What Alois Said

They called him the “Butcher of Prague” and the “blonde beast.” A man known to carry out his tasks with brutal efficiency, even Hitler called him the “man with the iron heart.”

Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich, a high ranking German Nazi during World War 2, arrived in Prague with the intent of suppressing Czech culture and deporting and executing members of the Czech resistance. Also nicknamed “the hangman”, Heydrich was one of the most fearsome members of the Nazi elite. One of the chief architects of the Holocaust, he was the leading planner in Hitler’s Final Solution.

On May 27, 1942, Heydrich was attacked in Prague by a team of British trained Czech and Slovak soldiers sent by the Czech government in exile to kill him. The project was called Operation Anthropoid and revenge was swift and lethal. The Germans falsely linked the assassins to two Czech villages. One village was burned to the ground, men and boys over 16 were shot, and most women and children were taken to Nazi concentration camps.

Heydrich died one week later of his injuries.

So why does this man – and this horrific event in history matter to me? Because if it weren’t for the man in this picture, I might not be alive today.

If a picture can say a thousand words, then this one can tell a thousand stories. One day while picking through my Mom’s old ruffled family photo album, I came across this photo of her as a young girl. She’s being held by her Uncle Lola (Alois), her mother’s older brother. It was taken in Prague along the river Vltava circa the 1940’s.

My Mom describes Uncle Lola as “A tall, not too handsome man, but with a beautiful and kind heart.” He lived in a small European size flat with his wife in a 5th floor apartment in Prague. They had a child (boy) called Jan, who contracted scarlet fever but was treated with penicillin. Unfortunately he was sent to school too soon which seemed to affect his heart. Poor Jan died at the age of 8. The death of Jan had a great impact on Lola’s marriage. It slowly fell apart. His wife left him, and he remarried a gold digger who just wanted his pension. In the end, he suffered a stroke and died a lonely man somewhere in a hospital in Prague. A sad ending to the story of a man I never knew.

An only child, my Mom didn’t have much family in Czechoslovakia. Both her parents were Czech. Her Dad (who died months before I was born…my Opa) went to law school at Charles University in Prague then worked as a lawyer. Her Mom (my Omi), was his secretary and later on became his wife.

The family grew up in Czechoslovakia during turbulent times when the country was invaded by just about every brutal regime on the planet. What little they had was soon confiscated by whatever forces happened to be invading at the time.

To this day, my Mom has very fond memories of Uncle Lola. She remembers him, his apartment – even being at the funeral of his son. But it’s time spent with him around Prague that holds the most meaning. On May 27, 1942, Uncle Lola had taken my Mom to the Prague Zoo. An armed German soldier approached them as they were making their way home. Remember that the Germans were bloodthirsty for revenge and weren’t about to spare anybody. Which makes the next part of the story even more unbelievable.

There was a heated conversation, and understandably my Mom (then a child) was quite terrified. I’m sure Uncle Lola was too, although whatever it was he said to the Nazi saved both himself as well as my Mom. Looking at what happened that day, and the deadly consequences on innocent Czech civilians of Operation Anthropoid, there’s no reason that they both shouldn’t have been shot on the spot in cold blood.

I wish I had known Uncle Lola. Because I would have thanked him. If it wasn’t for his smarts and quick thinking, I might not even be here today.

After having led what seemed to be a life full of tragedy in a very dangerous and turbulent time in history, I felt it necessary to tell his story. Because a picture isn’t always just a picture. There are real people, stories and memories behind pictures too.

Pictures tell the story of our past – and help us to understand our present.

The story of a moment. Imagine for a brief second, how it would have felt – to have been confronted by a revenge thirsty Nazi officer during a time of total hysteria? How would you react knowing, that the next words coming out of your mouth could mean the difference between life and death?

Uncle Lola – today I honour you. Your bravery shall not be forgotten for you are a true hero. Thank you.


Superbowl Envy: What Canadian Advertisers Can Learn From The Americans

I'm not a die hard football fan, but I tune into the Superbowl every year. I love the excitement of professional sports played out at an almost superhuman level. There's also a sought after entertainment factor which never fails to impress during the Superbowl. The half time shows are one thing, but there is also a sense of anticipation at being able to see the latest crop of advertising wizardry.

Yet every year around the water cooler, online and on radio stations across the country, the banter focuses on how much Canadians long to see the American commercials - as opposed to the often uncreative and (dare I say) unengaging Canadian ones. With some exceptions (McDonald's and BlackBerry were interesting this year), most Canadian commercials are, for lack of a better term, boring. If I have to see one more bank commercial I think I'm going to cry. And what's up with Bell? A communications giant, yet there's absolutely no creativity to their ads. To make matters worse, the same ads are run over and over again to the point where I start pressing the mute button every time they come on.

Come on people - it's Superbowl time! Engage me. Intrigue me. Make me want to talk about your brand in a positive way. Martin Short, one of the planet's funniest comedians, was introduced as a spokesperson for a contest run by the Lay's brand of potato chips. He's brilliant. But the jokes weren't funny.

What's missing in most Canadian commercials is a real understanding of story - and how it can engage a consumer by bringing up a positive memory - or tugging on their heartstrings. For brilliant examples of how to do this, check out the Budweiser, Dodge Ram and  Chrysler Jeep commercials which ran during the Superbowl. 

And even if the story is silly or stupid (as in slapstick comedy), it can have a huge impact on brand memory and recognition through its use of humour. Check out the Doritos commercial which uses a goat to get its point across. Story doesn't always have to be "deep."

It also doesn't have to be expensive. Look at Hollywood. Good storylines and interesting characters put Blockbusters and low budget movies on even playing fields. And that's before you factor in the benefits of social media.

Now I don't think for a minute that all Canadians nor all agencies are uncreative and boring. There are exceptions to what seems to be the norm. So whose fault is it? Are clients just not buying more creative pitches? Are Canadians really happy with the status quo and are they just unwilling to see riskier and more exciting commercials?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that both agencies and their clients need to take more chances. Don't tell me the great fuel economy I'll get by buying your brand of car. Don't tell me about the cool dashboard with the nifty new GPS device. So what. Every other car company is telling me the same thing.

Make me remember your brand. SHOW me how I can save mileage and how I can use the GPS device by telling me a story. Use that story about how, years ago, my first driving lesson was in a Ford station wagon. Transport that sense of fear and excitement to the ad. Show how my parents used to take the car on what seemed like endless summer road trips...and how they used maps to get us from Point A to Point B (not always successfully). And how today things have changed because gas mileage is better - and there are onboard TV screens to keep the kids quiet - and how GPS is used to navigate the new worlds of both superhighways and more remote destinations (and how unlike maps, they never require folding). 

Compare the old with the new. Because somewhere deep inside, your brand has earned a spot in my memory.

Engage me. Dazzle me. Get my emotions involved. But please don't bore me with an endless run of statistics and features. And really boring spokespeople.

It's time to battle Superbowl envy with story and lessen the gap between what Canadians want to see, and what they're getting. It's time for a cure.



Brad Pitt Generates "Inevitable" Backlash for Chanel No. 5

As the first male spokesperson for iconic brand Chanel No. 5, Brad Pitt has generated a fury of controversy..not all of which can be bad for the company. Cited as "vague" by viewers and countless media outlets, Pitt seems to confuse the audience with his ramble about life's journeys, luck, fate and fortune. The ads have generated so much buzz, that they have already been spoofed on Saturday Night Live, Ellen and Conan.

Yet the effect of all this buzz is, to use his word, "inevitable."  The ad has generated over 4 million hits on YouTube. To quantify the amount of free publicity garnished by Chanel with the launch of these print and TV ads would be astounding.

Whoever said that there's no such thing as bad publicity would certainly stand up for this one. According to Vanity Fair, the launch of the ad campaign was made to co-incide with the release of Pitt's new movie Killing Them Softly. Brilliant marketing on both sides.

So while the critics are spending time tearing up the ad, both Chanel and Pitt can be assured of one thing. People are talking about it. And in the world of brand marketing, just having people talk about your product will ensure that the Chanel brand story continues to live on in the minds and emotions of consumers. 


Walt Disney On Why It's Not Good To Grow Up

As a child growing up in Ottawa, I was exposed to a world of imagination through music, reading and stories. My parents were originally from Europe and I was quickly introduced to fables and folklore from the "old country." An outgoing child, I would often take the outdoor stage at our favourite lake in the Gatineau Park and put on a show for my family. Acting, singing, writing - they were all part of who I was as a young child.

Unfortunately as I grew older and responsibilities started to take over, I lost my sense of imagination and some of my creativity. My life took a different direction, and I ended up in the world of the "practical" having to deal with deadlines, commitments and pleasing "stakeholders."

Once in a while, my sense of imagination and creativity make a re-appearance. It happens when I browse through antique markets, check out the dusty corner of a guitar store - or see a movie like Wes Anderson's recent Moonrise Kingdom - the story of rediscovering youth and imagination in the remoteness of small town America.

Walt Disney once said "Too many people grow up. That's the real trouble with the world, too many people grow up. They forget. They don't remember what it's like to be twelve years old. They patronize, they treat children as inferiors. Well, I won't do that." Words on which to build a marketing empire.

In a world full of complex ideas, quick fix hits and information measured in gigabytes - it's up to marketers to reinspire their audience to encourage them to act. More than storytelling, this requires the ability to "hit us" where it will have most impact. Find some way to connect your product with our youth. It's a powerful selling tool. Tom Peters said that a "brand reaches out with a powerful connecting experience." It's almost a primeval way of hitting us at the gut level to re-ignite something that has been lost for so many years.

Being an adult is definitely a wonderful experience. Yet the success of movies and books that cater to the imagination and one's inherent creativity tell me that there's a void in the lives of many adults. It's a void that makes people long for a simpler time - a time when being a child held all the magic and wonder of life - and the thought of growing up was a story yet about to unfold.


The Bistro On Main: Branding From A Foodie Perspective

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I took a road trip to Elora Ontario to check out an antiques fair. Pleasantly tired but starving, we were in the mood for a casual dining experience. Decked out in jeans, we didn't feel comfortable walking into a high end dining place nor did we want to shell out big bucks for the experience.

After a disappointing search in Guelph, we opted to head back to Toronto and stop off in Milton. After all, it was a road trip and we could eat in Toronto any day.

As far as dining goes, Milton offers one strip full of pubs and restaurants. Great variety - but the options were either too casual (ie. greasy foods) or too formal. Just when we were about to give up, we came across a lovely hip venue called The Bistro On Main.

Although there were what seemed like Christmas decorations in the window, we decided to give the place a chance. The menu looked perfect. Gourmet salads and sandwiches at very reasonable prices. The place is bistro-size (aka smallish) but that suited our needs just fine

Service was excellent, and the food was amazing. I expected "OK" food, but the experience told us that this place really cares about its customers. Great quality, at extremely reasonable prices. We could tell the chef really put a lot of effort into creating the best "sandwich" experience. I had grilled crabmeat and cheese which was incredible. The fresh wheat bread was a nice touch too. The more than generous portions meant we could take home enough food to cover our lunch the next day.

Now I'm not writing this solely to plug this place (but I'm giving it a huge thumbs up). My point is that there are lots of ways to make your brand stand out. Give me a good experience, and I will return. Not only will I return, but I will talk about it too. And those people will tell other people.

In the ultra competitive food business, there are way too many options for consumers. We gave this place a chance, and were extremely impressed. What counted most was the effort and care the owner (Jonathan Yau) put into every dish. The quality, the amount, the look, the seasoning, the service..it all blended together into a delightful symphony of the stomach. And it didn't cost us a fortune for the experience.

Branding is about finding a way to make your business or name stand out. It's about your story, and the story you and your customers tell to other people. Set the precedent and give your customers a fabulous experience, and you will stand out and succeed.

And the next time you're in Milton, do stop in and say hi to Jonathan. And say Karen from Toronto sent you.








Coca-Cola Shares The Love With Launch of New Hug Machine

As part of its ongoing effort to engage customers in the brand experience, Coca-Cola has launched a novel idea called the Hug Machine. Launched at the National University of Singapore in March, the machine is part of the company's "Open Happiness" campaign that began in the US in 2009.

The giant red machine boasts the words "Hug Me" on the front and it contains no coin slot. When people hug the front of the machine it delivers a free can of Coke. Needless to say, the machine boasts an endless array of photo ops and YouTube clips which result in even more PR and brand coverage for the company.

Talk about establishing an emotional connection with the audience! Coca-Cola has always been a leader in the concept and technique of brand storytelling. As Schulich School of Business Marketing Professor Markus Giesler says "A brand that's high up on a billboard wants to dominate me, but a brand that can be hugged wants to be my friend."

Many of the world's most successful brands are able to create and maintain emotional relationships with customers. The more "human" marketers can make these brands, the better the chance of success. Not only is Coke's technique entertaining, it also fosters relationships and creates a sense of community. The next time participants walk down the supermarket aisle - which soft drink brand do you think they'll choose?

In the end, isn't it nice to know that you can still be successful by putting a smile on everyone's face?


On The Money: What Brad Pitt Can Teach Us About Life And Business

The film Moneyball (based on Michael Lewis' book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game), looks at the Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane's (played by Brad Pitt) less conventional approach to the practice of hiring professional baseball players.

While baseball traditionalists tend to hire based on certain criteria (highly athletic hitters and their good looking girlfriends), Beane is convinced there has to be a better way to hire players for teams whose budgets come nowhere near those of other teams in the Major Leagues. He decides that traditional statistical formulations used to gage player success weren't representative of a player's true potential, and starts to build a winning team based on less expensive options. As an example, instead of looking at pitchers with incredible throwing speeds, Beane looked at pitchers who could get more ground outs.

Player attributes that were less focused on looks were often used in Beane's selections. While one player was shunned by the majors due to his odd-looking pitching arm and style, Beane looked at other aspects of his record and decided he was a potential winner. By applying his technique, Beane was able to assemble a winning team that could compete with major competitors fielding huge budgets.

So what does Brad Pitt have to do with life and business?

  • Smart risk taking can have a huge potential payoff. He went against tradition, took a risk in doing so, and won
  • To solve a problem, sometimes you have to look beyond the obvious
  • Using creativity and ingenuity, he transformed his position from being one of having an unfair advantage to that of a winner. He did this by identifying unique strengths in others that the majority of people in his industry dismissed
  • Given a chance, underdogs can turn out to be winners. It takes someone who "thinks outside the crowd" to give them that chance
  • You can't hire people solely based on looks or the fact that they might have some perceived "quirkiness" that doesn't fit the norm. They have other attributes that will make them shine (and make YOU shine too)
  • The greatest form of flattery is imitation - after Beane's success, other Major League teams tried to copy his winning formula

What do you think businesses can learn from the way Billy Beane achieved success? Why does there always seem to be resistance to new ways of thinking - when the people who think differently are often the ones who are able to change the world?




Storytelling Comes Alive Through "The Artist"

While the new world of Hollywood is filled with special effects, violence and sometimes limited storylines, multiple Academy Award nominee The Artist is a perfect example of how to engage an audience the old fashioned way.

Filmed in black and white and with no dialogue, The Artist proves that with a good story you don't need complicated technology and complex plotlines to create a winner.

Originally I was skeptical at the prospect of seeing a silent film. I'm a fan of Chaplin, but wasn't sure whether "old world" techniques would appeal to a modern day audience. My skepticism quickly faded during the first 15 minutes of the film. Set in Hollywood in the 1920's, The Artist is the story of silent film star George Valentin and his concerns that the arrival of the "talkies" would ruin his career. There's also a subplot surrounding young dancer Peppy Miller and how their worlds eventually end up colliding.

In a nutshell, The Artist proves that what's old can be new again.

So what makes The Artist an example of timely, effective and engaging storytelling?

  1. The story delves into a universal theme that's as relevant in 1920's Hollywood as it is today - fears held by the older generation that their relevence and skills will be outpaced as technology continues to evolve and younger players take over
  2. There's a huge emotional connection to the audience. Although the movie is silent, the audience is transported into the story through cinematography, the looks and actions of the actors and the music. Classic storytelling. At some points in the movie, there wasn't a dry eye in the house
  3. The movie made you laugh. Thanks in part to canine star "Uggie", the movie was highly comedic. Comedy vs. tragedy - universal themes in storytelling that have the effect of playing with the audience in an effort to entertain and inspire
  4. The movie was filmed in black and white. This added a magical and mysterious element to the story that transcended any other method of modern day filmmaking

The Artist received 10 Academy Award nominations next to Martin Scorsese's highly acclaimed Hugo (11 noms). While worldwide audiences will have to wait until the Academy Awards show on February 26, in my mind The Artist is already a winner and shining example of how lack of dialogue combined with music, incredible acting, universal storytelling and award winning cinematography can win both critial acclaim as well as the hearts and minds of global audiences.

Do you think The Artist is a great example of engaging storytelling? Why? If not, why not?



Cougar Boots Relaunches Brand Story on a Canadian Icon

In the fashion world, it seems what's old is all of a sudden new again. The only difference is that now it commands a higher price.

Many of us will remember the infamous Cougar pillow boot that took the country by storm in 1976. Who didn't walk around school with these iconic boots? They were the supreme representation of cool - yet cooler if the tongue was left to dangle loosely (I remember even adding a red fluffy lumberjack coat, but I digress...)

Iconic brands are able to tell a story in a way that captivates consumers. Yet more than being able to tell an engaging story, great brands are able to tap into our emotions in a way that draws up warm memories. Cougar does this extremely well with its re-introduction of the famous Cougar pillow boot.

As you key into the Cougar website, a mesmerizing combination of both nostalgic and modern images draw you into the story. The kids are dressed the way WE used to dress in the winter. They are engaging in what those of us familiar with the brand used to do too...hang out on those old wooden style toboggans. Press noses against glass. Run around chasing your brothers and sisters. 

Adding to the sense of nostalgia is the music. The song sounds as if it's recorded in the 1920's or 30's and adds an element of warmth to the scene. One cannot help but be drawn into the film clip. All in all, the whole approach and presentation make me, as a consumer, WANT to learn more about the boot. Instead of being about just another winter boot, Cougar has presented the brand in a way that makes you feel as if you're reconnecting with a long lost friend.

Great advertising and great brands are able to tell a brand story in a way that makes consumers WANT to listen. The best brands are able to cut beneath the surface of our psyche and reach into something that we thought was long gone.

Can you think of other campaigns that follow a similar approach?


New Orleans Best Brand Stories Are From The Streets

I recently returned from New Orleans where I attended the IABC Southern Region Conference. Having spent some time in the city earlier this year, I fell in love with the city's vibe, culture and people (not to mention the food). What struck me most on this trip were the amazing stories I heard from the locals. Stories of both extreme heartbreak and inspiration - many could be heard just by talking to people on the streets.

The last night of our trip was spent in a rather Bohemian part of the city called the Faubourg-Marigny. It is here that I met one of the area's most fascinating street poets - Matt. The idea was that Matt would listen to your story, then come up with a poem about your experiences. I'd heard about the concept in other American cities, and decided to test Matt's talents. In a manner true to form of a street poet, Matt was able to craft a poem that was not only witty - but was also able to capture the essence of how we felt on our last night in the city. Overjoyed about the people and places we saw on our trip, yet sad that we would be returning home soon.


In his book "Reinventing Work: the brand you 50", Tom Peters said that "A brand is a metaphorical story that's evolving all the time..." and that "stories create the emotional context people need to locate themselves in a larger experience." This is especially true in a city like New Orleans where stories - and the characters they represent - provide an outlet to the sometimes harsher aspects of life.

A great brand story can be found anywhere. The tagline for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau is "You're Different Here." It's true - although it's also true that things are different there. There's a spirit and resilience in the people of New Orleans that I haven't found matched anywhere else in the world.

One day while wandering through the French Market, I started chatting with a local jeweller. His brand is called "Art Made in the Ghetto." His pieces were amazing, and I ended up buying a few of them. His name is Russell Gore and his story is both heartbreaking and inspirational. Born into the "projects", Gore vowed to become a success and worked his way out of poverty to become a student of commercial art and photography. During Hurricane Katrina, his wife died in his arms. He fashioned a gold medallion out of his wife's gold and still wears it to this day. An incredible example of inspiration and success in the face of extreme poverty and heartbreak.

The story of New Orleans is the story of its people. Life is meant to be lived here. People realize that each day could be your last, and live their lives according to this belief. To experience New Orleans, is to be reminded that people's stories matter. They give life meaning - and give people a reason to believe and move on with their lives.

It is with this spirit and with the spirit of all the Matt's and Russell Gore's out there - that I encourage each and every one of you to just take a moment to enjoy life. Make it spontaneous - and don't forget to dance along the way.