The catch

To thank someone in a way that touches and moves them, you have to feel real gratitude.

To be outstanding at customer service, you have to want to make your customers love your product (not just be “satisfied”).

To have employees who consistently make the right decisions, they have to care about the brand, the company, and its success.

Faking it only gets you so far. 

To give yourself over totally to something, you have to care.

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What are your customers (donors) really buying?

What are your customers buying?  Seems obvious.  People pay for the product.  Or maybe they pay for the story and the product, or just the story.

All true, but can you be more specific?

I find myself on the Amtrak to Boston and keep asking myself why I chose this antiquated, a little bit slow, a little bit overpriced form of transportation.

On a Saturday I could reliably drive from my house to Boston more quickly (by about an hour) and more inexpensively.  What I’m really paying for is the right to make a trade: I’m trading a car ride (three-and-a-half hours of driving alone, eyes on the road, fighting sleep) for 4+ hours of sitting comfortably, catching up on reading or work or just relaxing.  And I’m willing to pay the cost of the train ride to make that trade.

If I’m like most customers (I may not be), then Amtrak, within reason, isn’t selling me the ride to Boston.  That part of the product is clearly worse (slower, more expensive) than my other options.  I’m buying the time, the relaxation.  So Amtrak should be promoting the heck out of the fact that they have power outlets on this train (so I can plug in my laptop), and they should figure out how to get the Internet delivered too.  Because Bolt Bus has both of those, and even if it takes a little longer than the train (when there’s traffic), it costs a lot less, has more frequent service, and it’s delivering what people are actually interested in buying.  (I would have taken it but it was sold out for my return trip…go figure).

Drill a little deeper on what you’re selling and you’ll learn what people are really buying.  This in turn will tell you where to invest and where not to bother.

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The best rejection letter ever

Next Monday, Seth Godin (marketing guru, innovator and all-around fabulous guy) is starting his alternative MBA, so I was curious to learn how the unorthodox application process had played out.

The online applications (mostly Squidoo pages) are amazing – energetic, personal, compelling.  I was more amazed still by what one candidate described as “The World’s Greatest Rejection Letter” from Seth, which reads:

You are amazing.

I’m stunned.

Bowled over.


And optimistic about our future (and yours).

The applications I received were astonishingly good. Thorough and honest and clear and direct. They were motivating and demonstrated just how much people can do when they put their minds to it. I read every word of every application and I learned a lot.

If I had 60 seats, I still would have had too many people awe-inspiring applying. Unfortunately, I have nowhere near that, and so I had to make difficult, irrational and not particularly fair choices. Alas, I’m going to be unable to work with you in 2009. There are still interviews and such to go through, so I don’t have the final group selected, but I thought the fairest thing to do was let you know as soon as possible.

The good news, and I hope you think it’s good news, is that you don’t need me. As I said before, I have no magic wand, no secret recipe. Your decision to just make it happen, to push forward, to change… that was the hard part.

Go. Do that. Blow them away. I fully expect it will happen.

Thanks for taking the time and thanks for understanding.


PS I’m going to post on my blog about how stellar each of you are… and I’m linking to a Google listing of applications (all of them, accepted and not). If you don’t want to be seen by others, you should delete your lens (if you made one). But I think you should be extraordinarily proud of what you’ve built and what you’ve done… and you might even get a new gig because of it.

Since I’m proud to take (and share) heaps of advice from Seth, here’s some more: suggestion #6 from his recent blog post How to send a personal email:

6. Don’t talk like a press release. Talk like a person. A person is reading this, so why are you talking like that?

This is a trap we ALL risk falling in to, and it’s one of the easiest things to change about how you communicate with people.  Why in the world would you send out an email that includes a sentence like: “Due to the overwhelming quality of the applicants this year, we had to make some very tough decisions and we regret that we won’t be able to invite you to interview at this time?”

I think it’s because people (and organizations) worry that personal will become informal, and between the relative risks of seeming too boring vs. too unprofessional, boring is a lot safer.

Fair enough, but recognize what a huge opportunity you’re missing.  Think about how many emails you personally send out a day.  Add to that the emails your organization sends out, the content from your website and your Facebook page….you get the idea.

Your opportunity is to make it personal, to treat the person on the other end like a human being.  They’ll be so surprised that already you’ll have distinguished yourself from the pack.

And if you missed it, here are my 10 Obvious Tips about Email (that most people don’t follow).

One time, at Brand Camp

This may seem far afield to some, but I really believe we need to think broadly about “marketing” and, really, about storytelling.

A classmate of mine from business school, Tom Fishburne, just came out with a fun cartoon book called “This One Time at Brand Camp.”  Think of it as Dilbert for marketers.  Also, for anyone who has never worked in Corporate America, it’s a great inside view of how decisions really get made, which I think is insightful for understanding the inner workings of large corporations .

Lately I’ve particularly enjoyed Tom’s cartoons about eco and sustainability as they really capture the cynical, greenwashing mentality that’s become increasingly common for what seems like every product under the sun.


What’s in Vogue in India

Thanks for everyone for staying tuned while I was out on vacation.  And now back to our regularly scheduled programing.

The New York Times ran a story on Sunday about an appalling decision by Vogue India to run a series of photos of poor people wearing high fashion items:

An old woman missing her upper front teeth holds a child in rumpled clothes — who is wearing a Fendi bib (retail price, about $100).

A family of three squeezes onto a motorbike for their daily commute, the mother riding without a helmet and sidesaddle in the traditional Indian way — except that she has a Hermès Birkin bag (usually more than $10,000, if you can find one) prominently displayed on her wrist.

Elsewhere, a toothless barefoot man holds a Burberry umbrella (about $200).

As if the photo shoot weren’t a bad enough idea, Vogue India editor Priya Tanna’s responded to criticism by saying, ‘“Lighten up.”  Vogue is about realizing the “power of fashion” she said, and the shoot was saying that “fashion is no longer a rich man’s privilege. Anyone can carry it off and make it look beautiful.”’

The problem is, treating people like props is a rich man’s privilege.  And it’s an ugly one.

I guess you have to admire Ms. Tanna for sticking to her guns on this one, instead of coming out and admitting that this was a gross error of judgement?  Vogue didn’t even bother to name the people in the shoot, though they did give details of each of the fashion accessories.

I’d venture to guess that Vogue India editor Priya Tanna has never sat down and talked to a person struggling to make ends meet, and I’d bet good money that none of her close friends face any real economic hardship.

The first step towards addressing the differences and inequality in the world is addressing the problem.  But real momentum will come when we break down the illusion of separateness and difference in the world.  This story is a reminder of how far we still have to go, and it’s especially worrysome coming out of  a country that is as well-positioned as any to bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.  The pace of change would quicken immeasurably if the new mega-rich in India took up the mantle of change en masse.

Even Fiji Water can be green?

On my commute to work, while I was digging up information for my previous post on the oil we’re burning to make bottled water, I saw this ad for Fiji water, the #2 selling premium water in the U.S. Fiji seems to be the poster child for ridiculous when it comes to bottled water and the environment. The plastic bottles are made in China, the water comes from Fiji, and I get to buy one at Balducci’s in Manhattan for $2 a bottle.

According to Pablo Päster at Triple Pundit, it takes 7 times the amount of water in the Fiji water bottle to bring you the bottle, along with .9 liters of petroleum. Yet Fiji’s advertising is asking you to go to to learn how environmentally conscious they are. Hmmm.

(If you’re interested in hearing Fiji’s side of the story, here’s an interview in U.S. news & World Report with Fiji’s Thomas Mooney, Sr Vice President for Sustainable Growth. His arguments about water replacing soda and their positive impact on the Fijian economy are both interesting, but a little beside the point on the environmental questions).

When I switched from the train to the subway, I found myself face-to-face with an Allstate ad that boasted about an Allstate employee who volunteers in schools. It just so happens that I’m an Allstate customer in the midst of filing a claim for a small flood in my kitchen, and what I care about is how and whether they will pay my claim; the fact that I have to dial “1” four times and then dial an extension to speak to a human being; and the fact that the person who cheerfully sold me my claim and wants to keep me as a customer has no formal role in deciding how I’m being treated. The point is that the Allstate employees’ volunteerism is irrelevant to me as a customer, and presumably irrelevant to someone choosing an insurance provider.

Yet this kind of “greenwashing” and publicizing a company’s good deeds is amazingly prevalent. I used to work in corporate citizenship at two Fortune 100 companies and got to interact with lots of other companies, and my experience is that some progress is being made but that the messaging is really getting ahead of changes in practices.

What amazes me most is that someone at Allstate (or Fiji) convinced someone to run these ads (I’m sure it had something to do with ‘brand attributes’). I guess any story will capture the imagination of a few customers, but when the story you’re telling is either opposed to (Fiji) or unrelated to (Allstate) what you do, it’s hard to imagine that this story is going to have much of an impact on anybody.

Would you like some petroleum with that Evian?

I’ve been running around with a factoid in my head, wondering if it’s true before I start repeating it. The factoid is that it takes a third of a bottle of petroleum to make and deliver a bottle of water.

I was told this about six months ago and hadn’t been able to check the facts until now. As far as I can tell, it is at most a small exaggeration. If you take manufacturing and delivery together, the number seems to be a quarter of a bottle according to Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute.

This is shocking, especially for a product that barely existed 10 years ago. Consumption of bottled water in the U.S. has increased fivefold in the last 10 years – from under 4 billion to more than 30 billion. Put another way, the average American has gone from having about a bottle of water once a month in 1997 to twice a week in 2007. That’s a seven-fold increase in a decade.

What’s crazy, of course, is that there’s a good substitute (tap water) out there, one with a huge infrastructure in place to distribute it right into our homes and places of work. This has all the makings of a habit we could all unlearn as quickly as we have learned, if the right message gets out.

Most of the vitriol that I’ve seen explaining why we shouldn’t drink bottled water centers on cost. It explains that bottled water can be 10,000 times more expensive than tap water to drink, and that bottled water costs more that gas (even at today’s high prices). I think these facts are interesting, but also “ho hum.” The mistake is that the anti-bottled water advocates are fighting a story with facts alone.

What’s missing from this approach is that a bottle of Evian (or Poland Spring, or Desani) is not the same thing as water from your tap. True, the quality of the water from a health perspective is essentially the same. But when you buy Evian, you’re buying the story of purity, the alps, clean mountain air, a story whose ultimate punchline is that at the most luxurious resorts, the poolboys come by and cool off the guests by spritzing them with spray bottles of…Evian. Add to that refrigeration, convenience, and habit and you understand why water and its offshoots are a big piece of Coca-Cola’s growth story these days (never mind that Dasani’s source is tap water).

So instead of dry facts that appeal to the head, why not fight a story with a story that hits people in the gut? How about taking something that’s on everyone’s mind these days – oil – and putting that at the center of the debate?

Making plastic bottles is oil-intensive: it took 17 million barrels of oil to make the 29 billion liters of bottled water Americans drank in 2006. That’s almost a full day’s worth of our nation’s annual oil consumption.

But I’m pretty sure even that idea won’t stick. So here’s my idea (and if anyone knows how I could get some donated billboard space near I-95 or Route 101 let me know):

Make a billboard with two bottles of water on a white background. The first bottle is filled with water, the second is one-quarter full of oil. Put an equals sign in between the bottles. Done.

(OK, it probably needs some snappy slogan like “Bring back the tap.” and a sentence saying, “This is how much oil it takes to bring you bottled water,” but I think all of that is incidental. The point is the powerful, simple, memorable image, one that’s worth talking about.)

If we want our advocacy to be as effective as the marketing that gets us to adopt bad habits, we have to be better at using marketers’ tools more effectively. Start with storytelling. I’m picking on bottled water but I’m sure you could come up with 10 other good examples. If you have some ideas, let me know.

Better yet, if you’re good with Photoshop, or know someone who is, ask them to make the image and send it to me, and I’ll use that to pitch the idea to Clear Channel Outdoor (who own all the billboards).

Notes for the skeptics:

1. According to the Earth Policy Institute, it takes 17 million barrels of oil to produce bottles for U.S. consumption. (Oddly, a recent NY Times article cited the Earth Policy Institute but quoted the number 1.5 million.)

2. If you are interested in this topic, check out the American Museum of Natural History water exhibit.

3. I was curious if I could get even close to Peter Gleick’s (of the Policy Institute) numbers using the information that’s being kicked around in the mainstream press. The bottom line is I could get to 10% as an oil:water ratio just for production of the bottles. I couldn’t get good information on transportation. Here’s the math for those who are interested:

a. 1 barrel of oil = 42 gallons = 158.987295 liters/barrel of oil

b. 17 million barrels of oil to produce water bottles = 2.7 billion liters of oil to produce 29 billion liters of water.

c. So just the production of the bottles means you could fill the bottle 10% with oil

Tell a Friend (really)

It’s this blog’s one week anniversary. Already I’ve learned some things:

  1. Blogging takes about 3x more time than I expected
  2. I also like doing it more than I expected
  3. I think that finding out the series of random facts I need to make a post come together (e.g. what is U.S. aid to Pakistan? What’s going on with fuel economy legislation? What should I know about Maimonides?) will, over time, make me a smarter person
  4. I’m very interested in figuring out how to build an audience of interested readers

This last point is where you all come in. While I’m a big fan of shameless self(blog)-promotion (and have been doing a good deal of it), I’m looking forward to the day when I don’t have to update my Facebook profile letting people know that I have a new blog post.

Since there are many more of you than there are of me, you can play a part in this social experiment. Please pick one of the following (really, I need your help):

  1. If you’re a blogger/Facebook/MySpace/social media user, post a link to my blog somewhere in Web 2.0-land
  2. Think of one person you know and send them this email:

Dear So and So,

I’ve just started reading a blog about philanthropy and social change. Sasha’s a credible guy who works at Acumen Fund and I’m enjoying hearing what he has to say and thought you might too. The site is No obligations, but thought you might want to check it out



(P.S. If you’re my mother, you’ll probably have to edit that note slightly)

Think about how much email you send out every day — don’t you think you could add this to the list without bending a friend out of shape? (If you post to a site, let me know where; he/she who generates the most traffic (per “site referrals” on WordPress) wins a prize.)

This could be fun. I promise to post about progress. Thank you!!

“Things younger than McCain” t-shirt

This definitely feels like a low blow, and not the kind of discourse we want when choosing our next President. But it’s also so darn funny that I thought it worth sharing:

The way this site works is that they sell 100 limited-edition t-shirts at increasing prices. Very clever way to turn pricing on its head and use the Internet as more than another storefront.