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Reboot a Sluggish Brand

Once market shares dwindles and revenue targets are missed year after year (despite category growth), it may be time to reboot a once-beloved brand.


First off, you need to decide if you genuinely want to reboot a brand.  Some people get so tethered to old ideas about the brand that there is resistance to rethink its meaning and potential. If you are serious about growth and see rebooting as the only path of salvation, read on.


Don’t burn too much time analyzing the predicament for the umpteenth time. Do not dwell on what drove the brand value down to ruin and the irrevocable equity damage. Remember, it’s time to transform, not inform.


Let’s just start with simply accepting a few facts. Can you agree with a few of the following suppositions?


Sales are down. Sales have been declining each year. New brands are dominating the leadership position in the category. Yet, your brand despite having a good name and decent recall in the market isn’t living up to its potential. Perhaps it is a problem with the product itself, maybe it’s a channel issue, perhaps it’s a sales issue. Maybe private label has usurped the category? Whatever the factors, do you accept the brand could be worth more than it is?


Did you identify with three or more of these factors in the above paragraph? If so, ask yourself if you (assuming you are in a position that owns the brand) are willing to grow new value for the brand by trying some radically different ways of being in the market and a few new possible business models, a huge shift from the losing situation to a potentially high-growth situation?


Yes, there may be some investment required. Yes, your resource and capabilities mix may need to altered. The good and bad news is the same: you might have to change everything.


Indeed, everything is subject to change, which also means you’ll have to phase out how you are currently in the market and take a risk to potentially grow the value of the brand exponentially.


Everything up to this point has been a psychological journey to free you and your team from the historical bias that the brand you plan to reboot needs to represent anything like it has in the past. From this point forward, you will enter the frontier of the future and create a new path.


Now you want to start by examining the stories and strategies of other brands that have utterly transformed across categories. How can an outfitter of serious outdoorsmen become a leading fashion brand for teens (Ambercrombie & Fitch), for example? Look at 10 or more brands that have made the leap. These stories will inspire your team throughout the process.


Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of Going Electric. Visit to learn more.


Brand Essence: The Rock’n’Roll of Business (Part Three)

Part 3 of 3

Your marketers either need to create a fire or be fired. If you have uninspired and uninspiring marketing professionals on your team, be warned. Give him or her one chance to kick into high gear. Then act decisively. Fire them if they cannot change tempo. Be bold and be emboldened.


Marketers are responsible for both your commercial success and the esprit de corps of your culture. If you grant the requisite authority to marketing to create tangible value to your organization, it is the role’s passion that will help make downstream sales, quicken upstream decisions, and improve water cooler morale.


Think of passion as the core fabric weaving together the corporate psyche, your golden thread. It takes real passion to find this thread, seize it, and use it as an organizing principle to align all of a company’s experiences into a form of synchronicity.


Begin by hiring smart. Discover what really excites candidates—as this reservoir will carry them over the driest days. Ideally, look for those with a cunning mix of skill and native talent.


Hire for drive more than experience, if you have to choose one. If you locate someone who has learned from the streets, make an offer on the spot. These are rare birds.


At the risk of being overly autobiographical I will offer an illustrative vignette. I learned marketing and business best practices by playing in bands in high school and college more so than any book or class. Here’s what we did.


We established the mission, goals, and objectives of the organization: from the ethos of the band, to the sound, to the details—we would be an all original band, for example, writing at least four songs a month.


We created the product: the band sound, the sensibility, the look.


We made sure we had the best talent available to us to augment our product and business: from extra musicians to sound technicians to doormen—every role mattered.


We crafted the branding: name, logo, style guide, tone of voice.


We benchmarked pricing for shows, CDs, and tickets.


We chose the right setting when selecting a venue.


We used a mix of PR and marketing, selecting places where we knew our audience would see our brand. In this case, we hung up flyers at certain intersections and shops, sent PR to radio and newspaper outlets, and identified key influencers who could help us attract more people.


We established a post-mortem feedback loop where we would analyze what worked and make adaptive improvements where needed.


We practiced a lot, making a shared commitment to grow and develop as individuals and as a team.


Most important, every encounter with the band was a branded encounter, imbued with a palpable sense of character. A golden thread was woven through every interaction, every sighting, everything. We provided a continuum of experience. It mattered to us to make it matter to others. Our sweat and focus ensured results.


Business leaders, ask yourself this question: is your marketing team or agency partner sweating on your behalf?


If not, enjoy the Muzak of mediocrity.


Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of going Electric. Visit to learn more.


Brand Essence: The Rock’n’Roll of Business (Part Two)

Part two of three

One real power of a brand is that it serves as a tuning fork for an organization, helping them quicken strategic decisions, vetting new opportunities, and making hard choices when projections are slipping away from the target.

Nothing kills brand value more than short-term revenue focus. When the deafening sirens of Wall Street start signing, listening to the essence of brand can keep a company from wrecking on its own overexcited ambition. Brand is the moral DNA of an organization, and therefore it’s crucial to understand your brand as more than a veneer, as more of an outward expression of who and what the company stands for.

Like bands that lose their sound after scoring a minor hit, companies often get “big head” disorder and inflated egos after hitting their first success tier. These days, musicians often do a better job of knowing what makes a strong brand than companies with multi-million dollar agency contracts and a deep bench of brand managers who have forgotten why they started the venture or joined the firm in the first place.

CEOs would do well to learn from Jack White’s days leading the White Stripes: “Everything from your haircut to your clothes to the type of instrument you play to the melody of a song to the rhythm—they’re all tricks to get people to pay attention to the story. If you just stood up in a crowd and said your story—‘I came home, and this girl I was dating wasn’t there, and I was wondering where she was’—it’s not interesting, but give it a melody, give it a beat, build it all the way up to a haircut. Now people pay attention.”

Jack White intuitively knew how everything works to create a singular impression, an icon. By following this street-smart lesson with rigorous discipline, White created a value-generating entity that tied together the packaging, promotional, placement, and product aspects of his business with a golden thread. Even when he wanted to play with a full band, he started a side project, keeping the White Stripes brand pure.

While I do not expect the accountants of the world to rock too hard, business thrives when momentum builds. The business acts like an organism, like a well-rehearsed band. Their customers turn into fans. Smart branding makes this possibility real.

In the language of business, having a fan club for your brand raises the top line, giving accountants something to rave about.


Stay tuned for part three next week.  

Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of going Electric. Visit to learn more.


Brand Essence: The Rock’n’Roll of Business

Like famous musicians, effective brands maintain a certain sway over those who come into contact with them, a sense of awe and authority that translates talent, focus, and hard work into an essence that communicates instantly.


Let’s begin by defining the word “brand.”


To start we will play the game “no.” I’ll ask several questions to which you have already been supplied the answer.


Is your brand your logo? No. Is your brand your pithy tagline or your mission statement? No. Is your marketing manager in charge of your brand? No.


Now, let’s play the game “yes.”


Is brand important in all types of businesses? Yes. Even business-to-business and service companies? Yes. Can a strong brand presence increase your market value? Yes? Can it garner a premium for your products or services? Yes. Can a brand dramatically increase your company’s valuation? Yes.


Consider this example: when the Pillsbury company sold in 1988, 88% of the 990-million sales price was shelled out for the goodwill of the brand, not the machinery, management, or distribution. In the business world, this mysterious value is known as brand equity. In rock and roll, it would be called a platinum hit.


Brand, then, may be defined as every perception and interaction that anyone has or doesn’t have with your organization and how the cumulative effect of these interactions. Brand essence is elusive, but carefully and artfully cultivated.


Brand essence is never static and cannot be controlled.


Like famous musicians, strong brands evoke a sense of wonder and self-evident identity. Consumers do not have to stop and think about the brands; they transform into a short-hand understanding of a whole gestalt of experience.


Think of some musical performers. Grateful Dead. What images and feelings pop into mind? Lawrence Welk? Metallica? Beyoncé? Now, think of a few business brands: Apple, Home Depot, Hello Kitty?


Successful bands and successful business understand how to align every experience with their different audiences. They weave a golden thread of significance and unique value into every expression of their organization: shareholders, the press, fans, or customers


Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of going Electric. Visit to learn more.


Innovation is the most potent form of leadership development.


Innovation is the most potent form of leadership development.


You can’t outsource the important things. After working with more than 100 clients, we have noted one of the most critical factors in the success of an innovation project: if you outsource all of the work on your innovation projects, they will fail.

It doesn’t matter if you use our humble Studio or a 7-figure firm from Palo Alto or London. Many good innovation firms can generate consumer insights and craft a winning portfolio of concepts that have the nature to change your top-line growth. Yet, without training your team on the methods and tools of innovation, the breakthrough thinking will be resisted. The concepts will die on the vine.
Train Your Team

Therefore, you have to train your team to vet new growth without preset filters, especially if this growth is outside of your current business model. Training a core team of innovators at your organization has many benefits. Here are several:

  • Learn the tools that create new value
  • Generate consumer and customer insights
  • Break down silos by having multidisciplinary teams train together

Innovation now demands to be a centerpiece of any professional training and development program. If you aren’t teaching these core practices, your competitors are.


Innovation as Leadership and Professional Development

The primary objective of Leadership and Professional Development is to cultivate emerging leaders who show nascent traits of greatness—and to harness their value they bring to their organizations. Innovation training teaches many of the most valuable skills in an immersive, hands-on, non-theoretical way.


The hard skills including learning empathy for potential users of their product or service, a contextual understanding of the market, methods for analyzing primary market research data, tools for reframing business issues, mastering the creation and facilitation of ideation sessions, rapid prototyping, market testing of prototyping, incorporating adaptive market-feedback inspired changes to prototypes quickly and inexpensively, and practice of narrative-style communication skills that evoke and motivate.


Soft skills include expanding mindsets so they look for market potential even if it exists outside of the current business model, rank-less and multi-disciplinary collaboration training, deep listening, respect for others, creative confidence and conviction, an in-depth understanding of the human factors and psychology guiding the invisible forces of the market, adaptive thinking, iterative and non-linear approaches to problem solving, critical thinking, pattern recognition, and abductive reasoning.


As a veteran of many training programs, I can attest that there is no more engrossing of a leadership development process than attending an innovation bootcamp or workshop. The lessons work upon both the external work processes and relationship skills and internal, personal growth. More important, as you learn by doing, there is a sense of the lesson adding value outside of the sometimes solipsistic category of personal development.


You cannot outsource innovation without missing the most seminal opportunity of a lifetime, including the new value you can create for your organization and the most holistic leadership training on the market.



Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of going Electric. Visit to learn more.



What Drives Your Organization?

As strategy and innovation consultants, we get called in to organizations when they are exhausted from trying to grow significantly and not meeting their goals. In most cases, the organization is trying to do too many things without a way to tie them into a coherent meaning.


Most of them need to either discover or rediscover and articulate what we call their Golden Thread, their driving aspiration. This thread can serve as the lead rope that ties all of the company’s initiatives into a single fabric, weaving the vision, purposes, strategy and also the more pragmatic elements such as resources, competencies, operating systems, and management structure into a unified whole. Think of the driving aspiration as the organizing principle of the company.


This driving aspiration will rebirth the company into its rightful position as leader in the category that it may have created, the same category that has become commoditized by private label and edged by many types of other new, unforeseen competitive threats.


Without the rudder of a driving aspiration that will company will attempt to growth for merely the sake of growth—the theory of cancer—and not reach the type of growth that pays off a coherent strategy and compounds the value of the company in the market, increasing both share and market value exponentially.


In other words, the Growth Plan needs a disciplined, strategic rudder and a map to navigate its growth in a dynamic market. For such a growth journey, we first need to proclaim what are doing and where we are going, the essence of a driving aspiration.


To change the culture in a way that will position us for sustained market leadership, we will need to ensure the following steps are performed:

  1. Vet a number of Driving Aspiration models with leadership and management.
  2. Solve the right problems and answer the right questions with the chosen Driving Aspiration.
  3. Ensure the Driving Aspiration is a triple win for consumers, customers, and the company.
  4. Align all resources, operating systems, management structures, and company processes to the Driving Aspiration.
  5. Resolve to sell off, kill, or drop all projects and corporate programs that do not ladder up to the Driving Aspiration.
  6. Road test the Driving Aspiration by running the strategic premise through a model of where to play and how to win—and to learn what we really need to know
  7. Create an execution playbook based on this strategic tuning fork once the team signs off on a Driving Aspiration.
  8. Agree to filter all new opportunities for growth (organic and acquisitive) through both the Driving Aspiration and the set priorities in place to make the aspiration a fruitful reality, without exception.
  9. Say “no” to anything that does not fit the driving aspiration.

The adage is profoundly true: strategy is choice. A driving aspiration helps an organization make more informed and refined choices. Everything for new hires to new product development, to killing product lines that may be hurting the brand, to how customer service should be approached, to how resources are deployed should be fine-tuned by the driving aspiration.


Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of going Electric. Visit to learn more.





Gray Hair: White Space

Geritol. AARP. RVs.


These symbols of retirement are losing their relevance, empty shells of another’s generation concept of how to spend the remainder of your life once you have worked your last day.


In the past week I talked to several people across the country who all turned 50. The same story surfaced organically. Thanks for the miracle of direct marketing and census data each of them received their invitation to the AARP. The envelope sat on their desk for a week, taunting them, a reminder that they are ready to be “put out to pasture,” according to one. As a declaration of existence, each friend said “no, no,” crumbled the invitation into a crisp sphere and tossed it into trash.


This empowering action demonstrates a growing trend. At 50, many Americans are not ready for age-based membership discounts, retirement, and the thought that their best years, their prime, has passed. In fact, they felt threatened by the invitation.


What used to be a right of passage has turned into a rejection of the model for Americans Gray Years. Because we are living longer, healthier lives, the organization no longer holds the mindshare of its potential audience.


Every 10 seconds an American turns 50. We are living longer than ever. The graying of the nation is occurring quickly, and yet people over 50 yearn for more engaged, enriching lives.


According to the Administration on Aging, “The older population—persons 65 years or older—numbered 46.2 million in 2014 (the latest year for which data is available). They represented 14.5% of the U.S. population, about one in every seven Americans. By 2060, there will be about 98 million older persons, more than twice their number in 2014.” By 2040, more than 20% of the population will be 65+.


This type of longevity for a massive slice of the population represents a major shift for our species and our culture. As we say in the realm of market strategy, this trend is a vast, growing white space. There is no trusted brand guiding this social movement. In fact, the AARP, while still a billion-dollar behemoth, has been characterized as “out-of-touch” and is losing market share at an alarming rate.


When discussing market strategy know that I do not mean to indicate that this is a cutthroat opportunity to sell people things they do not need. Rather, we, as a culture, are pioneering this late phase together. Needs will be uncovered that we cannot know by taking a historical perspective. This is a new era and we have no map. The white space is an opportunity to provide new value for emerging needs, a win-win that is need based, and form the basis of the new American Dream: Active Aging.


Active aging is the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation, and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age.


Active aging allows people to realize their potential for physical, social, and mental well-being throughout the life course and to participate in society, while providing them with adequate protection, security, and care needed.



Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of going Electric. Visit to learn more.


Real Magic: The Power of Words

Part Two of Two



In Part One we explored how language and our relationship with words has limited the growth and development of organizations and human capacity. Now, we discover why expanding these things make a positive impact.


An organization can only reach its potential when it both embraces new words and concepts and also actively adds new phrases to its shared lexicon. Said another way: a new word is a new world, pregnant with potential.


Something in humanity longs for vision and a challenge. As taught in D.School (Innovation training), this adage bespeaks of how you want to tap the desire of teams to best motivate them: “If you want to build a ship, don’t assign people tasks and work, but teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”


Given that people in groups speak the tongue of a place, they share a mindset, created with language. This mindset and its expressions convey the organization’s ethos, the propensity for taking and rewarding risk, and how adaptive a place really is.


As Stanford professor and professor Carol Dweck says, “I divide the world into learners and nonlearners,” in her landmark book Mindset. Learners openly embrace new concepts, new ideas, and new words. This axiom is true for individuals and groups.


The reason for welcoming new words into a place of business is so that its shared brain health remains vibrant. The concept of Neuroplasticity confirms that as you learn new words the neurons housed in the area of your brain that’s storing language would send electrical messengers down the axons to the cell’s center (soma) where it is then routed to a particular group of connected dendrites which would then release a chemical messenger to the new targeted group of neurons that are located next to it. New neural pathways begin to be formed to acquire and store the new language.


According to Dr. Lisa Christiansen, “when you are exposed to a new word, you have to make new connections among certain neurons in your brain to deal with it: some neurons in your visual cortex to recognize the spelling, others in your auditory cortex to hear the pronunciation, and still others in the associative regions of the cortex to relate the word to your existing knowledge.”


So much is going on in the mind, more than science understands, but we know for certain that words have real power. We also know that as humans our brains crave newness and novelty, adventure, as well as, paradoxically, security.


In the world of business, a place can be known by its relationship to language. Is it a learning organization or a rigid one? Is it a place open to real possibility or just one offering a controlled lip service? Is it on auto-pilot or conscious?


You can tell so much about an organization by its relationship to language. Be aware and insist on awareness, as ultimately, you become the words of a place by associative use.


Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of going Electric. Visit to learn more.





Real Magic: The Power of Words

Part one of two


The life of an organization is defined and redefined by the language it chooses to use. More than any other factor, compliance around words conveys the values of a place where people work. Indeed, words are magic, carrying so much weight that they demand careful, conscious attention.


You know the power of language. Scholars have been following the dynamic field since humans first uttered syllables, painted symbols on cave walls, and wrote words on papyrus. There are many classes in workplace linguistics, too.


Words convey our worldviews, prejudices, pre-set notions, and the shared mores of a culture. Nothing will have an HR department crack down on a person as fast as an inappropriate written or verbal expression.


Without realizing it, we inherent so much language from the field of management science. Words and phrases such as scope, timesheet, clock in and clock out, report, rank, and review—as well as acronyms that only mean something inside of one culture—come from this world.


Such words, as they fuse together to form a system of shared meaning, the work world becomes a mechanistic reality. Here, in this world, crafted with the careful language of metrics and planning, most connotations infer binary sets of meaning: loss or gain; hired or fired, promoted or demoted, safe or endangered.


With such either/or choices artificially constructed by the language we inherit, fear creeps in, as in “we are either growing or dying.” Given these constraints, these shackles of perception forged with words, it is little wonder that creativity and strategy are more often than not outsourced. You see, given the time-obsessed, right or wrong paradigm, we have edited the better parts of our humanity out of the workplace.


What gets lost? Time for critical and nuanced thinking not immediately goal focused get shoved aside, even if it would be more valuable to the organization once uncovered. Creative explorations are traded in for the false and illusory security of a plan. In these cultures, different ways of hearing the world are suspect, including hearing through the ears of customers or consumers; language is different, often too idiomatic for analytical understanding—and this world is biased toward the “rational and analytical.”


Worst of all in this era of efficiency, the inspirational language of vision gets lost. At one level, it gets abused as hypocritical lip service by middle management and then lampooned as in the series of satirical motivational posters that professional people love. Hey, they can empathize, as it is built into their world by the words that create their version of reality.


At a deeper level, vision is created when new ideas get expressed in new ways. If your organization has a stranglehold on new language — or is in love with its historic vernacular — you lose the potential of real vision existing in your culture.


Look for Part Two next week.



Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of going Electric. Visit to learn more.


Sign this Pledge, Innovator

Congratulations, you’ve been hired as an Innovator. This is the apex of applied creativity, the rock’n’roll of industry; you are hired to rock the boat. Steady your Warby Parker’s. Hit pause on your Audible copy of Abundance. Check your heart monitor data and caffeine levels. Fill your closets with Robert Graham and PrAna, and get some crazy socks; it’s time to work.


You’ll be outfitted with Apple everything, as long as you mention Apple as the shining avatar of innovation and try to suggest an App accompany every innovation, even non-digital solutions.


Open office. Unlimited organic coffee. Bean bags. Whiteboards. Robot pets. Really nice chairs. 3-D printer. Smart, beautiful colleagues who value each other’s eccentricities. Enough Trend data to clog a server. Organic snacks.


While this stereotype bespeaks the many perks of an innovation career, make no mistake. Innovation is fundamentally a sales job. The most vexing point: you will be selling change, a next-generation mindset. Keep these points in mind as you gear up for the inevitable politics of a place.


Many people will feel threatened, question your motives, and protect their short-term bonuses with the wily and cunning nature of an arch villain in a spy novel.


Your more reasoned cases will be questioned with more scrutiny than an Annual Report. Your business model adaption suggestions will gain an audience, but for the wrong reasons. Like a Roman gladiatorial showcase, the spectators line up to see you being fed to the lions.


Any recommendations transformative of the core business will be dismissed emotionally, even if they are the right recommendations for the organization.


All you can do is quote the insights, point to the size of the opportunity and declining market share, and try and make as many allies as possible.


Everyone longs for change, but the reality of having to change strikes an irrational fear in even open-minded people. Therefore, you must master the powers of persuasion. Why is change positive in this case? What are the steps, the milestones, on the journey, who benefits? What happens if change doesn’t happen?


It is your job to tell great stories that read their audience ahead of meetings and pre-guess similar questions. With your gifts of storytelling, you can help those closed down to change to open up, see a vision rich in possibilities, all while honestly noting the risks at hand.


Selling a plausible path forward in a language that resonates with internal stakeholders is much harder than generating breakthrough concepts and extracting driving insights from consumers. Diplomacy is the real skill set necessary for innovation professionals.


If you are considering a job with Innovation in the title, I would ask you to sign this pledge.


            I, _______________________________, vow to not get dismayed by resistance to new thinking. It is my job to present ideas in ways that resonate with the audience. Even if some people feel threatened by these new models of value creation, it is my calling to be patient, respectful, and kind.  


Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of Going Electric. Visit to learn more.