . . .

NMHM was founded during the Civil War for the express purposes of collecting body parts and studying battlefield injury for military medicine. NHHM is one of only two facilities in the world that serve all the branches of the US military. They have millions and millions of relics and artifacts including the bullet that killed President Lincoln. Currently on display, you can walk through a field hospital that housed the most seriously wounded of our fighting men and women in Iraq.

NMHM is more than a museum. It's a working lab. It's had a role in the development of every prosthetic device used by the military from an old tree limb to modern day bionics. NMHM had a significant role in the development of body armor, which is saving thousands of lives on the battle field today, and it even has direct video hook-ups, to offer guidance in medical procedures to the field hospitals where some of our bravest and most seriously wounded military personnel are treated.

Working with NMHM has been a humbling and emmensely satisfying experience. Yes, I've been paid at times to provide my expertise, but I consider it a patriotic duty to stay involved, and as such, have volunteered my time, when necessary, to participate in a museum strategy session and voice my views regarding the museum.

When making the case for keeping the museum as it is, rather than breaking up the collection and distributing it to other parties, I make two points:

1. Every American should appreciate the solemn obligation we have to the valiant people who served our country and are now laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Those heroes gave the ultimate sacrifice for their nation and our freedom. Equally as important, those people whose remains are represented in the collection of relics and artifacts at the NMHM gave the "ultimate sacrifice" twice. Not only did they die in service to their country, their remains have been given over for scientific, historic and research purposes so that others may be spared the same fate, and in other cases, so the injured are spared undo suffering and hardship.

2. We lost 54,000 Americans during 14 years of the Vietnam War. If one compares the seriousness of injuries between that conflict and what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, the death toll would be significantly higher in the current conflicts were it not for the advances, such as body armor, developed or advanced by the people connected to NMHM. Simply put, more of our brave fighting men and women are surviving the most serious injuries because NMHM exists.

Within the next year or so decisions will be made in Washington as to where NMHM will move, who will control it, and what shape its future will take. I can only hope that the powers that be see the importance of NMHM and its immense potential.

Rather than being housed at a single, out of the way location, NMHM has the potential to expand its mission by expanding and forging alliances with a wide variety of medical and technological entities, to form satellite facilities, traveling exhibits, and forward thinking agreements to access loaned elements of the collection. It is critical that the main public facility be located in or around Washington, DC. A national treasure of the significance of NMHM deserves to be showcased in our nation's capital, and not relegated to some obscure military base without convenient public transportation, or adequate recognition. We owe the great patriots whose remains are part of the NMHM collection nothing less.

Visit the web site linked above to see for yourself.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Upheaval in the House

Please, June, hurry up and get over. You'd think the graduation of your oldest child would lend itself to a month of bliss and fond memories. This has been both the longest and most stressful month in memory. Sure, my daughter had a lovely graduation, dear family and friends came in to share the occasion with us, and all, but that event triggered a series of other events like a line of dominoes, each tumbling into the next to the point where I am numb from the weight of change.

My little girl no sooner got her diploma than she was off to DC to begin her internship. Her mom spent the first few days with her to get her settled and acclimate her to the transit system and the routes from the dorm where she is staying to the office. I arrived a few days later and combined a couple of days of work with a visit.

Then I headed back home to find my son about to leave with his cousin to visit with his aunt who owns a resort in Upstate NY. My daughter popped in for a brief visit over the weekend but spent most of her time at her boyfriend's belated graduation party. Now she's back in DC ready for work in the morning. My wife is working and away for three days.

The dynamics of the house and family have really changed with everyone coming and going. Unsettled seems to be the word of the month. July can't get here soon enough.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

LeBron James Dilutes His Brand

I admit it right up front, I am not an NBA fan and I would not consider paying to attend a game.

To this "non fan" the product offered by the NBA seems dominated by characters with whom I cannot connect. Tattoo covered bodies, "ghetto sheik" attitudes, and under-educated, over-paid man-children are not elements with which I can identify. In the end, all branding is about creating an "I see me" bond with the intended audience.

A prime example of everything I find distasteful in the NBA is personified in Cleveland Cavs star LeBron James. I admit he has become one of the biggest names in the league, and I am told, is considered by many to be the best player in the league, which no doubt has added immeasurably to his own brand advancement. Brands can sometimes be fragile things. Speaking strictly from a brand perspective, I believe he severely devalued his brand by refusing to shake hands with his opponents after losing in the league playoffs, which resulted in a firestorm of negative publicity.

Depending on which side of the argument you stand, he either advanced or detracted from the NBA brand value as well. There are those people who believe the league works hard to both embrace and control its "ghetto sheik" reputation because it draws urban crowds, and suburban "wannabes." Every "monster jam" is now followed by a demonstration of "monster" antics. The snarling, chest thumping, and primal screams by players get more and more theatrical and detract from the sport for me. I would never consider bringing my teenagers to an NBA game. There are exposed to enough ill-mannered examples in life without me appearing to endorse that kind of behavior.

Finally, Mr. James' actions reminded me of something someone else said, "Sports do not create character as much as reveal it." Perhaps Mr. James' actions will serve as reminder to all of us to examine our own behaviors and recognize examples where our own best character can come forth.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Two Most Important Lists

I read an interesting piece the other day by Alan M. Webber, blogging on Harvard Business Publishing. He poses a challenge to create arguably the only two lists you'll ever need at work to keep you balanced and your priorities straight:

Things That Keep Me Up At Night.
Reasons I Get Up In The Morning.

Here's what I came up with:

First, the TTKMUAN:
As my son says, "Dad, we eat what you kill. Get out there and kill something!" Hard to find enough "meat" in this economy. How will the bills get paid?

On average, a person can expect to live 75 years. Reflecting on how much of my life has past without distinction, or accomplishment, I wonder if this last third will have any significance. Am I becoming obsolete? Are my most useful years behind me? Do I now merely take my place among those people whose voices diminish with age, and gracefully abandon any thought of having an impact in the world?

As my daughter leaves home, goes out into the world to find her place, will she be safe? Have her mother and I prepared her properly for what awaits? How will the dynamics of the family be altered with her gone?

As my son enters manhood, have I been enough of a role model for him? Will he keep the loving, thoughtful and inquisitive nature I love in him so much, or will he begin to resemble the grumpy, worrisome old man I have become?

How was I behaving today so as to diminish the twinkle in the eyes of my children? I've defined myself through fatherhood for so many years, and taken such daily joy from it that I find myself denying there can be anything beyond this pinnacle.

Finally, I question how I can reinvent myself constantly.

Seriously, I think this stuff.

Unquestionably, the admiration I have for my wife of 20 years who has weathered everything life throws at us and remains the unswerving force in both our marriage and our family. Her job sometimes has her rising in the wee hours of the morning, driving to a bus stop ten miles from home to then take an hour and a half bus ride to the airport where she will hop on a flight to the west coast. She turns right around and is back in the house about 16 hours after she left, only to repeat the schedule later that second day. This pattern repeats four times a month. Never once have I heard her say "I think I'll just call in sick and stay in bed this morning." When her schedule calls for her to leave in the late afternoon and spend the night away from home, I can sense the hardship it is for to leave the family at a time when we are all gathering from our daily pursuits.

Regardless of the time I went to bed, and the fact that both my high school age children are capable of getting themselves up and out in the morning, I feel compelled to kiss them goodbye, wish them a good day, see them out the door and watch them board the school bus that stops in front of our house. Some mornings their mom is home and she gets them going, and I oversleep, only to carry that disappointment with me all day.

With a "yappy," hyperactive dog, and a noisy overhead garage door to announce my arrival, I know that whatever time of day I enter the house, whoever is there will drop what they are doing to welcome me as I come through the door. It's a habit instilled in the children by their mother, and one I find extremely gratifying. Regardless of what has happened to any of us during the day, the reception is always the same warm hug and kiss. Even the dogs have learned to race to the door and await their turn in line for pat on the head.

It's an oddly short and narrow list isn't it? I don't lose sleep over business matters. As much as I enjoy my work, and passionately try to bring real value to my clients, it is not how I define myself. As many nonprofit roles as I've had, I don't lose sleep worrying about how to better the world through the various causes, nor do I view my work or avocations as reasons to get up in the morning.

I found this to be a fun exercise. Try it for yourself.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fr. Pflager: The Upsidedown Flagger

I want to make two points right at the start:
1. I believe Fr. Pflager has every right to fly his flag upside down. Let's not pretend the flag is exempt from use as a political statement. People wrap themselves in flags, burn flags and have demonstrated with it from its introduction. Why shouldn't he be afforded the same rights? While I fully respect their service and contribution, Veterans who are complaining that he is somehow insulting their effort have no greater claim to the flag than does any other American.
2. Children are being killed at an alarming rate, and if instead of bullets, it it was as a result of being hit with swine flu darts, the nation would be enraged and taking action.

I've dealt with Fr. Pflager and I have no respect for him. He is a showboat, self-serving, a media grandstander, and often seems more interested in getting his Pompadour on TV than leading meaningful action. Frankly, if any other pastor, or a more generally respected individual had hoisted their flag in this manner, I doubt there would be the level of outrage expressed by those who are opposed to his action. As usual, he shows his indignation, and bellows about injustice in America, but he has the equation as upside down as his flag.

He hangs the flag upside down, but offers no solution. He intends to keep the flag inverted until? Well, on his rounds of the radio stations today, he kind of stumbled through a vague response that didn't really answer the question. When asked exactly what action he'd like to see taken he blubbers and mutters some gibberish about "America protecting its children."
Why doesn't Fr. Pflager use his enormous community influence to identify real methods of ridding his community of drugs and gangs, which are the real causes of the violence?
Why is Fr. Pflager so reluctant to challenge the two real causes of despair in his community -- lack of personal responsibility and parental influence?
Father absence is the greatest social crisis we face in America, and it is no more evident than in Fr. Pflagers neighborhood. Why doesn't he instigate a campaign for men of his community to "man up" and take the responsibility they should for their children which includes discipline kids, teaching character and serving as good role models?
Why doesn't Fr. Pflager take responsibility for seeing that every child in his neighborhood is claimed and guarded by an adult male. Think of it as a "house by house" campaign to rid the neighborhood of any influence that tolerates illegal drugs, guns, gangs and violence. He doesn't do it, because he knows the majority of his community won't actively support it.

You see, while Fr. Pflager talks about kids dying all over America, the killings are essentially confined to the urban areas where fatherlessness, and father absence run at about 80-90%. In the state of IL as a whole, 35% of children are born without a father listed on their birth certificate. 40% of ALL children in the state of IL have no adult male in their household. These numbers skew most heavily toward the urban areas and speak to a lack of responsibility by the people in the very communities Fr. Pflager contends need America to wake up.

Want to stop the killing in your community Fr. Pflager? Teach adults not to make babies for which they are not willing to be active, daily parents. Teach parents to actively raise their children with high moral standards by setting a daily example for them. That would be real. Instead, Fr. Pflager would rather tilt the image upside down and blame "them" instead of us.