Whirligigs in Wilson

Vollis Simpson has become famous for his amazing whirligigs – whimsical constructions with myriad figures, shapes, and colors, all mechanically wind-powered.  Now in his 90s, Mr. Simpson still actively builds and maintains his creations.  But even for a man of his considerable capability, keeping up with 30+ large and aging clockwork machines/artworks is a bigger task.  So the city of Wilson, NC has set out to create a whirligig park, to preserve and display these terrific creations, and celebrate in an enduring way Mr. Simpson’s accomplishments.  Work has already begun, and I was privileged to see it in process.


Last week I visited Wilson, NC at the invitation of the Economic Development Office and Janet Kagan of Public Art Collaborative.  Not only is Wilson conserving and restoring the whirligigs, they are creating an “industrial artisan” community in the center of town, right around the whirligig park-to-be.  They will foster the development of creative skills, and projects/companies which are creatively focused (and make sizable stuff).  So, we’re talking about whether Spotlight can contribute.

I think it would be fairly mind-expanding to design and fabricate Spotlight Solar prototypes right across the street from this…

Vollis Simpson whirligigs night

Here is a lovely video as well (8 min., so I didn’t embed).


IBM’s Watson scores brand win on Jeopardy

I’ve been awakened from my blogging coma by IBM’s Jeopardy! Challenge.  In case you have also been in a coma, IBM’s Watson computer just trounced the two top Jeopardy! champs (legitimate smart guys).  It got the same information at the same time, inclusive of slang, turns-of-phrase, and jokes.  And while not perfect, it essentially won going away.

I’m probably the bazillianth person to write about this event, but my thoughts are not on the technological accomplishment (sure to become a staple of evolution-of-computing graphics), nor the imminent subjugation of humanity.  My mind is occupied by the coup de brand just delivered by IBM.

As IBM has become a services company and shed its PC business, it has become formless, lacking a physical representation.  Watson fixed that.  “Oh, IBM still makes great hardware.”

As computing has become a MIPS utility, IBM’s image as inventor of important things has faded.  Watson addressed that.  “Oh, I can imagine ten ways to use this IBM natural language and decision making capability.”

As the generation that witnessed IBM’s ascendency leaves the workforce (or this bodily state), the IBM image has become dated.  Watson made IBM current.  “Wow, it even knew that Eminem / Danger Mouse reference.”

And while the Smarter Planet campaign does a decent job of giving the brand some personality, it is still weighed down by stodginess.  Watson made IBM cool and approachable.  “That’s funny, Watson couldn’t get Voldemort, but it smoked ‘em on Sauron.  And look at that, most of those IBM geniuses have Macs.”

One of the things I enjoyed about my eight years at IBM is that we occasionally did something big.  Watson is big.  Years from now, people will talk about IBM’s Jeopardy! win.  They probably won’t talk about branding, but they will still be experiencing it.

The benefits of technology battles

Gizmodo produced this helpful map of the battlefronts between Microsoft, Google, and Apple.  One could expand this endlessly, but a couple of other fronts to note might be Amazon’s commerce/content/cloud platform, and mobile/internet carriers fighting to keep from being commodity pipes.  Notice none of the device-centric players are on the map – a bummer for one who appreciates devices and design.


As a person with a strategic bent, I find the dynamics of the tech market scintillating.  This is why I left the food business for the personal technology market.  In food, with all of its marketing know-how, if unit sales were growing faster than the population growth, you had a winner, and then almost always at someone else’s expense.  In tech, the internet happens, Google search happens, and iPhone happens.  Competing tenaciously, companies with a lot of smart, creative people try to out-awesome each other.  Things change as a result — change which impacts and (mostly) enables the way billions of people do things.

As a matter of belief, I refuse to trust technology to fundamentally improve the state of the world.  For every boon (e.g., the ubiquity of communication counters ignorance and exposes badness), there is a bane (e.g., people consume and create as much unhealthy content as conscience allows).  The root of the world’s trouble is not a gap in the  sufficiency of wizzy tech.  But at least tech causes movement, and in movement comes opportunity — opportunities for profit, sure, but also for other goodness.

Despite conspiracy theories, I believe Larry and Sergey are sincere when they pledge Google to avoid “evil.”  Many might argue that their moral compass is out of alignment, but they do put forth efforts on clean energy and employ civil disobedience in the name of freedom.  And their search tool lets me find information and people instantly.  Microsoft’s success has funded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  And their Office apps are my favorite tool kit.  Apple has done many….hmmm.  Well, at least my wife finally can access my calendar via her iPhone (and Google).

One of the things I appreciate most about tech is that it creates new markets.  Instead of spending my (whole) day trying to ruin competitors by taking share, profit, bonuses, jobs, and livelihoods from them, I can add new value and new capability to customers.  Hopefully, they do good things with that capability, and hopefully, I’ll set a good example.

I get the value of competition in providing economic benefit and do my part in combat, but I advocate a balance of intent (I love the B Corp concept).  Let me work on the innovative front, climbing new mountains, rather than focusing exclusively on knocking people off the old ones.  And cheers for our God-given capability to invent things that create those opportunities.

iLike iAd

Prophesied technocool stuff that has never been realized:

  1. interactive TV
  2. (useful) home automation and Rosie robot helpers
  3. flying cars (I’m really mad about that one)
  4. effective mobile phone advertising

How long have we marketers been promised an advertising revolution wherein we’ll be able to deliver a timely, location-based, and interactive advertisement in our micro-target’s very hand?  Ten years at least.  Well, I may have finally seen its coming with iAd.


I read Engadget’s live blog from Apple’s iPhone OS 4 event.  Among the many new features, iAd stood out.  In short, it creates a capability to embed ads in iPhone apps.  As shown, the ad shows up like a banner on a website, but when you “click” (touch) it, it runs within the app instead of taking you out to a website.  And very importantly, it allows the ad to tap into the iPhone OS/functions.

They demoed a Toy Story 3 iAd, with video and sound, with a location aware map of where you can see the movie, with games, with ticket purchase, etc., all within the ad.  Wow!  But very importantly, Steve said, “You know the ads on the web — they’re eye catching and interactive, but they don’t deliver emotion. What we want to do with iAds is deliver interaction and emotion.”

This is a two-cheek leather glove slap across Google’s face…and a ray of light for us BRAND marketers.  Yes, I will say it:  I want to create brands people desire, not merely “generate demand” (leads) with pay-per-click mathematics.  Why?  Because desire creates margin.  Affinity sustains advantage.

I’m working with a client to use AdWords to test targeting factors and conversion.  Clicks in their category are $6.81!  This is because Google has created an efficient market for intercepting prospects searching on terms related to advertisers’ offerings; and some categories are crowded.  The bummer is that one spends $6.81 to get a prospect to one’s site, and that visitor comes in with no brand image whatsoever.  This is not demand generation – it is click generation.

Google’s AdWords is an awesome invention, and is one of the most useful tools in marketing.  But it has no soul.  It deploys barely formatable text links, fed by a sophisticated auction and optimization algorithm.  If you want to emphasize something, you can use an exclamation point or the word “very.”  People who master the technique have set up successful services to sell PPC modeling and execution, but I think they may soon be replaced by robots.  I recall a futurist’s comments some years back: “If your job can be reduced to an algorithm, you will eventually be replaced by a computer.  You can either be the one to write the algorithm, or you should train for a different job.”

I hear Steve Jobs is tough to get along with, and opposes the enlightened forces of Openness.  But he understands better than most how to build desire and affinity through emotion.  The ad agencies with top creative talent must be rejoicing over the advent of iAd — and the certainty of competitive offerings — because they know how to use emotion to create brand affinity (which iAds enable).  Just like Google did in their Superbowl television commercial (with sound and movement)!

And for app developers, this is a boon, as Apple (which will sell the ad space), will share 60% of the ad revenue with the developers.  Even the software devs may come to appreciate brand marketing.  OK, that may be a little Pollyannaish.

Pepsi project is refreshing

The most powerful source of brand value is customers’ experience of a company’s offerings — products or services.   But the second most potent, in my assessment, is company actions.  Pepsi has launched a terrific effort called the Pepsi Refresh Project.


They’ve taken around $20M of advertising funds (that might have been spent on Superbowl ads or The Who halftime show), and committed it to positive impact projects.  The novelty is that the projects are conceived of by anyone, and voted on by anyone (this is not entirely original, but it is novel to a large audience).

People submit ideas in six categories of goodness, and in four financial categories based on the amount requested, up to $250,000.  Then people vote (project submitters cannot vote) to award $1.3M, spread across 32 projects.  This will happen every month for a year.

As corporate philanthropy projects go, this is my ideal.  It aligns to several powerful values or norms, especially among younger wired audiences (Pepsi’s target, probably):  transparency, online social connection, self determination, crowdsourcing, environmental concern, social justice, mistrust of big corporations.  Instead of announcing what Pepsico is going to give money to, Pepsi says “We want to do something good.  You decide what to do with our money.”  If they stick to their pledge of true democratic process, they will win a lot of brand affinity with people who seek positive change.

This is not easy for a big company to decide to do.  Senior execs no doubt sat in a few hand-wringing sessions imagining how fraud could occur, funds could be mistakenly routed to terrorists, competition could find and expose a flaw, etc.  I’ve been in that exact meeting.  Big brands take a big risk when they invite the masses to allocate their assets.  And that is part of why I like this.  Pepsi is courageous, and thus will differentiate, while many other brands play it safe.

I’ve seen no advertising, online or otherwise, for this project.  Perhaps I’ve just missed it, but I think they are hoping for word-of-mouth endorsement, online and off.  This blog post, for instance.  Keeping it organic will help it stay authentic, and that is the whole key to it working.

My only concern is relevancy.  What is the connection to Pepsi?  Pepsi takes this head on in their video explaining how the program works:  “Can a soda really make the world a better place?”  Answer:  “With your help, we think so.”

Superbowl Commercials Evaluated

Every year, I join so many others in hoping for TV advertising greatness during the Superbowl.  Here’s my assessment, in chronological order.


Snickers backyard football game.  Watching Betty White get tackled into the mud, and come up talking smack was laugh-out-loud.  This was a terrific realization of the oft-used metaphorical insults men use to criticize each other’s weak play (short putts = Alice).  There were a lot of insightful and funny takes on gender roles tonight.  Abe Vigoda toward the end was icing on a very entertaining cake.  The Snickers connection was just a little loose and forgettable, though.

Pam and Tim Tebow.  I’m happy to see this effort to encourage people to bravely protect their unborn children.  Apparently, the editing negotiation with CBS made the message fairly vague, and relegated the substance to the web landing site.  On the creative approach:  unfortunately, the surprising tackle of Mom immediately followed the funnier Snickers spot.  It wasn’t an imitation of course, but this is the impression the viewers got because of CBS’s scheduling.

BoostMobile using the 1985 Chicago Bears to reprise their Superbowl Shuffle.  Worst production value I’ve ever seen on a Superbowl ad.  I’ve never heard of BoostMobile, and will actively avoid buying from them.

Coke.  The evil Simpsons boss, Montgomery Burns, is down and out, due to material loss.  Other characters are happy with their simple lives (involving Coke).  Redemption comes when he accepts the offer of a Coke, from one of these peasants that he normally oppresses.  Clever, watchable.  Great brand positioning and registration.

Small animals.  The number of ads with varmints was notable.  None make this review list, although I did like the fiddling beaver spot for a job board.

Go Daddy.  As usual, we are beset by this company’s low-brow approach.  Danika Patrick gets a massage from a hopeful Go Daddy Girl, who nearly demonstrates her physical qualifications.  Cut to the web call to action teaser.  So typical.  I realize it’s tongue in cheek, but they are unrepentantly trying to get men to act on their basest instincts in order to sell web domains.  I refuse to buy from them because of this.

Bud Light Autotune.  Novel and funny.  Kept me engaed.  T-Pain punchline.  See also baby autotune.

Killer whale in truck.  Mad drive to expel it into the water.  Results of bachelor party.  The spot kept my attention easily, but the Bridgestone brand connection was very thin.

Budweiser bridge out emergency.  Aaron Copeland score.  Human bridge.  Terrific, engaging.  Shows motivation and dedication, and connects to American identity.  Perfect for Budweiser.

In the second tragic instance of an ad following another with the same gags, Dockers’ “I wear no pants” spot looked like an imitator of Careerbuilder’s casual Friday ad, where a man is bugged by his coworkers’ interpretation of casual dress.

Hyundai.  Brett Favre 2020 MVP older than everyone.  I think this was a bet that Brett would be in the game.  Lesson learned.  Also, no brand connection.

Dove Men+Care.  This was an insightful profile of the life and growth of males.  They’ll earn consideration from sensitive men who appreciate that the Dove brand gets them.  This is a fitting follow-on to Dove’s ground breaking Campaign for Real Beauty which authentically rejected unobtainable female beauty expectations.  Although (forgive me for lack of PC here, but I’ve seen the stats) I wonder whether the men pictured really have anything to do with household soap choice.  But intriguingly, my 11 year older daughter just commented that I’ve “got to get Dove.”

Dodge Charger.  Men recalling silently and stoically their many pledges to do the “right” things in the eyes of their significant other.  Last refuge:  Dodge Charger.  Excellent appeal to men’s ego.

In at least the third appeal to male’s fear of emasculation at the hands of a spouse or girlfriend, FloTV offers sports in the hand to counter spine removal.  Money line: “change out of that skirt.”

Intel.  Robot hurt by effusive lunchroom comments about the latest chip being Intel’s greatest achievement.  This spot demonstrates that the PC industry continues to believe that people think more about enabling technology than they do.  I think Intel’s current campaign aims above the target.

The Who halftime show.  Hard to see them struggling against the the effects of age.  Pete’s tummy jiggling during full-arm slashing was disconcerting.  But I still loved it.

VW.  Clever reference to childhood Punch-bug game of identifying Beetles.  Message received:  same company that make Beetle, they’re fun, they make a lot of other cars.  I liked it.  I think it will remind people to consider VW for their next purchase.

Lance Armstrong for Michelob ultra.  Standard.  It’s fine, but shouldn’t try to compete for attention during the Superbowl, when the bar is higher.

KGB.  Apparently, this company is well-funded enough to try again.  As an angry sumo threatens, two ninety six pound weaklings race to search for the Japanese for “I surrender.”  KGB user escapes the squish.  Funny.  I think people will find KGB with Google (and wonder why they should pay for search).

Coke.  A sleepwalker on safari barely escapes many life threatening dangers.  Very entertaining.  Bolero accompaniment.  Coke has developed a beautiful sense of style and storytelling that really draws a person in.

E*Trade babies talking on web video connection.  This series is still working, but I prefer the “golden pipes” spot.  There were three E*Trade baby ads tonight.  None of these were the apex of the campaign, and they need to register the brand better.

Google.  GOOGLE?!  A TV AD!?  Congratulations to Andy Berndt and Lorraine Twohill for expressing EXACTLY why Google is great.  The spot shows a series of searches and other lesser known related functionality, as a cross-continent romance buds and blossoms.  You only see the simple web interface close up, and hear some overlays of voices of people involved and some contextual sounds of their relationship.  The final stroke is a search on how to assemble a crib (after marriage).  The spot reminds people of the truly transformative power that search has brought to us all.  Somehow, it says 1) Google is simple, 2) Google brings people together, 3) Google helps you learn, 4) Google enables new experiences, 5) Google has great features you haven’t discovered yet, 6) Google opens up the world, and 7) Google has a heart, without losing its unified message.  And it made a simple text box wonderfully emotional.  Very, very well done!

Sorrento.  Sock monkey and other characters.  Pretty weird.  Might have been good, but I was too excited by the Google ad to engage.

Miller High Life.  Small business owners position the brand as the beer for the everyperson.  I like this approach for them, which they’ve been on for at least three years.  It is tough to differentiate a macrobrew, and I think they’re onto something.

Pop Secret + Emerald Nuts.  Awesome plus awesome = awesomer.  Completely weird depiction of people-as-trained-dolphins performing for snacks.  This actually might be the only way I can think of to bring these dull snacks to people’s awareness.  Kudos for at least rolling the dice.

Two Denny’s ads, emphasizing the volume of eggs that will be sold by featuring chickens screaming.  High point:  2001 A Space Odyssey reference as a chicken screaming in space makes no sound.  Low points:  everything else.  At least I know there is a hot deal coming at Denny’s.

Audi A3 Turbo Diesel.  Hilariously apt “green police” (with matching Dream Police music) exaggeration of eco-correctness gone too far.  Loved it, and want the car.  I’ve been eyeing a VW Jetta TDI, but this makes me want to upgrade.

Doritos.  Guys in gym steal Tim’s Doritos and pay the price.  Strange is sometimes good.  I’ll remember that one, and associate Doritos with desire.

Bud Light.  Book club.  Man stays for women’s book club discussion of a relationship book after discovering Bud Light will be served.  It works.

The winner:  Google.


I have no idea what happened in the game.  Something about a comeback.  You?

Garden ups and downs

Much has occurred in my attempt at a Japanese garden in the months since I last wrote about it.  I’m sure you’ve been wondering.

Fall was beautiful.

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The Thunderhead Pine survived my hack job earlier in the year and might be starting to look like something.  In 30 years or so, it could be great.

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Winter had its good points as well, with several camellias and Winter Daphne (smells amazing).

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Then, disaster struck!  For years, my girls (the three of them older than two years) have been begging for a trampoline.  But what little back yard we have is occupied by the garden, much to their annoyance.  They would prefer to have a “normal” yard.  Anyway, a few months ago, their jump rope teammate announced that she would be moving, and that her family’s beloved trampoline could not come to the new house.  The family very generously offered to give us the coveted item (really a very nice gesture).  So, Santa brought Ruination to the garden.

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The girls, their Dad (admittedly) and Mom, and their friends have had a great time on the tramp.  But I think it is safe to say that it doesn’t add much Kyoto ambiance.  It is of Asian origin, at least.  I have yet to derive a clever bamboo camouflaging structure, so I’m open to ideas.

The latest threat is cold.  We’ve had some warm weather recently, and as I drove up the driveway today, I noticed the Japanese flowering apricot starting to bloom.  Beautiful, and wonderfully fragrant…

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But alas!  As I write this, snow is falling outside, and we’re expecting 10”, along with 16 degree weather.  This same thing happened last year:  premature flowering of three different new plants that I’d been eagerly awaiting, immediately intercepted and extinguished by a cold snap.  This year, I wrapped them in sheets or plastic.  I hope it works.

Five inches of snow so far.  Things look lovely.  The flowers on the weeping apricot might be OK, but my engineering was flawed.

That’s an eight-foot tree lying on the ground.  Fortunately, it is young and pliable.  I shook the snow off the plastic, and it sprung up to something akin to its previous state.  Since Japanese garden aesthetic favors trees that look like they’ve clung to windswept cliffs for 100 years, I might be in luck.