Rebranding is not a magic wand, it’s one important step

When things go wrong in business, it’s tempting to reach for the magic wand of rebranding, wishing for a miracle that will re-harness your good intentions and instantly bring back best practices, integrity, and orders. But there is no magic wand. Instead, you have to take stock of what is true and what is false; of what you can and cannot do. The good news is, this is the easy part.

Rebranding is not a magic wand

Companies often think about rebranding when their reputation has been tarnished. But rebranding without foundational changes is, at its root, a negative action that leads right back to the same point. Putting a new label on an old structure just costs money without manifesting real change. Doing the work, laying the tracks for change, then rebranding, can manifest the change and success you seek.

The purpose of rebranding is to show people that you have changed. If you haven’t changed, rebranding is just a band-aid that will wear out. But if you have indeed changed, rebranding is a worthy proclamation, an announcement that people should take notice and can trust you again.

I encourage companies to think about rebranding as stage 2 in a 3-stage progression that looks like this:

Stage 1: Taking Stock

Why is Stage 1 so important? Stage 1 lays a solid foundation for commitment to change. If you aren’t ready to change, there’s no point in rebranding. But if you are ready to commit to change, Stage 2, Rebranding, can be an incredibly powerful experience that transforms your approach and attitude about your work.

Step 1 – Write a numbered list (random order is fine) of everything that’s been done wrong with orders, customers, and practices. Call this list “Problems.” This can be done on a piece of paper or in an Excel spreadsheet.

For example, do your resellers get your brand’s usage guidelines? If not, add it to your problem list.

Try asking some questions such as: What is the shipping time commitment when an order is placed? How often do you fail to meet it? What is your procedure for communicating real shipping time for out of stock items?

Step 2 – In a second column, write what you are doing to change each item on the list. Call this list “Changes.”

For example, if you are not adhering to your warranty policy, write a commitment for doing just that. Or examine why you aren’t sticking to it, and change it so that you can.

Step 3 – Consider and write down how your customers think of your brand. What are their experiences? What can they rely on in interactions with your brand and customer service? How would you like this to be different? Add these items to your Problems and Changes lists.

Step 4 – Hang the list visibly on your wall and read it daily. Send copies out to all employees, creating a symbiotic check and balance team. Commit to your changes.

Step 5 – Meet weekly to talk through any problems with implementing the changes. Discuss solutions, and update the list.

By your completion of Stage 1, you should have a realistic view of all your brand or company’s problems that are holding you back or damaging your reputation. (They also tend to dampen your spirit.) You should also have a plan for implementing the changes that will eliminate those problems and provide new motivation for success.

Stage 2: Rebranding
Step 6 – Meet with me or someone in the world who does what I do (apologies for the self-promotion, but I’ve met just one other person ever who does what I do). We’ll revisit brand strategy, positioning, design, brand messaging, and more. For an overview of branding, check out Train of Thought’s strategic branding page.

Step 7 – Rediscover the energy, enthusiasm and purpose that saw you go into business in the first place.

Step 8 – Love your newly redesigned brand, and prepare to share it for the purpose of changing how people think about and experience your brand and company.

Stage 3: Taking Action
Step 9 – Got that Changes list handy? Get it so you can reference all of your impending changes.

Step 10 – Write a professional letter explaining the changes you are making and what it means to customers. Explain how they should order; how product names will change; how they can expect all communications coming from you to change. Explain any other changes that can realistically upgrade their expectations for the better. Even if you have no one to whom you can send the letter, write it, for this letter will be a guiding light reinforcing your intentions.

Step 11 – Send the letter old school-like in a new envelope showing off your new logo, on your new letterhead, and be sure to slip in your new business card. I hear people whine that letterhead and envelopes are passe, but this is nothing more than an excuse. People love getting personalized postal mail. It’s the best way to concretely get your message of change across. Yes, they will recycle the envelope and toss out the letter, but that’s not the point. The point is impact, and physical letters simply have greater impact than electronic mail. Plus, people pay more attention when your announcement is not just another boring email. If you have any new products, this is also an opportunity to slip in info about them and generate new interest. This is part of doing things differently. Part of your transformational change.

Anecdotally, in a recent writing workshop, one of my group mates noted the high quality of the paper my pages were printed on. People notice when you do things differently.

And what of the magic wand?
We all love the romance of a magic wand, for it promises change as easy as feeling a new wind. The difference is, where experiencing the elements is pleasure, experiencing business success is work. You have to do the work if you want the rewards. The magic is in the feeling and results you get after a proper rebrand.

Gluten-free is easy in Seattle

I figure it’s time for another gluten-free post, because even today, many years after getting gluten out of daily diets has improved the lives of so many people, there are still throngs out there who believe gluten-free is nothing more than a fad. These may, ostensibly, be the same people who still believe the Earth is flat.

A Chinese restaurant here in Seattle has a gluten-free menu, from which you can order dishes that have gluten. They won’t bother to tell you that until they bring out the flour pancakes to accompany your mu shu, and only if you ask.
“Are these flour pancakes?” You ask, because they look and smell like flour.
“Yes, they are.”
“But I ordered from the gluten-free menu,” you say.
“Yes, that’s right. If you don’t want gluten, just don’t eat the pancakes.”
“But they’re on the gluten-free menu, and you served them to a gluten-free person. Do you have others that are actually gluten-free?” You ask.
“Oh, um, no. And by the way, the hoisin sauce also contains gluten.”
“The sauce from the gluten-free menu?” You ask.
“Yes, so if you don’t want gluten in that either, then you would just not eat it,” the waiter says.
“Okay. Why do you have a gluten-free menu if it contains glutenous items?”
“Well, it’s just a choice for people,” the waiter says innocently.

They have no idea what celiac is. Gluten sensitivity? Same thing. Never heard of it. Gluten-free, Seattle style, is purely a diet choice, not a requirement.

I tell people how eliminating gluten saw me no longer suffer from asthma. I tell them how I instantly dropped ten pounds without even trying. They say it’s a fluke.

They might ask how it’s possible, but as soon as I mention the villi, part of the digestive tract, as soon as I start talking about the inside of the body, they get squeamish or lose interest.

They ask what happens if I eat gluten? I get digestive issues. Inside the body again? Oh, don’t want to know about that. Technically, the digestive system begins at the teeth and ends at, well, the end. Yet, people have no problem talking about their teeth.

There are those who get it. Great companies have been founded on gluten-free. One company, Olivia Superfree, has a whole line of delicious baked goods – pies, bread, cupcakes, pizza crusts, brownies – which taste better than their glutenous counterparts.

Another gluten-free bakery has cropped up: nuflours. I tried their lemon bar at a quick cafe stop during a bike ride, and was reminded of my grandmother’s favorite holiday meal comment, which must be said with food in the mouth and perhaps a bit in the throat, half-swallowed or so: “Luscious.” I see on their site they offer several gluten-free breads that look scrumptious.

Okay, yes, some gluten-free products taste like sawdust (not that I’ve eaten sawdust), but you know, it’s funny because “normal” foods don’t face the same scrutiny as allergen-free foods. There are an amazing amount of truly awful tasting “normal” foods on the market, by comparison. Vegemite. Lima beans. Kim-chi. Pig ear. Tripe. Tongue. Funyuns. Oh, I’ll stop. By the way, it’s the “normal” foods that most often cause bad breath. Think corn chip breath. Think wheat breath.

When people hear me ask for a gluten-free beer, the most common reaction is, “Oh, that must taste awful,” which is puzzling because ‘Boy, that wheat sure is mouth-watering,’ is something I have never heard anyone say. Think about that for a second. Wheat is grass. Cows eat grass. We are not cows. We do not have their digestive system. (Strangely, we drink cow milk, yet we are human. Wouldn’t it make more sense for cows to drink cow milk, and humans to drink human milk? Me, I drink coconut milk and rain milk.)

The truth is, gluten-free beer is just like wheat beer, except without the annoying bloat effect. Of course, if you like bloat, more power to you.

People wonder how I manage to find enough safe food to eat. The fact of gluten being in nearly everything at the supermarket is born purely of industry, not human dietary needs or even availability. Wheat is often used as a filler ingredient or a binding agent. Do you want to eat binding agents? Do binding agents sound like they would aid good digestion?

Whether gluten-free is a choice or a requirement, there are now plenty of options, pretty much wherever you go here. It’s smart to be careful, ask questions, and make sure you are truly getting the gluten-free goods.

I just stick with the basics, fruits, vegetables, meats. I cook nearly all my own meals. If I find myself at a restaurant that doesn’t seem like they get that gluten-free is not a choice, I just order vegetables. Oh wait, I do that anyway. Going gluten-free is not nearly as hard as it sounds. All it takes is making a firm commitment to your health, and that’s about as easy as it gets.

The bizarre wonders of the no-reply email

Don’t worry – It’s not your fault. Someone taught you to use a “no-reply” from email address with your customers. They taught you it’s a great way to cut down on being inundated with useless emails. What they failed to teach you is, the no-reply email discourages asking questions. It discourages customer interaction. It discourages connecting with people who want to give you their money, or learn something about you.

It turns out “no-reply” is not your best email friend. Instead, it causes disconnect and frustration, because customers aren’t expecting you to be rude. That’s what no-reply is: rude. And because they don’t expect it, they click reply, type their questions, click send, and immediately get a notice of non-deliverability, a total fail.

Customers want to trust you. Your no-reply email undermines trust by letting people know they are not communicating with a human being. Is that what you want?

Instead of using a no-reply email, consider using a real person. Because real people reply. They connect and solve problems. They earn business.

Now Now Now

Last year, I contacted Derek Sivers for his opinion on attending grad school (which he called “timid procrastination”). While I was vacillating, I agreed with his thinking. Later, I flipped my decision, in part, due to the exercise of creating a Now page, prompted by one of Derek’s posts.

I realized procrastinating was precisely what I was doing, and I needed greater focus. I also needed to complete a vision for myself.

I rarely sign up for email lists because I get far too much email as it is, but I signed up for Derek’s. There is no sales pitch in his writing. He puts his thoughts out, and it’s up to me how I night apply it to my own life.

In one email he announced a site he launched called Now Now Now, where each user can add a link to a page on their own site that tells what they are doing now. It’s not about what you did before. It’s not about making a sale. It’s about now, about being literal in your present day, and keeping focus. It’s quite like a self-referential touch point, because unlike common web pages, a Now page evolves with you and constantly reminds you what you want to be doing, which is really helpful if you are a creative entrepreneur, or even just really busy.

Creative people manifest new ideas with such frequency, they often have difficulty maintaining focus long enough to see an idea truly flourish.

If I allow myself to be pulled in ten directions, there is not enough of me to focus on succeeding in any one of those initiatives.

A Now page shares your focus with the world. It’s like having a list on your wall that tells you if what you are currently doing is helping your reach your goals.

My favorite Jack Handy quote is:
“I like to carry around two sacks, one in each hand. That way, if someone asks, “Can you give me a hand?” I can reply, no, sorry, got these sacks.” (I like because it’s funny, not because it’s how I think.)

It’s not that I won’t lend a hand when I can. In fact, I enjoy helping out. Occasionally, the initiatives for which people ask me to come on board are incompatible with I’m doing. Now, I can point them to my Now page.

With a Now page, you can state a goal, and when you reach it, replace it with a new one. It’s basically a public affirmation, a way to keep yourself current, and share what you’re into Now.

Why I had to be a grad student

I am a big believer in education, now, but 30 years ago, when I was a 17-year-old high school graduate, you would not have heard me utter such words. In fact, I thought school was all about brainwashing. (Psst: I still do, but only if you let it be.)

People will sell you anything if you allow it. Education is sold and bought (not the more usual other way around). It is often sold in commodity fashion, which in my purposeful mind is, indeed, brainwashing.

Some people want to be brainwashed. I like my brain, dirt and all.

The reason I so disliked the idea of attending university when I was younger is, I am a utilitarian learner, a completely purpose-driven person. Each time I perused college programs, I ran into a cavalcade of required courses that would no more relate to my interests and career than a rutabaga would conjure world peace.

Unrelated learning, I knew, would not make me a more well-rounded person; it would bore me. Plus, I would be disgusted by having to pay through my pores for wasting time and brain energy.

Every time I read the required classes at the University of Whatever state or city, my purpose-driven mind offered only a resounding, ‘No, don’t do it. It’s a waste of time and money.

I crafted a successful career in graphic design and advertising for thirty years. I needed no 4-year degree for a creative career, and I steadily rose through the ranks, consistently performing in senior-level positions.

Then everything changed. I survived a major health issue, and discovered a need to learn new ways of thinking. Antioch University Seattle let me craft my own degree, not wasting one class, brain cell, or moment in unrelated subjects.

My new path had its detractors. People said things like, “Oh my God, it’s so expensive. You shouldn’t be doing this.” (I wonder if God stressed so much about money?) They would say, “The debt, oh, the debt!” Or, “You’re wasting your time and money on something that won’t benefit you,” which sounded incredibly familiar; my decades-old words returning in boomerang fashion through my friends’ voices.

The truth is, I had to do it. I had to go. If I had not attended university, I doubt I would have survived. Even if my body was healthy, my life perspective had been decimated by the medical issue.

When I graduated, I had amassed a healthy body of book narratives, and had the desire to refine and bring them to print. I wanted to attend grad school for the continuance of learning and for the piece of paper (which was originally why I had wanted the undergrad degree), but I had not yet discovered the true benefit of more school. I chose to wait.

I kept working in the interim, and I applied to grad schools. I was overjoyed to be accepted into Antioch University Los Angeles’ MFA in Creative Writing program, regarded as a top-5 school. Acceptance was an accomplishment in and of itself. Antioch LA’s focus on social justice, environmental justice, and economic justice fit squarely with my newly acquired social consciousness, instilled by Antioch Seattle.

This was not brainwashing. It was becoming a better person, and realizing a much-needed new life vision based on my own Earth-given talents.

During my undergrad degree, I learned how to meld my creative voice and my social justice concerns. Before university, it seemed the smart thing to do was to keep my concerns to myself. After university, I knew social justice demands speaking up. Doing the opposite is basically irresponsible. Yet, the all-important broad perspective is critical in lending a balanced voice to the issues. These were my thoughts while I mulled over my grad school decision.

Antioch LA was incredibly patient.

Since my design career has been steeped in marketing work (I’ve been a graphic designer, copywriter, marketing director, marketing planner, strategic consultant, web designer, art director, and creative director), a balance of optimism and cynicism lurks in my consciousness around anything that is bought or sold.

Education, for better or worse, is sold and bought. This means I have to trust people who stand to gain quite a bit of moola from me financially if I attend, which is a hard sell to my brain. Yet, I had already experienced the enormous, life-changing benefits of fully investing my energy in mind-opening learning. Thus, I was able to make the belief leap.

Appreciated and trusted friends again voiced their concerns, all wise and worthy reasons for not attending grad school. I was listening.

I read advice from graduates who mourned the mountain of student loan debt and grieved the loss of productive years. More than one MFA holder said no one should attend an MFA program unless they had a scholarship.

I could understand their view completely, and I convinced myself they were right. I would not attend grad school. I would just keep writing. I was sure of it. I made my decision. I would get my books done and out of my own volition.

Except, I didn’t.

Life consistently got in the way of writing.

Thoughts of school still invaded my days for reasons I could not quite grasp, and I openly grappled with my decision among friends.

Long-time acquaintances said things like, ‘You are a graphic designer. Just keep earning a living with that,’ which is good advice. Life’s bills kept coming in. Graphic design and copywriting work kept coming in (thankfully!). I kept doing the same things I had done before school to maintain my standard of living and life routine.

Yet, I am largely a different person now. Staying the same while deriving the same happiness was not an option. I can still be a graphic designer, but I have to be a book writer now too. It is in my very soul.

Finally, the advice of three of my elder friends rang with an unexpected consistency. It seemed I had my own three wise men. Kings.

One said, “Don’t let anyone talk you out of your dreams.”

Another said, “You went half way with the undergrad degree. Now, you have to complete the journey with the MFA.”

The third said, “You are a talented writer. Your courage will be rewarded.”

Plus, there’s this thing about me. I see overarching patterns in the same way Haley Joel Osment saw dead people. Along with writing, it is what I have always done.

The pattern I saw was in everything I was doing. It was all keeping me from doing the one thing I most wanted to do: write.

In the waiting, in life, I discovered what was missing in me, my true benefit of grad school.

I still have the survivor perspective. This is what ultimately allowed me to flip my decision to attend. The survivor in me knows I only get one chance at this iteration of life. The oh-so-optimistic saying, “Tomorrow is not guaranteed,” it’s true. From this perspective, how could I not seize the opportunity Antioch LA provided?

Upon announcing my intent to register to Antioch, to my complete surprise, I was awarded a partial scholarship!

Enrolling in school meant making a second large financial commitment to, well, being me. It meant risking my future financial well-being. Yet, how could I not invest in becoming my truest self? In getting the most out of my talents, and pursuing my innermost dreams?

I can write anywhere. Unless I live forever, I will likely not run out of things to write in my life. I’ve been writing since I was nine years old. The motivation is always there.

What I lacked was focus. I lacked the perspective to know I had to let go of my living standard in some profound way in order to shift my focus to succeeding in writing—really, to succeeding in this chosen path.

Another thing I lacked was a community of writers. Grad school has brought that, and it is so unimaginably valuable.

It’s not that I needed pep rallies for writing. It’s knowing the individuals in our group are working on similar goals. It’s knowing we all arrived at Antioch for our own valid reasons, and we are each on a journey of discovery.

That is why I am now a grad student.

No, LinkedIn, I do not wish to connect with my dead friend, not yet anyway

As an early adopter of social networking and social media, it’s been great reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. Back when the now-defunct Biznik was an up and coming social networking site, making exciting moves in small business networking, it was entirely possible to actually meet the people who were connecting, some even becoming happy clients. Now it’s all about extending networks of people I will probably never meet. I have to wonder, what is the point? And I must wonder even more so when the professional networking site LinkedIn can so completely screw up.

LinkedIn encourages connecting with a dead friend

LinkedIn regularly sends me notices that some person I have never heard of has accepted an invitation (that I did not knowingly send) to connect. My network of people I don’t know in any way has exponentially expanded. Wonderful. Hey, if you’re one of those, let’s have a cup o’ tea together!

Today, for the umpteenth time, LinkedIn mentioned that among “People you may know”, most of whom I do not know, is my much missed friend Jerry Baker, who left the world last year. Thank you LinkedIn for sharing his picture in my inbox. It’s a fun picture.

Of the old friends with whom I have in theory reconnected, I’ve not seen even one, ever. They do not call. They rarely write, and only on Facebook.

If LinkedIn could somehow bring back my friend, boy, that would be something special, probably even worth sharing on Facebook.

I mention all of this because it seems sites like LinkedIn and Facebook have become lazy, which is a reflection on society. They don’t even care if they are being offensive. Hell, they don’t know. These sites are nothing without the members, for they make their money from data mining and advertising, neither of which would be possible without you and me and everyone we know (or don’t know). The value in connecting in real life is in sharing our interests and unlocking parts of our imaginations. How does that occur when there is no connection in real life?

Today’s Challenge: Connect with me in real life. Then, connect with me on LinkedIn. Not the other way around. C’mon: Let’s have a coffee and talk about life, business, dreams, what have you. Let’s make it real.

Future Challenge: Will someone create a social network that encourages real life (psst: in-person) social interaction? Does one exist? If so, send me a link, would you? Even better, post it in comments below to add to the discussion.

Typekirk font foundry launches

To great fanfare (and a ridiculous amount of convention balloons), was launched in July. The site features new font releases and an online store, where you can purchase and instantly download my latest font creations to use in your designs.

typekirk_appletouchTypekirk releases display and text faces, fonts for print, and fonts for web. I have two complex pattern fonts coming out shortly that empower designers (or DIYers) to make an infinite amount of amazing graphic patterns in seconds flat.

I will be releasing new fonts on a regular basis, probably with some fonts free for all, so be sure to check the site often, or better yet, subscribe to the email list there to get the latest free updates.

I love George Lois’ courage (you can too)

In ‘Damn Good Advice (for people with talent)’, George Lois speaks of courage thusly: “The courage to create only superb work, through thick and thin, and fight to protect it at all cost, is not generated in the head… it comes from your very heart and soul.”

Have the courage to read Damn Good AdviceI love this book, I really do. Not in a body-bumping sort of way, but for its scathing honesty. At a time when the phrase ‘I feel like’ has grossly replaced ‘I am’, we need more telling like it is. More truth.

Fighting to protect great work is not about fighting. It’s about knowing you have created work that will connect and be effective, and having the gumption to present it and manifest belief in others, such that your work will see the light of day, connect, and inspire more believers.

The creative business is presently at a tremendous crossroads where technology and software, among other factors, are undermining craft to such an extreme degree that mediocre work, the stuff that bean counters consider “good enough,” is now far more common than superb work. It is a path that leads to obsolescence.

Thing is, superb work is the stuff that truly makes bean counters happy (even if they don’t know it), because it is superb work that drives response. It’s not the metrics, analytics, or “customer acquisition” – a soulless term if ever there was one – that leads to effective design and advertising.

It’s the heart and soul work. The work that really connects stands for something and has real meaning.

Why is courage so important now?

The courage to do great work is specifically what keeps creative professionals valuable. Without that critical character attribute, creative professionals risk becoming obsolete.

When creative work has integrity, the talented people who craft it have integrity. So too do the brands that put it out into the world. When your brand has integrity, it connects, and that makes everybody happy.

Changing focus several times at once

Update: Shift One, Typekirk, my type foundry was launched in July.

For many years, I have written about branding and marketing, yet when I examine analytics for this site, consistently, posts about branding and marketing are the least read, while a single post about gluten-free eating gets 30x the traffic of any other post. This shows that while my Train of Thought clients want to know that I understand the intricacies of graphic design, branding, and marketing, relatively few people actually read the marketing posts here on my personal site. Why waste solid marketing wisdom?

Time for a few changes here.

For one, I enjoy helping people succeed. I really do. Branding and marketing is all about that, and I already have a company that does that quite successfully. Train of Thought has now been helping companies for 24 years. Most marketing and branding posts will now be on our Train of Thought blog. I hope you will sign up for our list Train of Thoughts, which receives exclusive monthly articles.

Working smarter, graphic design, advertising, branding, and marketing – at least in the transformative manner I practice them – are not tidbit topics. Instead, learning about them in ways you can put to practical use takes time, dedication, passion, and experience. It’s the first of those – time – that is often hardest for people, because we all want instant results, yet effective marketing is all about making long term efforts. If you seek the inspiration tidbits (and some outstanding insights), much of which is in sync with my approach, read Seth’s blog.

Rather than try to connect with shorter posts, I am asking readers to subscribe to Train of Thought’s email newsletter, which contains exclusive wisdom and shared experience. I will also write posts that answer tough questions, so if you have a marketing dilemma that has you stuck, sign up for Train of Thoughts – note the ‘s’, and ask me a question. You may just find your answer directly addressed in an article.

You can sign up for the Train of Thoughts, monthly marketing matters list there – in the upper right sidebar – after which you will receive exclusive articles.

I have others initiatives in the hopper, and will be talking about and showing them here as they launch. Thanks for reading.

R.I.P. Hannah Albert

Hannah Albert was first my friend, then doctor, then artist. Always true.

One of my most valued friends passed away this week. Strangely, we barely knew each other, yet she knew quite a bit about my health. Hannah Albert was, for me, among the most unique of doctors.

Hannah’s Naturopath/Homeopath office was much like her at that time, unassuming and private, and was always stocked with flavorful teas. Her attention was intense as she asked questions and took notes. I noticed how our intake processes were quite similar, and learned a bit about myself through that. What she did with the intel was phenomenal, prescribing a remedy that completely changed my interaction with the stuff of life, air.


For many, Hannah was a talented artist, sharing paintings with the world. Her earlier works featured defined edges, patterns, and personal themes, while her latter works seemed abstract on initial viewing, yet if you paused and studied them, revealed shapes and palettes that were quite expressive and often personal. As she described it in a video, she brought out the details that had organically appeared and seemed to need their voice developed.

Repeated cancer battles consumed much of Hannah’s energy and dialog over the last several years, but rather than fight those battles alone, she took to online communities, sharing details and art, highs and lows, health updates and new photos, right up to the end. It was possible, from reading replies, to see that Hannah had many loving friends.

Knowing this person who had been so instrumental in opening up my airways was out in the world, being her truest self in her art and life was always a sort of comfort. I missed her immediately upon her passing.

Some people, it seems they give the world more than they get. I hope that in the course of her life Hannah got back what she gave, because she truly deserved a great deal.