Gaga Goggles and Kardashian Kollections: Does Celebrity Supersede Design?

The age of celebrity branding is in full swing. From Polaroid hiring the meat adorned, egg hatched Lady Gaga as their “Creative Director” to the Kardashian Klan brought in to “design” a line of clothes, shoes, accessories and more for Sears, one important thing has been tossed aside in the name of celebrity. That thing is called PRODUCT.

Polaroid chairman Bobby Sager claims that he wants Polaroid to be the next Apple, so what does he do to achieve that? He hires Lady Gaga as a faux “creative director” for the brand. I have a tip for Bobby. Apple is Apple because of design, not because of celebrity firepower. Apple has never used celebrities nor has it ever used focus groups to determine where their product should go. Innovation comes from a deep creative process. If Polaroid wants to reinvent itself as an innovative leader, they should focus on product design and technological advancements, not gimmicks. Celebrities are fleeting. Great design is iconic.

Next on the agenda is the Kardashian sisters being paid to “design” a line for the tired Sears brand. I watched a segment the other morning on Good Morning America about the Kardashians “creating” their Kollection. The Kardashians have not created or designed anything. They have simply licensed their name. They flew out on a private jet to view the line for the first time in a mini store within Sears with the clothing already designed, produced, shipped and out for sale. Their claim to the design of their product line demeans the design process and the lengthy and complicated process of manufacturing a product.

These are just a couple of the myriad of celebrity brands. Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie, and yes, even the ultimate Jersey Girl Snooki, all have product lines in their namesakes. It’s not enough for celebrities to become celebrities anymore; they often seem to need more. Actors selling makeup, singers selling clothing, reality show losers selling shoes, greed and America’s insatiable appetite to get a piece of the wealthy and famous seems to have taken over its desire for anything of lasting and meaningful value. Great design, perhaps with the exception of Apple, has become a niche market.

There are two approaches to building a brand. You can create a great product, with fabulous design and an honest brand story that will build a lasting brand. You also can find a celebrity, license their name and attach it to anything for success that will be a flash in the pan. In my book, a great brand and innovative design supersede anything that any celebrity can bring to the table.

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Crowd Sourcing’s Dark Side

11080I’m all for keeping a finger on the pulse of what consumers are saying and thinking, but there seems to be a new trend in over-reliance on crowd sourced results to direct business, especially when it comes to creative work. Crowds, especially of the consumer variety can be very useful for feedback on new products, but be wary of inviting crowds into the intimate creative places of your business. From graphics, logos and websites to tag lines, brand names, domain names and even the products themselves, many businesses are turning to crowd sourcing to get their creative work for free or practically free. As a creative entrepreneur, I find this trend a bit disturbing, not just because it degrades the value of true creative work, but because it can have a larger negative impact on businesses and their brands.

A business image is not something to leave in the hands of the masses. Brand building is a delicate thing that should be orchestrated by the owner of the brand, not by those who consume the brand. Kraft’s Vegimite/Snack 2.0 debacle is a great example of how crowd sourcing can completely backfire. This trend of crowd sourced creative work waters down what a brand truly can be. Brand building comes from creating multiple layers of elements like product, quality, message, image, graphics, website, communication, partnerships and reputation in the industry, marketplace and with consumers. Why so many businesses are leaving these crucial elements in the hands of the masses is perplexing. As someone who created and built a brand of children’s shoes from scratch, the idea of asking the general public for creative direction or creation was something I never would have even considered. The masses don’t know what is best for your business, you do. The masses are consumers, not innovators. In most cases, consumers can’t imagine what they haven’t already seen before.

Can’t afford a professional? Just ask anyone for a free opinion
So many social media sites have opened up the flood gates to this kind of thinking. Certain LinkedIn discussion groups have become a hotbed for free crowd sourcing of creative work. I’ve seen people asking for marketing plans, brand names, domain names, and logos all for free. There has been one discussion that has been going on for over a month now from someone asking for “suggestions” for a tag line for his music company. To date, there have been 272 responses coming free from the likes of a student in Malaysia, a “Change Communicator,” a “Senior Solutions Specialist,” but more surprising is that supposed Marketing Experts, Copywriters, and Brand Strategists also added their suggestions. For Free. I understand the whole concept of giving in the social media world, but expecting professional results from people willing to simply throw out random suggestions for something as important to a brand as a tag line is simply unrealistic. The results of this person’s request, even though there were 272 of them were pretty terrible. They were terrible because none of the respondents knew anything about this guy’s business, what his goals were, who he was, what his message was, who his market was or what image he was trying to project. These are all the things that a professional would take into consideration carefully and spend time contemplating before even suggesting a solution.

This isn’t work, it’s a contest

I got an email the other day specifically addressed to me inviting me to enter a contest to come up with a new domain name for someone’s business. I was told that I would get $10 for my submission, and then if it were chosen as the best, I would “win” $500. Out of curiosity, I clicked on the link to see what this was all about. There were very specific parameters for this project. It was a domain for a new dating website, but it wasn’t just a domain they were looking for, actually it was a brand name. It had to be nine letters or less, had to be a .com address, had to be available, had to be unique and not trademarked or used by any other business, and it had to capture the essence of the philosophy of their site. There was also a long list of words that could not be used. It was suggested that the estimated work time on this project would be ten minutes. That’s right, I said ten minutes. It was also stated that this was the second contest they were holding because the first one “did not generate the kind of results that they were looking for.” Hmm, you think they mean PROFESSIONAL results?

More is better

Would you rather savor one incredibly delicious meal created by a talented chef or would you rather stuff yourself with unlimited piles of junk food? Crowd sourcing is like a junk food feast. The premise (I think) behind crowd sourcing is that if you get a ton of responses, you will have a bigger pool to choose from, increasing your chances of getting the results you are looking for. More is better, right? If the goal is to find quality creative work, then the answer is no. Anyone willing to enter a “contest” is not going to be giving you professional work. They’ll spend the ten minutes to take a chance – kind of like buying a lottery ticket. But let me let you in on a little secret: Believe it or not, great graphics, design, writing, naming, branding, and marketing all take talent, experience, creativity, knowhow, and time. Instead of blowing your budget on a contest that generates piles of amateur entries, spend your money on talent. You know, someone who will spent some time THINKING and talking to you about your business and what you hope to achieve. That my friends, takes more than ten minutes.

I’ll pay you if I like you

There are numerous sites popping up that are going beyond the bidding wars of sites like elance or odesk for creative work, but they actually solicit suckers to do the work up front, upload it for all to see, and only pay the one that is chosen as the best either by the poster or by votes from the crowd. Would you walk into competing bakeries, eat their respective cakes, and only pay for the one that you think tastes best? Would you expect to have several landscapers come to your house, plant their gardens, build their stone walls and only pay the one who you think did the best job? This is called working on spec. I don’t understand how this approach to hiring creative work is acceptable. It’s a cop out really on the part of the hiring person. They apparently are not willing to take the risk or the heat of hiring the wrong person. Maybe it comes from a lack of confidence in knowing what is good creative or not, but if you do your homework, look at experience, previous work and get recommendations from others who the creatives have worked with, then educated choices can be made. Anyone who is willing to put their time and energy into creating something without knowing whether or not they will be paid is clearly either desperate or an amateur looking to build a portfolio.

I’m not a real ______, I just play one on the Internet

Ah, the self proclaimed guru problem again. I recently wrote about that subject here. But for true designers, writers, marketers or anyone else who offers creative consulting services to business, the guru problem has invaded their potential for livelihood like Kudzu in a Louisiana swamp. Again, it’s a matter of research. Know who you are working with and find out if a person has ever done what they profess themselves to be.

The bottom line is that you have a choice. It all depends on what your goals are. You can risk your budget and/or brand on a contest with amateurs who will only spend a few minutes on your project, or you can do your homework and hire a professional who will take a vested interest in your business’ success. Your success, image and happiness is their success, image and happiness. Don’t underestimate the power of talent.

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Does An Idea Have Value?

brightideaA similar question was recently posed in an online discussion. Some people answered this question quickly by saying that ideas are worth absolutely nothing until someone puts money down on the table for them. I wholeheartedly disagree. Value is not just about dollars and cents. Value can be about potential – for change, innovation, meaning, emotion, function, or design. Even in the context of business, these elements, especially in today’s economy are the keys to business success. It’s the businesses that understand that, the ones that have the intuition and sense to see and believe in that potential, that will be the ones that move on to create the future in business world.

In Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, he states his theory that right brainers will rule the future in business. Pink argues that outsourcing (finding manufacturing overseas for cheaper production) and automation and computerization (replacing the information based knowledge workers) are forcing the Information Age to give way to a new Conceptual Age that values creativity, innovation and inventiveness. Ironically, it’s those intangible things like ideas that cannot be replicated or automated, that will give a business its greatest value.

Every business starts with an idea. It can be an epiphany that wakes you up in the middle of the night. It can be inspired by something you see or hear. It can be born from a desire to try to do something better than how it’s been done before, or to invent something that never existed before. But how do you know when an idea is just an idea or when that spark is something that has potential to be big and worth turning it into a business? Oftentimes, that’s where the strength of the conceptual side of the brain kicks in. Studies, focus groups, and market research can play a role, but if an idea is so innovative that there’s nothing to compare it to, then research results may not reflect an idea’s full potential for success. Likewise, if a business relies too heavily on consumer input, especially with a highly innovative idea, the results may be the same. Consumers know what they have seen before. They are not innovators, they are consumers.

In the early 1970’s Xerox created the Alto, considered by many to be the first PC for desktop use. Unfortunately for Xerox, they lacked the vision to see the full potential and the ability to innovate quickly enough to bring it to market.

They were left in the dust when in 1979 Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs visited Xerox and was said to have taken inspiration from their innovation and in turn incorporated similar technologies into the MacIntosh. So when answering the question of the value of an idea, just ask yourself what that idea was worth to Apple. The rest is history.

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Has Social Media Cheapened Creative Talent?

pulpfictionOne of the basic concepts in social media and online networking and marketing is about giving, yet there seems to be a lot more taking going on lately. Although I agree that the participation in the social web absolutely needs to have that element of helpfulness, it doesn’t mean that professional creative services should be expected to be given away for free or for a few bucks. Here are a few recent scenarios that have come to my attention:

In various LinkedIn discussion groups:
Someone asking for “suggestions” for a new tag line for their company.
Someone asking for “suggestions” for re-branding of a web domain.
Someone asking for the best solutions to market their brand.

Craig’s List:
Someone asking for product designs on spec: Create it, design it, give it to us and if we like it, we’ll pay you.

Indeed.com:
A prominent children’s brand looking for a product designer to work unpaid for 3 months which “may lead to a paid position.”

Numerous online news or information sites:
Writers provide free content or content for a few bucks an article in exchange for “exposure.”

Online printers:
Offering a free clip art logo with every printing job.

These are just a few of the myriad of examples of businesses looking for and/or taking free or nearly free, design, marketing or content to build their own businesses. There’s nothing wrong with helping people, offering advice and yes, sometimes offering limited services for free or at a discount, but there seems to be a disconnect somewhere that discounts talent and quality which, in turn, devalues and cheapens creative work.

A good example here is the case of the online printing service offering a free clip art logo with every printing job. This company is not a graphic design house, they are a printing house. A more appropriate offer might be to giveaway an extra few pieces of whatever is being printed. Giveaway the printing, not low level clip art logos. Yes it’s a logo, and yes, the customer might need a logo, but it’s not doing the customer any favors by offering them a logo that looks like it was designed by a 5th grader. There actually is no value in doing that, because even if their customer doesn’t realize the low quality, the marketplace probably will, and a poor unprofessional image will be projected.

It seems that it’s becoming a common practice to not only ask for, but expect creative work for free or virtually free. There is that old saying that “you get what you pay for.” This isn’t to say necessarily that the more expensive something is the better, but it’s safe to say that most professional quality work is not going to be found for free. The problem here lies in when businesses don’t see or know the difference between professional quality work and low level work that appears to fill a particular need at a particular time for a bargain or lower than bargain price. Is it really still true that content and quality is king or is a bargain the new reigning ruler? Is this a larger cultural question? Let me know what you think…

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