Brand on the run

It is always an interesting challenge to work with an institution that is going through a brand identity crisis. Brand messaging becomes a moving target as we focus on language to communicate a new, evolving mission. “Crisis” of course is the other side of opportunity.

I have worked with institutions that were evolving from regional college to national university status; adopting a brand for the first time; or, as in the case of Florida Polytechnic, starting a university from scratch. These are exciting opportunities for the institutions as well as the writer.

I like this challenge–which is why I’ve been enjoying my work with the University of Southern Maine. As I write copy for USM’s undergraduate viewbook, recruitment and alumni newsletters, or website landing pages, I am constantly integrating freshly minted ideas about what the university is and should be, now that it has adopted a new mission as “Maine’s Metropolitan University.”

John Diamond, a specialist in stakeholder communications in the higher education space, recently shared an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that had a description of a metropolitan university. The article, entitled Rebirth of the Research University, was written by Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks of U.C. Berkeley, and described a metropolitan university as follows:

“…an institution that combines accessibility to education for a diverse population, representative of the region and the nation, with an academic program grounded in the research and the production of new knowledge.”

I will add this to my growing collection of definitions of the metropolitan university and see what sticks.

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Pierced Memories

photoWalking downtown over the July 4th weekend I passed a Congress Street tattoo parlor and had a sudden, vivid memory from nearly 20 years ago.  I can’t swear it was the same tattoo parlor. It had a different name and was definitely seedier, as was most of downtown Congress Street. And mind you this was before everyone and her mother had a tattoo.

Here’s what I remember: I drove in to downtown Portland from the suburbs in my minivan with my 14-year-old daughter who was determined to get her nose pierced––something they only did in tattoo parlors back then.  Under 16, you needed parental permission, which I wasn’t about to give. But I hoped the experience of actually going into the tattoo parlor would convince her not to go through with it––fat chance.  (In retrospect, big deal, right? But this was 1995.)

We parked down the street and I walked ahead of my daughter and her two friends: three freewheeling kids, newly minted freshmen in high school, eager to carve out their identities, so to speak.  Once inside the tattoo parlor we sat on a severely cracked leather couch and waited, looking at a binder of faded tattoo designs of the motorcycle gang variety.  On the other side of the counter, the tattoo artist was doing his thing. Sizzle, zap, buzz… As time ticked on, I thought the kids were close to deciding they didn’t belong there, but no such luck.  The place creeped me out but it didn’t seem to faze my daughter in the least. But then again, she only wanted her nose pierced.

Eventually, it was her turn. The owner of the tattoo parlor began walking my daughter through the process: choosing the stud, discussing where the hole would be, how much it would hurt. She showed no signs of changing her mind––she was going to call my bluff. And then, he got to the important part: no taking out the stud for six weeks. No exceptions. He was very convincing, bless his heart.

A sports season was about to start. It could have been soccer, field hockey or lacrosse, but in any case, the coaches didn’t allow jewelry to be worn on the field.  If she got a piercing, she couldn’t remove it for 6 weeks…which meant she couldn’t play. We were at an impasse.

It’s possible my daughter had just found the excuse she was looking for. She could back out without chickening out. And best of all, I wasn’t the bad guy. We left the shop, nose intact. Piercings and body art were just something to look forward to in the bright future ahead. I was relieved; I’m not sure how she felt.

I have to admit: I didn’t run this particular account by my daughter. I do wonder if she remembers it the same way I do…or even at all? Not that it matters. Memories are notoriously inaccurate. But without them, where would the stories come from? And how would we know how far we’ve come?

 

 

The Hobo News

The Hobo NewsOne day my husband, David, came home with The Hobo News.  In return for the dollar he had given to a panhandler on the street, he received a hand-folded, stapled leaflet. Inside were poems, drawings, thoughts, ideas and stories “written, distributed and printed by the homeless” – an attempt to enlighten a mostly disinterested public.

Such a variety of stuff: 10 questions for a local police officer; an Ask Bella column (a la Dear Abby); poetry, and a crass political cartoon. There was even a word search entitled “Death to all who oppose me.” Spend a few minutes circling words like alcohol, privacy, tribe, xcon, and fight.

The Hobo News got me thinking about all the characters I pass on the street during my daily walks to and from the office. Familiar faces, greetings, requests. I stop occasionally and contribute a buck, but I have yet to receive the next issue of The Hobo News. Here’s hoping.

One familiar face on Exchange Street is a women panhandler who always stands just about halfway between my office entrance and Starbucks. This means I walk by her often. On one particularly freezing afternoon, I offered to get her a cup of coffee.

“Oh thank you. I take it with seven sugars and seven creamers,” she said. Seven sugars? Seven creamers? Okay, one person’s caffeine fix is another person’s calorie fix.

On to Starbucks where I aimed to please. I stood at the side counter hoping no one would notice me tearing open seven sugar packets and emptying them into the same cup. Then I poured in what I hoped would be about seven creamer’s worth of white stuff, burning my hands as the hot coffee overflowed its cup. I managed to get the lid on and carried my coffee and hers back onto the street.

I handed her the coffee, but instead she asked me to pour it into her own well-worn to-go cup. “I don’t want anyone to see me carrying a Starbucks cup. They’ll think I have the money to buy coffee.”

Of course. Image is all, even when you are trying to keep afloat by panhandling on the street. Or maybe especially then. Because the public has no mercy.

I choose Starbucks over Dunkin’ Donuts because, well, that’s my brand. She, on the other hand, can’t be seen drinking Starbucks because it would hurt her brand. And she has a lot to lose.

If I were writing for the Hobo News, this is a story I would tell.

The End Of An Odd Year

I had intended to be a more prolific blogger in 2013. My excuse is that I was busy being prolific in other ways.

My freelance writing assignments included copy about methadone clinics, anesthesia errors, frozen potato wedges, design thinking, wicked problems, place-based learning along the Appalachian Trail, aronia berries, phytochemicals, and many different colleges and universities. It was an odd year.

Because of this work, for which I am truly grateful, I haven’t had time to attend to the blogging business. But I’ve thought about it. In fact, here’s a description of several ideas I never got around to writing about in 2013.

My month of buying local.  The idea was to go for a whole month only “buying local” products (food, housewares, clothing, etc.) I would then write about how easy it was–or wasn’t. The first challenge I ran into was defining “local.” Buy Local Portland defines “local” as independently owned businesses located in the city. They can sell avocados from Mexico, silk shirts from Vietnam, or wheat flour from Canada and it’s still “local.”  At the farmers’ markets, “local” means Maine. For others, it’s goods sold or produced within 100 miles. My husband claims “local” extends across the border into NH, within a certain radius. And I have one colleague for whom “buy local” simply means buy American. I could see I was going to spend the month dithering about definitions, so I gave up.

Grandmother Superior. If I had posted this one, I would have exposed myself as cranky and impatient, so it was best left unwritten. Suffice it to say, it came from too many gatherings where the sole topic of conversations was “the grandchildren.” Give me time.

Win 2 free plane tickets. This was an embarrassing episode that someone like Jerry Seinfeld could turn into a comedy routine. It involved a series of phone calls, and then a “last chance” letter telling me I had won 2 free plane tickets to anywhere in the US–no strings attached. You know the rest. Sometimes when you really need a free plane ticket, the torture of sitting through a sales pitch seems like a minor inconvenience. Four hours of driving? A mere blip in time. The truth is, there is no free plane ticket, ever. And because I’m no Jerry Seinfeld, no post either.

Signs of Hope. At Thanksgiving, when there were many of our clan’s younger generation hanging around, I sat down with six young relatives and asked them to tell me what they saw as signs of hope for the future. We had spent a few days griping about the things that make my generation despair: global warning, Congress, the widening income gap, Congress, the job market, Congress.  So, I wanted to hear from the much-maligned millennials–and I got an earful of good stuff.

Actually, I do plan to get off my butt and write about my conversation with these hopeful young people. It seems like the perfect topic for the New Year.  Stay tuned – the end of an odd year means the beginning of an even one.

The Daily Astonishment

Mary Oliver wrote: “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” If nothing else, this well-loved verse gives purpose to the day. What astonishments can I find to tell about?

How about my recent visit to Houston for the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE): 8,000 dietitians. 400+ exhibitors. Astonishing number of protein bar brands.

This is an annual event that brings together members of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for 3 days of professional development, continuing education, hobnobbing, awards, etc., allowing for frequent visits to the accompanying huge trade show. I was there with the Food and Wellness Group, which was introducing The Colors of Health–a program designed to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. (see the preview here)

As you might expect, most booths attempt to attract visitors by giving away stuff–mostly product samples, shopping bags, and tons of brochures, flyers and other collateral material. Given the audience, you would expect the focus to be on eating healthy, right?

Coca Cola booth at the Food & Nutrition Expo: "Lots of choices, calories optional"
Coca Cola booth at the Food & Nutrition Expo: “Lots of choices, calories optional”

Astonishment #1: The Food and Nutrition Expo’s major sponsors include Coca Cola and Pepsico, among other corporate behemoths. They may have been promoting their anti-hunger foundations or their vitamin waters…but really?

Astonishment #2: Monsanto had a booth. Too bad it wasn’t a dunking booth.

Astonishment #3: There must have been at least 10-15 different protein/breakfast/energy bar brands there. Probably to keep the dietitians awake between presentations.

Astonishment #4: There was plenty of chocolate and yogurt to be had. Let’s face it, these are two very super superfoods.

These were the top four astonishments during my trip to FNCE. Also I should note that Houston has an enormous convention center, but that’s not astonishing, given that it’s Texas.

If I pay attention, I will surely have more astonishing things to tell about soon.

Life: The Remix

Two concepts I’ve been mulling over this week are “remixes” and “fan fiction.” Pretty mainstream, but also kind of radical when you think about it.

When my son Ben, part of the electronic music group The M Machine, first told me a few years ago that he was working on a remix of another artist’s song, I asked, do you have permission? Silly me. Yes, he said, they’re paying us to do it. Huh?

I associated this kind of thing with what we used to call mash-ups, like the Grey Album (Beatles White Album + Jay-Z’s Black Album = Danger Mouse’s Grey Album).  But that was so 10 years ago.

The M Machine remixes the tracks of other artists in their own unique style, creating versions of songs that suit different dance genres; and it happens the other way around, too: other artists remix their songs (sometimes by invitation, sometimes not). In fact, The M Machine just released a whole album of remixes of their own songs, each produced by a different artist: Metropolis Remixed.

Unlike the one-of-a-kind nature of a Picasso painting or a Tolstoy novel, these digital creations seem to be made to be remade, with the artist’s blessing, as long as credit is given where credit it due. There is a difference between stealing and remixing; permission is the key.

The universal availability of ideas – the fluidity of creativity – seems new, but of course it isn’t. In a Ted Talk from 2004, Kirby Ferguson offers an entertaining demonstration of how songs are rooted through the ages in earlier songs… and, let’s face it, everything is a remix.

FanFic

So, what about fan fiction? My daughter Betsey introduced fanfic to me. You know about obsessive fans: Think “trekkies.” These fans write stories about characters or places – from movies, TV, literature – that spin off from the original creations. They keep the fictional universe intact, so to speak, but take the characters wherever they want them to go.

Mostly you will find these stories on the Internet. The stories aren’t commercially published, although sometimes there’s a break-through to the other side. The fanfic communities online are enormous and passionate and prolific. (Google fan fiction and you’ll see)

But unlike the remixing world, there is an uneasy relationship between the original authors and the fanfic writers. You don’t find authors paying other writers to remix their original works as fan fiction…at least not yet.

Fan fiction isn’t the same as music remixing, but there are still intriguing similarities. Ideas float out there in the universe, how hard should we try to hold on to them, maintain “ownership” and integrity? Perhaps life is a remix, in every medium, and as Kirby Ferguson suggests, we should embrace it.

Remixing the Medium

Here’s what got me thinking about remixes. Two weeks ago, our family came together to honor my father, who had passed away earlier in the summer. We went to Cape Cod to scatter his ashes in places that were precious to him in his life. It was not sad. It was full of laughter, love, poems, songs, and poignant memories.

So, is it a stretch to think of this as a remix of sorts? A body is transformed, ashes are tossed into the sea, energy is redistributed, the medium is new. I feel that something creative will come of this remix. I will embrace it.

Rituals of Summer

I’d like to think a summer weekend in Montreal could become an annual tradition. We’ve done it twice now…it could happen.  In addition to the obvious appeal of this beautiful city, there are several compelling attractions: The M Machine and The Tailor.

TMM_327x327_Now I. The M Machine is an electronic music group from San Francisco started by three guys, one being our son Ben. When they play in our vicinity, David and I make the effort to see them. For the past couple of summers, The M Machine has given us a good excuse to drive 6 hours north for a weekend in Montreal.

Just being in Montreal is a treat for the senses: the fabulous food, the festivals, the fun atmosphere, the French. And when you add an evening at Le Belmont with The M Machine, it’s sensory overload. Mind you, the boys took the stage at 1:45 AM and played until 3 AM, so my senses might have been a bit dulled by fatigue, but here’s the five-senses lowdown.

  •  Hearing: A billion decibels (a little exaggerated maybe, but that’s what it felt like–and I wore my ear plugs all night) of ear-splitting electronic dance music.
  •  Seeing: An amazing, gorgeous video production synchronized to the songs and projected on screen, plus strobe lights and an all-around visual workout.
  •  Smelling: Smoky. Sweaty. Not that bad.
  •  Feeling: Bass so low and loud that it resonates in the gut as it shakes your teeth loose. (Sound like fun?)
  •  Tasting: A few sips of beer–all I could stomach at that hour

The crowd loved it and a good time was had by all. Part of the fun of going to an M Machine show is the ritual of hanging out in the “green room” with Ben and the other 2 M’s, Andy and Eric. There is a lot of respect for parents who show up for electronic music gigs at 1:45 in the morning.  More than one fan came up to us after the Montreal show to laud our “parental credentials.”

AlbertoShopII. The Tailor. His name is Alberto Enr and his shop is in the hip Plateau neighborhood of Montreal.  David discovered Alberto last summer, a hot tip from a shirt seller across the street. Alberto’s workshop is in the back of his son’s bijou (jewelry) store.  Presumably, years ago, the tailor shop took up the whole space…but times have changed.

Last year, Alberto performed excellent same-day hemming services on two, just-purchased shirts, for a very reasonable price. This year, David brought two old shirts to Alberto for hemming. He had gone for months wearing these too-long shirts, just dreaming of the day when he could take them to Alberto in Montreal.

Six hours north to find a good tailor?  We’ll chalk it up to a love of ritual. Alberto doesn’t speak much English, so the pantomime antics of hemming details are fun to watch. His shop opened at 11, and even though he had a stack of other pending items on the counter, he agreed to have the shirts ready for pick up by 2 PM.

L'Avenue du PlateauPerfect. We walked for hours through Parc du Mont-Royal, had a great late brunch at L’Avenue (destined for ritualdom), and made it back to Alberto’s to pick up the beautifully hemmed shirts.

We do the tourist things in Montreal, too. But I’ve come to understand that destinations become special when you invent your own small rituals, make your own little discoveries, and find your own unique reasons to return. If and when The M Machine plays Montreal next summer, we’ll be back for the weekend.