Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

A video trailer for Marla’s new book

January 25, 2012

As I mentioned in a previous post, my wife, Marla Rose, has written a new novel that we plan to release as an eBook next week. This morning, we launched the book’s first video promotion on YouTube, with plans for several others to follow.

The video uses a combination of animation, voiceovers and music to recreate the mood of Marla’s buoyant yet gripping prose. At first, we didn’t want to show any hints of the characters, since we want readers to form the images in their own minds, but we finally decided that it would best serve our purposes to show some teasing, half-hidden or extreme close-up images of the teenaged protagonist.

We’re also redesigning the website to reflect the new look of the video. We’ll have that up shortly, at least several days before the release of the book.

We’ll keep everyone posted.

New Year, new projects

January 6, 2012

Marla Rose


Vivian Sharpe

This morning I launched two new websites – both of them for my wife, Marla Rose, who is an amazing writer.

The first one is for her new website, It’s just in it infancy now, but it already has links to her blog, social media pages and some of the places she writes for.

It also links to the second website we launched this morning, This is the website for her soon-to-be-released novel, The Adventures of Vivian Sharpe, Vegan Superhero – a coming-of-age fantasy thriller for the Young Adult market. It’s coming out as an eBook in late January, and as a hardcover over the summer. I’m helping her out with advertising and promotion including a couple of upcoming YouTube videos.

It’s exciting to start something new with the new year. It’s going to be a lot of fun watching the novel unveil itself to the world.

I’ll keep you posted.

Burning 2011

January 3, 2012

Okay, I’m back. This blog took an unscheduled break for about 5 1/2 months while I focused on other projects. Now it’s a new year, and a new blog that I have solemnly sworn to keep up-to-date. I’m switching to a simpler concept that doesn’t take so much work, so it’s easier for me to update content. I’ve also got a bunch of stories ready to load, so it will be a while before I run out of ideas for new posts.

To start the new year, I’d like to show an example of my newfound affection for IMovie and YouTube with a simple story about a cleansing ritual that demonstrates that even when things don’t work out as planned, they still work out just fine, so long as you can keep a positive attitude.

So here’s the video:

I’m really excited to see what 2012 will bring, and as the year progresses, I’ll share the highlights here.

How to brand sustainability

June 10, 2011

Now Longer Lasting

Our society is moving in two opposing directions at the same time. On one hand, we are actively destroying our environment in so many ways – factory farming, mountaintop mining, overfishing, deforestation, resource depletion, to name a few – that it often seems like our intention is to hasten our own extinction.

At the same time, there are large and growing numbers of people, organizations, businesses, institutions, and even a few governments that are all working hard to move everyone toward a different, more sustainable path. Since you’re reading this post, you may consider yourself a member of this group.

Trying to move society onto this more sustainable path is a Herculean task. We have to convince ourselves and others to rethink how we live, the kind of foods we eat, places we live, ways we get around, the whole way we relate to the environment around us. The good news is that all the tools needed to persuade people to rethink their values exist right now and are well known to quite a few people. The bad news is that most of the people who have mastered these tools use them to urge people to buy more stuff, including some stuff that harms them and their environment. Collectively, these tools are commonly known as branding.

Using branding to change people’s habits and perceptions is a two-step process. Step 1 is showing them what the problem with things as they are, and Step 2 is to show them how your brand will solve that problem. Are you a young man who feels invisible to beautiful women? If you just switch to the right beer, you’ll be able to attract them. Are you uncomfortable with your body type/fashion sense/social standing? There are legions of advertised products available to help you. Once you start looking at TV commercials critically, you’ll notice most of them contain this problem/solution in some way.

Branding seems like the perfect set of tools for convincing people to move toward a more sustainable world. After all, we’re facing serious problems that could greatly affect life as we know it, and the solutions are pretty apparent – simply switch to a greener version of whatever products you’re using now, or perhaps consider using a completely different product (like a bicycle or a bus instead of a car), or no product at all (walk or don’t make the trip).

The obvious problem is that convincing people to overconsume is more lucrative that convincing people to be sensitive of the impacts their purchases make on the environment or society. The good news is that the internet and social networking have started to level the playing field a bit. Now, for little or no money beyond the cost of a camera and a computer (which most people already have), almost any clever and resourceful person can make a YouTube video that could potentially go viral and reach the hearts of as many people as a million dollar TV commercial.

Most of us are aware on some level that the we’re being sold an unsustainable path, but we either don’t know what to do about it, or we don’t feel compelled or empowered to take the right steps. And the forces of overconsumption keep enticing us to stick to our bad habits.

Moving society onto the path toward a new green world takes a lot more than good marketing and communications skills. It also will require research, knowledge, improved technologies and systems, political will and strong leadership. But all of these other things will happen a lot faster when people begin asking for them. And in order to compel them to ask, we need to build the brand – the brand of sustainability.

A good idea doesn’t care who has it.

June 3, 2011
The Igl Family

The Igl Family: Tom, Nancy and Brian

The world of business communications is changing so fast that it’s hard for anyone to keep up. It’s safe to say that the future belongs to the quick-witted, and that perhaps the greatest commodity of the 21st Century is ideas. There are people who get paid to come up with ideas (and I’m lucky enough to be among them), and big brainstorms certainly come easier to some than others. But I believe everyone has some good ideas inside of them.

In future posts, I’ll share some idea generating tips that have worked well for me, but today’s story illustrates how important it is to keep your mind open to good ideas, no matter where they come from.

Tom Igl is a lifelong potato farmer in northern Wisconsin. He enjoyed reasonable success and raised seven kids, one of whom, Brian, has pretty much taken over the farm which started transitioning to organic in 1997. Brian has helped the farm ride the waves of local and organic farming to good success and is always on the lookout for innovations to help them along.

I met Tom and Brian when they wanted to update the packaging of their potatoes from a generic bag to something that might stand out on the shelves of Whole Foods Market. As is my custom, I started quizzing them about their business in order to get any information that might help the packaging become a true reflection of their mission and character.

After about a half hour, Tom rather timidly pulled out a piece of paper with some scribbles of potatoes with faces and hats. “I was once playing around with some characters that I call Spuddies. Maybe they might be useful.”

Brian rolled his eyes and quickly changed the subject, but I couldn’t quite get the Spuddies characters out of my mind. I told them I thought we should explore the idea, and the more I thought about it, the better it looked. Igl potatoes are very good, but if you place them in a bin with potatoes from ten different midwestern farms (which they often do), it would be impossible to tell which were theirs.

By adding whimsical drawings and applying the name Spuddies to the product itself instead of the characters, we were able to create a family friendly brand that stood out from their competitors. With the new packaging, Whole Foods Market and a local organic distributer quickly bought out their entire crop.

More and more companies and organizations are recognizing that the best ideas often come from people outside of the creative teams, and often from their families or their customers, and they’re finding new ways to harness this creative power. The key is understanding that an idea usually has to go through two stages: first it has to be conceived, and then it needs to be applied so that it fits the needs and goals of the product.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the researcher at 3M who spent months developing a new adhesive only to become discouraged that it didn’t hold things together very well at all. Several years later, a co-worker found that a small strip of this seemingly useless adhesive would hold a bookmark in place, and came up with the idea of placing the adhesive along one edge each piece of a stack of tiny sheets of paper. Within a few years, Post-It Notes was one of the best selling office supplies in the country.

The power of an epiphany (or three)

May 31, 2011

Albert Brooks defending his life

I really enjoy being a graphic designer and marketer to the green and ecological. I get to spend my day doing what I love, which is coming up with ideas and designing things, and I feel like I’m helping contribute to the new green economy. The thing that gets me the most energized, though, is the people I work with. My clients and other associates are all either green entrepreneurs or leaders of vital nonprofits. Nearly all of them have made the commitment to use their considerable energy and talents into improving the lot of their specific corners of the world, and they are all completely driven by the work they do. Their passion and enthusiasm inspire me to no end.

Some of my clients and associates would probably be making more money if they had stuck with more traditional careers, but somewhere along the way each had some sort of experience that caused them to reassess their career and life goals, and ultimately choose the path dictated by their hearts. I’m guessing that at some points in their lives many if not most of these green leaders each had some sort of epiphany that changed the whole perspective of their role in the world.

As a vegan, I’m pretty familiar with the concept of epiphany. Many vegans can quickly recall the specific moment when the skies opened up, the light shone in, and they faced the sudden realization that they could no longer support the system that turns animals into food. I can readily recall my own vegan epiphany, though I promise I will not do so here.

My move into a green career was driven as much by opportunity as epiphany, but I can recall three simple but profound experiences that took place over the course of a few months that caused me to radically shift my worldview and rethink the direction I had chosen for my life. I’ll get to them in a moment, but first a little context:

From a very young age I had a fascination with the visual arts, and I always told people I’d want to be an artist when I grew up. I wasn’t exactly sure what this entailed, though, and it wasn’t until college that I realized I would have to figure out a way to make this passion earn a living for me. Fortunately, by that time I was becoming attracted to the work of some of the great designers and art directors of the time – people like Milton Glaser, Bill Bernbach and Herb Lubalin.

My passion became advertising art direction, and my dream was to create memorable ad campaigns that would become a part of the American experience. Over the next decade or so, I slowly worked my way up from one design shop or ad agency to the next until I finally got to a place from where I could see the pinnacle. I was working as an art director for Leo Burnett on famous accounts like McDonald’s, Miller Lite, Nintendo, and Sony. None of my work was famous yet, but I felt it was just a matter of time.

The problem was that the closer I got to the top, the less I liked the view. The money was good and the work was exciting and fun, but I often felt that my job was to entice people to buy things they really shouldn’t be wasting their money on, or worse, products that were actually contributing to environmental and health problems. Still, I was in the Leo Burnett bubble, and my whole professional and social life revolved around it.

After a couple of years there, I had my first epiphany. My writer and I were instructed to come up with a new TV campaign for McDonald’s McRib sandwich. I wasn’t a vegan yet, but I was a vegetarian, and I already felt conflicted about the work I was doing for McDonald’s. I had mostly been pushing their salads and pizza, so I’d found ways to justify it. This time, though, we were being asked to play up the sensuousness of the meat in the McRib (albeit in a G-rated, McDonald’sian sort of way), and the project kind of revolted me. I had expressed my concern to my creative director, and his retort rings through my ears yet today, “John, you’re going to either come up with some looser morals or a new line of work.” I had to admit that he was probably right.

Shortly thereafter, I was moved to the team trying to win the Miller Lite account, and when we won, I stayed on with them. I actually enjoy beer  (though I must admit Miller Lite was never among my favorites), and Miller Lite was the subject of some of the most famous TV ad campaigns ever. The work was fun, but moral conundrums were arising, and this time my teammates were sharing my concern.

Miller Lite always aimed for young drinkers, and our team tried to accomodate, but no matter what was presented, they always wanted to make it more juvenile. Then one day, I was attending a meeting between the creative team and some regional distributors from Detroit, when one of the distributors said, “Look, what you people don’t understand is that your target audience is four 17-year-olds in a beat up Chevy Nova, particularly the one who looks old enough to take their pooled money into 7-11 for a sixpack. We need that to be our sixpack!” The corporate officials quickly protested that this was not their intention, but the damage had been done.

A few months later, I spent three weeks traveling in Europe where no one had ever heard of Leo Burnett. On the flight home, there was a screening of “Defending Your Life,” the funny but thought-provoking film where Albert Brooks dies and has to convince a courtroom that he had led the kind of life that earned him the right to advance to the next level. The message was clear: The best life is one fearlessly led in harmony with your values. As I watched it, I recalled my two earlier epiphanies  (which until then I hadn’t thought or as epiphanies at all) and suddenly I realized I was living a lie and that in order to really feel good about myself, I would have to find a new line of work. By the time the plane touched down, I was already charting a new career course. It took a while for everything to fall into place, but eventually I found a way to use my talents in a way that satisfy me both artistically and spiritually, and I never looked back. Except to tell stories about it, of course.

Have you been guided to your current career path by an epiphany? If so, I’ll bet it’s a pretty good story and I’d love to hear it.

Your Image Is Everything. Everything Is Your Image.

May 17, 2011
Rainforest Action Network protest against Boise Cascade, July 2001

Bonnie Raitt (center with red hair) and others Rainforest Action Network supporters, July 2001 (I'm third from the left in the bottom row with my wife Marla by my side)

If the entire discipline of marketing could be distilled down to a single word, that word would be “image.” A lot of activists and anti-corporate types dislike this word because they feel it implies a contrived veneer covering up something more ordinary (or more sinister). But the concept is a lot more basic than that. Every company, every organization, every person has an image – the way that we are viewed by the outside world – and one of the biggest mistakes many new small businesses make is to fail to maintain control over that image.

Your image extends way beyond your logo or advertising campaign. Your image includes the way your company addresses criticism, the way your receptionist answers the phone, and the way your company truck drives through traffic. In these days of Twitter and Yelp, when literally everyone can publicly voice their opinion of you, it is critical to understand the importance of controlling the way you’re perceived by your customers and community.

The big companies all understand this, and they collectively spend billions of dollars each year carefully telling you exactly who they want you to believe they are. McDonald’s projects themselves as wholesome and delicious, Target as inexpensive yet really fun, Abercrombie and Fitch as the height of teen rebellion, Starbucks as your comfortable little neighborhood hangout. These perceptions don’t just happen. They are the result of a lot of intelligent and clever people spending their careers fretting over every last detail of their clients’ images, from the hairstyles of the actors in their TV commercials to the background colors on their packaging (early in my career, when I was designing retail campaigns for General Mills, I learned that Big G Cereals “owned” Cheerios yellow and Wheaties orange, and that those colors were not to be messed with by anyone. Period). 

For a green company, maintaining your image is further complicated by the fact that you have to be able to do everything as well as or better than your non-green competitors, while everyone from your harshest critics to your most ardent fans will be watching you like hawks to make sure you’re staying true to your (and their) environmental and social justice standards. Just like college English professors have to be careful to avoid any grammatical faux pas lest they face ridicule from their students, a green entrepreneur faces judgement for everything from the carbon footprint of their supply chain to the choice of dish detergent in the company snack room. Meanwhile, the company’s products have to fight for shelf space with the products of larger and more established companies that often don’t face the same level of scrutiny.

The good news is that because everyone is now a critic, it’s harder for companies to greenwash than it used to be. Most green consumers are pretty sophisticated about figuring who’s real and who isn’t, and if you’re real (and your products are good) you’ve got a better shot at their loyalty than the ones faking it.

One of my greatest teachers on the value of image for small business was a scrappy little rescued Jack Russell terrier named Eddie with whom I shared my life some twenty years ago. Eddie stood less that a foot tall and weighed all of 14 pounds, but he felt little kinship with the similarly sized toy poodles and shih tzus. He identified with the dobermans, shepherds and yellow labs that ran in packs through our neighborhood dog park, and he had a special trick that appeared to buy him some respect from the larger dogs. Whenever it came time for the important dog ritual of marking territory, Eddie would back up to a tree and climb up with his spindly back legs until he could go no higher. Only then would he pee. His message was that a big dog has just been here, so you’d better take him seriously.

We took Eddie’s lesson to heart a few years later when I worked at the pioneering environmental communications agency, Sustain. We were a small but determined shop, and our clients were nonprofit groups battling for people’s attention against much better funded greenwashing polluters. We often had to get our back legs pretty high up the tree to get respect from the big dogs.

A lot of our clients were every bit as scrappy as we were and some even more so. One of the most successful and most Jack Russell-like was the iconoclastic (the word iconoclast meaning literally “destroyer of images”) environmental group, Rainforest Action Network (RAN). By the time we got involved with them, they were in the middle of some serious image wars against some pretty tough opponents. One of these was Boise Cascade, a lumber and paper company that was actively involved in unsavory forest practices including chopping down virgin and old growth forests to make lumber and paper. RAN, a group that exists to protect old growth forests, ingeniously attacked them by going straight for Boise Cascade’s image. They organized letter writing campaigns and staged demonstrations, not against Boise Cascade directly, but against their most visible clients – Home Depot and Staples office supply, tarnishing their images by association and causing them to discontinue Boise Cascade’s offending products.

Boise Cascade responded by lobbying for the termination of RAN’s nonprofit status on the grounds that RAN’s demonstrations constituted an illegal form of civil disobedience. This move enraged many in the environmental community, particularly the rock star and RAN supporter Bonnie Raitt, who countered by offering to fund a very public civil disobedience in Boise Cascade’s headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Itasca.

At this point, our group, Sustain, was brought in to help with media and logistics, and we spent several days in planning sessions for the big event. On July 25, 2001, as Sustain’s video cameras rolled, Ms. Raitt and a carefully chosen group of celebrities and environmental, social justice and religious leaders (including my wife!) staged a telegenic press conference and protest where they ceremoniously trespassed on Boise Cascade’s property for a few moments before they were arrested and loaded into police vehicles. As they drove away, I raced the videotape to a downtown editing studio to prepare our footage for the evening news. Bonnie and company spent a few hours in jail and then straight into the pages of Rolling Stone and People, while the video played on CNN, Entertainment Tonight and MTV.

A few months later, Boise Cascade announced that they were changing their name to Boise, and they introduced a whole new logo and image. They also cleaned up some of their practices, so Home Depot and Staples would carry their products again. A giant corporation was humbled and compelled into a new direction by a small group of scrappy activists and a rock star.

So when you’re pondering the image you want to want to project to the world, you might want to let yourself be guided by the image of little Eddie backing into the tree to let the big dogs know he’s a force to be reckoned with.

Community in the new green world.

May 10, 2011

I’ve always been fascinated  with concept of community. We’re social animals, and most of us feel most comfortable and confident when surrounded by people we know and care about.

Our communities have traditionally been made up of our families and close friends, our coworkers, the folks in our churches, schools and neighborhoods. We say “hi” to these people in the street, we meet them for coffee, we gossip with them in the office. These communities are important, and I hope you have some of them in your life.

Now, though, thanks in part to social networking technologies, we are creating whole new communities with people who share our interests and ideals. Now our friends, confidants, and allies may be scattered all over the world – people we may have never even met in person, but with whom we communicate on a regular basis through a myriad of new technology channels. Or they may be right in our own hometown – people who think like us and share our values and dreams, yet people we may never have met if not for Facebook or WordPress or LinkedIn. These communities can manifest themselves in something as simple as a meetup at a local restaurant or as bold as the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

There are thousands of these shared interest communities around the world that are all organized around making their lives healthier and their futures brighter. Some groups are working to clean up a local waterway or turn an old factory into a neighborhood center. Others are lobbying to protect wild spaces or family farmers. Together, all these communities are creating a beautiful vision of a place I call the New Green World.

I am a graphic designer and marketing communications expert by trade. My role is to help green companies and organizations share their stories and present their best image to the world. I’ve been doing this for years. I love what I do, I’m good at it, and I feel very blessed to be able to spend my life doing something so fulfilling.

I’m also a bit of a community organizer by avocation. I work on a lot of different issues, but I mostly consider myself to be a sustainability activist, which is to say that I really want to live in a healthy and compassionate world that’s going to be around for a long time, and I’ve committed myself to do whatever I can to make that happen. I am a part of several different communities that are contributing in their own ways to the New Green World, and I’ve even helped start some of them.

This is a blog about communications and community and how one the former can help build the latter. Communications is what I do and community is what is necessary to create the world we all want to live in.

In the coming weeks and months, this blog will examine different ways to communicate across communities. We’ll discuss how to promote green products and services. We’ll explore effective ways to share your ideas and make them grow into realities. We’ll show you great ways to tell your own story and put your best face out to the world.

If there is a message you want to share or a community you want to find or help grow, please stick around. I also invite you to subscribe, comment or whatever. Let’s see if we can start a little community here.