We Are Brands

We Are Brands

Branding Design

Someone forged my signature three weeks ago. They stole my credit card. This is the second time in three years I’ve had a security breach. Those thieves’ forged my John Hancock, and now I have no faith in my ink mark. Think how easy it was for someone else to sign my name. Humans have been signing things since they could pick up a stick and dip it in ink.

I think our obsession with the signature is outdated. A signature seems an antiquated way to represent ourselves. But the memorabilia industry that sells those signatures thinks otherwise. The autograph, which is a fancy name for a signature, is an obsession of many. The memorabilia industry is said to be worth billions of dollars. Let’s understand this world for a moment: Elvis Presley’s earliest known signature – on a library card he signed as a 13-year-old student in Tupelo, Mississippi – was one of the main draws in an auction of Elvis memorabilia. His library card! This is a serious business.

But I’m not a collector, I am a branding strategist. I create images and write text for companies to make connections with the outside world – you – the customer. We do this to evoke a type of emotional connection with a company or product. In almost every instance, we want it to be a positive emotion.

In life we always do a series of things to evoke emotional connections to the outside world. The posts we write on Facebook, the emails we send to coworkers, the flannel shirt we wear in June and the white you wear after Labor Day all say something about us to the outside world – hoping for a connection. If you don’t agree, or if you say you don’t do it on purpose, I say nonsense.

I look at the signature as the world’s oldest wordmark or logo. A wordmark is a set of letters that are designed in a specific way. The wordmark should be custom lettering (typography) that uniquely defines a company’s service or product. Similarly, when we write a signature, we shape our name in a way that defines who we are. One’s personal signature is a wordmark. We are brands.

Since I’ve had the right to sign things, I would guess that my signature has changed four times. I remember in one of my most memorable life transformations, I decided consciously and with authority to change my signature. As if my new “wordmark” would redefine my new beginnings.

We brand documents by signing them with ink, but technology has advanced and now it’s time to rethink the way we represent ourselves. In May 2013, the New Republic declared the signature “dead.” They claim that pin numbers are more important and that signature pads make it terribly difficult to swoosh that line over the “c” in your name.

At the moment, nearly everything about the process of signing one’s name appears to be in place to dissuade the signer from giving it an honest go: Signature pads at stores are terribly awkward, credit card receipt signature lines are often far too tiny, and the people accepting our signatures tend not to care about the appearance of what we scribble. Unsurprisingly, we’ve adjusted our behavior to fit the circumstances. We shorten pen strokes, take liberties, and, ultimately, show very little reverence for the act of signing our names. Chicken scratch predominates—and not even chicken scratch that vaguely resembles one’s name or is repeatable. For many, writing a signature has become an exercise in flick-of-the-wrist renderings that in no way relate to or reflect the letters that are grouped to form our names.

I predict that in the near future, signatures will become logos, a digital design that has imprints that cannot be replicable but have a rare and identifiable mark to oneself. We will mark formal documents with a personal brand instead of a signature. You can almost see this develop into a modern day signet, a stamped logo mark that defines who we are.

Personal branding is not a new concept. Some self-help gurus have asked for you to look deep inside yourself and understand your personal “brand.” In the marketing world, a company deploys a series of logos or wordmarks and “tactics” like articles in newspapers, social media communication and advertising created to evoke people’s emotional connection with a company or product. I like to think of it as a radio tower, sending waves to those who listen.

But what if we took ourselves as seriously as companies do to manage their brands? What if we acted as our own personal marketing mangers and were strategic about the way we communicated out to the world? What if instead of posting that picture of a “kegger” on Facebook and retweeting Kim Kardashian’s quibble, we were to create a social media plan and strategy for ourselves. Branding and marketing agencies think very strategically about what type of content is being delivered to the general public. As a brand manager we write content out to help the companies reflect a smart and thoughtful connection to the outside world.

Brooke Gladstone, host of NPR’s On the Media, says we are in the “golden age of content.” Content is generated constantly, by bloggers, news outlets, Twitter tweets, and visual images. Some people say there’s too much. As a branding professional, I don’t think the world has too much content. I think the world needs better content.

We need to think of our personal brand in ways us marketing professionals deliver to companies. And hey, if the Supreme Court defined corporations as “persons” and companies manage and build brands, we the people must step up our game and manage our own brands. Companies pay us to manage the way they speak to the outside world. Every Facebook and Twitter post is there for a reason. Facebook is getting decidedly older. Older generations are logging on to watch over their kids, and the kids are logging off to join Instagram or whatever new social channel is available. Marketing professionals can provide social media strategies to families, write content for them in a thoughtful and sensitive way, and teach Grandma how to tweet.

Regular Joe’s and Joette’s like us should take our personal brands as seriously as companies do. All the stuff we read from others might get a little better, and maybe we will have a better connection to others if we thoughtfully manage our own personal brands. But for now, I guess I’ll sign my life away, to those who want it.

Street Performers Enliven City Streets


Streets in cities serve many purposes besides carrying vehicles, and city sidewalks – the pedestrian parts of the streets – serve many purposes besides carrying pedestrians.
Jane Jacobs, The Life and Death of Great American Cities

We ignite city streets by being active, by being creative, by walking the streets — entertaining, talking, shuffling — we awaken our ancestors who walked these urban pathways. Check out Shift’s latest project at www.buskerstreet.org.


Obviously Tomlin, a Charitable Project Never Launched

Obviously Tomlin, a Charitable Project Never Launched

Community Non-Profit Organizations

by Eric Sloss

Sparked by Sarah’s recent appointment as a board member of Sojourner House, a faith-based rehabilitation facility for addicted women, we wanted to create an enjoyable fundraising project for this important nonprofit. So we created Obviously Tomlin as a way to engage the public in a charming charitable experience throughout the Steelers season.

It all started after a Steelers pre-season game. I could not help but hear Coach Mike Tomlin’s use of the word obviously. He uses it as a way to emphasize a point. But, sometimes he will say a phrase like, “Obviously, Pouncey has a knee, Bell has an elbow.” Well, obviously Pouncey does have a knee, but Coach means the player has a knee injury. He forgets words in the context of sports nomenclature. Tomlin’s cadence is epic. He uses obviously to change the tone and rhythm of a point and his mood.

I’m in the word business, right? At Shift, we focus on language, creating new content for various clients.  We also created a technology product that analyzes large amounts of text called WordFabric, a language algorithm platform for content creators. We would ask people to donate to Sojourner House every time Coach uses the word  – obviously. The fundraising exercise is less about Coach’s delivery yet raising the awareness of how people use words, especially in the context of sports and our beloved Steelers. Each season a new charity would be selected to benefit.

Pledges would be taken through www.ObviouslyTomlin.com after each game of the season. For example, Sally pledges $5 per obviously for the week 1 game. We would use WordFabric to scan the post-game news conference transcript and pull out how many times the word “obviously” is used. Pledges then turn into donations and the corporate sponsor of the week matches the amount.

Also, throughout the season we would play fun games with matching corporate sponsors asking the public to listen for other words used during the season. For example, we will ask the public to listen to a radio broadcast and every time host Tunch Ilkin says the words “play action pass” a corporate sponsor will match the first donation.

We had a contact at the Steelers who said they would present it to the public relations team. We crossed our fingers and built the site; We had Sojourner House’s approval.

And then the Steelers played the Titans for the first regular season game.

The score: Titans 16, Steelers 9. The Steelers looked sloppy in a lopsided game. Coach Tomlin’s demeanor on the sideline looked miserable. Soon after the game we heard from our Steelers contact saying that it was the worst time to present this to him and he recommended we find another project to work on.

We wondered…what if they won?

Carlos Danger Needs a Crisis Manager

Media Relations PR

 by Eric Sloss, Shift partner

New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner is a great case study for what not to do during a crisis. He resigned from Congress for texting photos of his penis to various women he randomly met. A couple of years later, now running for Mayor of New York City, Weiner continued to send photos digitally under the nom de guerre “Carlos Danger.” One would expect a popular politician to have the money and support to find the right way to handle a crisis.
But methodically he severely damaged his chances to win the most coveted mayoral position in the world by mismanaging his own crisis. His wife, Huma Abedin, who took the Tammy Wynette tune “Stand by Your Man” right out of Hilary Rodham Clinton’s soundtrack, has tarnished her own image by her commitment to her husband. Abedin did not have to go far to find Clinton’s playlist—she is part of the former U.S. Secretary of State’s transition team. I was in New York City for business when the second Weiner photo revealed itself (sorry, I had to do it). New Yorkers interviewed by local news outlets were dismayed and disgusted by his actions, and by his wife’s commitment to her husband. His approval rating was 55% and his disapproval rating was 33% when I landed on Tuesday.

These numbers were turned on their head within a day. We have read all the headlines “Weiner’s Rise and Fall,” “Too Hard to Stop,” and my personal favorite “Stick a Fork in the Weiner.” Yes, his name does not help the crisis. When a client’s name is part of the jokes, professional communications consultants can only pray that the intelligent quotient of the fine citizens of America – for this particular instance New York City voters – will raise a few brain points and look past all the digs. One of the important tenets of communicating during a crisis is to define the problem, and Weiner clearly has yet to accomplish this. As much as we hate ourselves for laughing at the headline “Tip of the Weiner,” we also dislike Weiner for not telling us the truth: he may have mental disorder—an addictive illness that blends sexual dysfunction with ego. If you ask any professional in the crisis communication sector, defining the problem is the very first step, which his team has yet to do.

One of the many characteristics of a crisis that Weiner and company are currently facing is omnipresent media. Major metropolitan regions with a wealth of news outlets can sniff out a crisis, escalate it, and sustain a crisis for a long period of time. The New York City setting, one of the media capitals of the world, doesn’t help either. If this happened in, say, Weiner, Arkansas (yes, this is a real city), this might not be a headline of the Wienerschnitzel Bugle. Or at very least, those of us in Pittsburgh wouldn’t hear about the mayoral candidate who likes to share his privates online.

There are many principles of crisis communications. Professional consultation should tell him to use the Relationship Principle to his benefit, which tells those in a crisis to nurture their reputations. Weiner is doing this well, and it is almost his only option at this point in the race—he is a well-liked politician. However, he is doing a bad job of explaining himself and he is not executing the important Accountability Principle very well, which insists that “I’m sorry” won’t cut it. Nothing less than a full-out explanation with total candor and contrition will do.

Voters need to hear what psychological diagnosis he has, how he is going to deal with it, and most importantly, how it might affect him as in running one of the most vibrant cities in the modern world. The Disclosure Principle guides those in a crisis to tell as much as they can, as soon as they can. Running for Mayor in the city that never sleeps affords Weiner a lot of air time. The problem and the solution should be included in one of his many media appearances that are sure to come over the next few weeks. I have no horse in this race but my professional guidance tells me that in the final stanzas of this historic mayoral effort, Weiner needs to go back to step number one and define the problem.

He needs to tell the truth about his mental disorder and clearly state that he will not do it again, and assure the public that it will have no impact on his ability to represent New York City residents. He might gain a few votes on a sympathy message.


Food Psychology: Details can Alter Taste Perception

Food Psychology: Details can Alter Taste Perception

Market Research Marketing Strategy

by Shift Fellow, Justina Eng

When we enjoy a nice meal at a fancy restaurant, it isn’t just the food that makes it “fancy”— the candlelit ambience, crisp white linen, shiny silverware, thick ceramic plates, and elegant glassware not only enhance and heighten your restaurant experience, but also the taste of your dish. These seemingly insignificant details play an important role in the mental associations we build between food and their accompanying dinnerware. Our sense of taste is not derived from just the tongue, but it interacts with our sight, smell, and hearing to produce our overall perception of the meal. This information is utilized for food marketing studies, and chefs use this information to expand your fine dining experience. Which means that $28 hunk of lamb you ordered is more than just a hunk of meat—every element of that dish is coordinated to maximize your overall dining experience.


Salt of the Earth’s vanilla ice cream with yuzu meringue and fresh flowers

Salt of the Earth, a once popular restaurant in Pittsburgh, is known for their modern cuisine and unique plating techniques. When I last visited, I ordered a homemade “curry” ice cream that was served in a large round ceramic plate that had a small round well in the center for the ice cream. It may not seem like the plate affects the perceived taste of the meal, but recent studies reveal otherwise. Researchers reveal that the color and shape of dinnerware can affect the flavor of the food or drink.

For example, angular plates tend to bring out the bitterness in foods like chocolate, while round packaging or plating emphasizes the dish’s sweetness. Additionally, researchers learned that combining a heavier bowl with a heavier spoon will tend to make the food taste better. Such information proves invaluable to restaurants, as they can alter their plating, décor, or ambience to emphasize particular flavors of their dishes. In my case, the large round plate helped to “sweeten” the taste of the spiced ice cream, and the heavy spoons added to the ice cream’s luxuriousness. Heston’s “Sounds of the Sea” – note the Conch shell with earbuds to the right Professional chefs like Heston Blumenthal explore and test boundaries of the fine dining experience by providing meals that not only tactfully display the food, but emit particular aromas and visuals to enhance its overall flavor. An example of this sensory integration would be Blumenthal’s “Sounds of the Sea,” where customers are provided with a conch shell with protruding Apple earbuds, which customers can listen to while they eat a dish that resembles an ocean crashing upon the beach. Blumenthal creates edible “sand,” comprised of various ingredients like powdered konbu (edible kelp), miso oil, crushed fried baby eels, and langoustine oil.

Heston’s “Sounds of the Sea” – note the Conch shell with earbuds
Heston’s “Sounds of the Sea” – note the Conch shell with earbuds


Alongside the edible sand is an edible “sea foam” made from the juices of shellfish like razor clams, abalone, shrimps, and oysters. Blumenthal incorporates the auditory element into his dish because he discovered that listening to the crash of ocean waves enhances the perceived saltiness and flavor of seafood. This was discovered by Blumenthal and Charles Spence of Oxford University, where they studied the relationship of sound and flavor. The next time you eat at a fancy restaurant, pay attention to the small details – the shape and texture of your dinnerware, the lighting and décor, and the smells and colors of your food. There is more to that rack of lamb than you realize.

Renaissance City Winds Plays Schuller

Community Non-Profit Organizations

by Matt Campbell 

photo by Larry Rippel
photo by Larry Rippel – courtesy of RCW

The Renaissance City Winds, a versatile chamber music ensemble founded in Pittsburgh in 1975, performed a program of Americana at April 28 at Pro Bikes in Squirrel Hill, and at Oakland’s Carnegie Music Hall April 29. Hammer dulcimer player Bill Troxler joined the group for arrangements of folk tunes that evoked colonial America and other time periods.

The Winds perform three to work concerts each year, doing each program twice—in a hall, and a “parlor.” November’s train-themed program was at the Victorian Holmes Hall on the North Side of Pittsburgh, which also features an amazing collection of thousands of toy trains. The intimate settings really make RCW concerts special. The Pro Bikes shop in Pittsburgh, while a surprisingly resonant space, was an exception and the racks of clothes distracted rather than added to the atmosphere.

The program opened with an early wind quintet from 1945 by Gunther Schuller, an American heavyweight. Schuller was a professional horn player and in only his teens was principal horn with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra before moving to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. Schuller’s intimate knowledge of the horn and winds showed throughout the charming work. There’s always a little bit of everything in RCW concerts, and the Schuller work featured a bluesy second movement stylishly played, especially by flautist Tom Godfrey’s soulful bends on the blue notes. The group effortlessly tossed off the perpetual motion third movement with its tricky rhythms.

Bill Troxler, a retired president of Capitol College in Maryland, is an expert on the hammer dulcimer, a beautifully sonorous string instrument played with soft hammers that sounds somewhat like a cross between a harp and a banjo; check out this video on YouTube to get to know the instrument. Though the hammer dulcimer was once very popular and could be purchased at Sears and Roebuck, it had almost disappeared in the later 20th century.

Troxler and RCW bassoonist and composer R. James Whipple arranged two suites of folk songs for the hammer dulcimer and winds. Again, there was a little bit of everything as Troxler not only performed on the hammer dulcimer, but he joined the ensemble on drum and a simple flute-like instrument, sometimes alternating between instruments in the same piece! There’s always a story behind the music, and Troxler explained that one tune was about Mary, the Queen of Scots, on her way to be beheaded. Another was an Irish battle tune, in which the “mean” Irish cut off the English general’s head to be sent back to “Eliza [Queen Elizabeth] and her ladies.” These pieces were wonderfully evocative of times centuries past.

The most substantial offering of the evening was Barber’s melodious Summer Music for wind quintet (horn, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and flute). Although much of the wind literature is from unrecognizable names, this is the rare chestnut from a composer in Barber who is recognizable and beloved by all classical music fans. Whipple offered his usual amusing notes, saying he first learned Summer Music years ago during the dog days of summer when it was over 100 degrees. Between the remarks and the ensemble’s clear affection for this piece, it felt like summer had come to Pittsburgh. Renate Sakins (oboe), David Lintz (horn), and Jack Howell (clarinet) along with Whipple and Godfrey showed the comfort that develops when musicians have been playing together for a long time.

One of the challenges ensembles that wind quintets and instruments besides the piano, cello, and violin face is that the staples of the repertoire are often from composers the everyday classical music aficionados don’t know. For instance, one of the great flute concertos was written by Andre Jolivet, an otherwise relatively obscure composer. Though Beethoven, Mozart and other greats blessed the winds with a handful of pieces, groups can’t repeat the same pieces every time.

While there are great works for wind quintets by unknown composers, it’s a tough ask for audiences to come to a concert that will be mostly new to them. That’s unfortunate, because the Renaissance City Winds is a veteran ensemble that exhibits fine musicianship and interesting music.

For now, the RCW are a well-kept secret but that’s a plus for those who do know about them. The audience was able to sit within a few feet of the musicians in a small space, not a cavernous hall. After the concert, concertgoers could mingle with Troxler, who gave an up-close look at his odd-looking trapezoidal hammer dulcimer, and the personable RCW musicians. A summer-themed reception (a nod to the Barber) featured fried chicken, chips and watermelon, and even some bottles of Yuengling and apple pastries.

The Winds will be back in the fall for their 2013-2014 season. Visit www.rcwinds.org for more information.

SH/FT Fellow on a Mission to Help

SH/FT Fellow on a Mission to Help


by Becca Burns, SH/FT Collaborative Fellow 

In two days, I will be Bolivia bound, sipping on ginger ale 30,000 feet up in the sky.

My vision was to travel after graduation.  Peace corp, mission trip, or backpacking through Europe – it didn’t matter.  Pursuing a passion to help others and experiencing something big, different and life-changing was the goal.  When learning about Bolivia, my dream began shifting into something that could not only change my life, but change others lives as well.

Alexis and Becca
Alexis and Becca

In February 2012, I met Alita (Alexis) who moved here from La Paz, Bolivia with her husband who is studying for his PhD at the University of Pittsburgh.  She emailed me, asking if I would help her with her English.  I jumped at the idea without any experience what-so-ever in teaching anyone English.  I assumed speaking English was enough experience.

Three months of confused conversation and laughter later, Alexis began speaking English well and her stories of Bolivia and the children there began taking hold of my heart. Alexis was passionately searching for ways to help these children and I began to brainstorm ideas with her.

In August, Alexis and I sat down after receiving an outline of an idea from her church in Bolivia.  The goal was to create a home for children that provided them with physical, emotional, and spiritual care.  The church postponed their vision five years ago because of a lack of resources.  We took this idea, sat on it for about two days and then ran with it.

Children from Bolivia
Children from Bolivia

While in Bolivia, Alexis “Alita” and I will be observing the land where the shelter will be built, meeting with the architect and building relationships with people in the community.  The project is moving forward.  Pittsburgh is amazing with its community of visionaries and individuals who want to help others.  I’ve put on my forced-extrovert face and mentors have pushed me farther outside of my comfort zone than ever before.  The combination of Alita and my passion with other’s passion for community development and philanthropic dreams is inspiring.  It is an incredible force that is moving this project closer to reality.

Of course, there are challenges present. I tell people about this project and see them lose focus after saying that it is in Bolivia.

Me: We’re working to build a temporary shelter for children in La Paz, Bolivia.

I can see their minds wandering, trying to picture a map, recollecting memories from past geography classes.

People: Oh… that’s cool.

A few ask immediately.

People: Wait, where is Bolivia?

But many wait until we are invested in conversation about the mission of the project.

I can’t deny the overwhelming thought that maybe this is too big for me.  I am way under-qualified to be working on a project like this and the idea of developing a nonprofit organization – yikes.  And, frankly, most people believe Bolivia is somewhere in Europe.

So it had to be Bolivia.  No, not in Europe, it is a little country in the heart of South America, rich with culture and quinoa.  It is also a third world country where many live in extreme poverty.  And, with passion and people, it is also the country where Alita and I will soon begin our journey towards building a temporary shelter for children to play, grow and learn.

Children from Bolivia playing
Children from Bolivia playing