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Who Owns the Letter X?

Logo_XIt’s no longer “X” marks the spot on a treasure map. The use of “X” first increased as it became a go-to variable in beginning algebra. Then it evolved to become a secret ingredient of success, someone’s “X factor”. Now “X” seems to mark every spot, having found its way into the identities of a slew of companies, products and even universities in an attempt to create the perception that they are on the cutting edge. But what does it mean anymore, and can anyone rightfully own it?

There are several ways in which “X” has been used:

  •  Xerox was one of the first and logical users of “X”.
  • For EXXON, one “X” was not enough.
  • The X Games drew a new breed of sports enthusiasts to ESPN.
  • Microsoft wisely left its brand off the naming of XBox, the company’s successful entry into the gaming and entertainment market. But now it needs wordier names, such as XBox One and XBox Entertainment Studios, to explain why XBox still matters.
  • Comcast launched its Xfinity service to divert attention from its troubled brand though a new, hyperbolic and space-aged entertainment sub brand. In the end, it just confused a lot of people.
  • Ted, a set of global conferences, used TedX presumably to indicate an extension or auxiliary to the original, exclusive event.
  • Space transport company SpaceX seems to say it is headed to places unknown, perhaps in the same vein as the algebraic “solve for X” mode. It is instructive to think of the context of the X PRIZE, and www.x.com, Elon Musk’s first startup.
  • Universities are now joining the fray, each with its own purpose. Stanford’s StartX is an investment fund for student entrepreneurs. HarvardX is “a bold experiment to push the boundaries of learning through reimagined teaching, unprecedented research and cutting-edge technology,” or a response to the quandary of online learning.

With so many uses, all saying different, but ostensibly trendy things, is “X” going to go the way of “e”? Does it still add the desired magic to any identity? Can any one company or project really own it anymore? Or, is it really just a weak substitute for a creative expression of unique value?

If you’re thinking about using a trendy letter in your name, there are a few questions you should ask yourself:

  • Are you using the letter to say something meaningful, or just to get attention? Attention getters typically have shorter shelf lives.
  • Does the use of a trendy letter create sustainable differentiation, or do you risk blending in over time as others adopt the same idea? This tactic has a very low barrier to adoption.
  • How long will it be before the trend is over and the market has moved past your naming convention?

Some companies have managed to take true ownership of trendy letter. Apple has done quite well (and protected itself very aggressively) with “i”. VMware has made a strong case for its ownership of lowercase “v”. The bottom line: be sure that what you’re doing is relevant, ownable and works with your overall brand strategy.

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Sound Bites, Slogan, and Political Positioning

Advertising Age recently listed the slogans of 21 presidential candidates.

Forgetting who these slogans represent, if you know, or can tell:

  • Do any of these messages differentiate their candidate?
  • Are any of these campaign messages relevant, or compelling to you?
  • Which messages seem most credible? Least credible?
  • Which message would interest you in its candidate?
  • Reigniting the Promise of America

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Brand Impact of Mergers

The Brand Impact of Mergers

Last year saw a n ear-record high in M&A activity, which at $3.5 Trillion was the highest activity recorded in seven years, according to the New York Times. Tiny startups (WhatsApp: $19 Billion) and major blue chip companies (DirecTV: $49 Billion) were swallowed up by larger acquirers for astronomical sums.

The conventional wisdom fueling these buying sprees goes like this: once a company gets to a certain size, organic growth becomes very difficult to sustain. Acquiring into new areas or capabilities is a much faster route to growth in revenues, capabilities, and ideally profitability.

But what happens to brand value in these transactions? How should brands be managed to retain or augment their combined value? Which company gets to keep its brand name and promise, and what happens to the other? In our experience, too few companies invest in the upfront strategic thinking and decisions required to get full brand value, and hence business value, out of their mergers.

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To the New President of UC: Start With an Audit!

Janet Napolitano

Former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was appointed president of the UC system on July 18. Her first day as president is today, Sept. 30. (Photo courtesy Steve Rhodes)

As many of you may have already heard, today is the first day of work for former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in her new position as president of the University of California system. We’ve worked with UC before, and we’re eager to see what Ms. Napolitano’s tenure brings to this great institution.

The First Thing Any Leader Should Do

As a student at the Harvard Business School, when my classmates and I aspired to one day serve as presidents of our organizations, I remember a professor of ours posed an interesting question: “What is the first thing you should do when you become president?” he asked.

For us, the first thing that popped into our heads was the thought of cracking open a bottle of champagne for our success. But other than that, we were puzzled. The advice this professor gave has stayed with me to this day: The first thing you should do is take an audit.

Here’s why:

  • To establish which assets you have been entrusted with and for which liabilities you have accepted responsibility.
  • To put a stake in the ground showing the condition of the organization when you took over, so that you can measure and demonstrate the improvements you’ve made during your term as president.

3 Intangible Assets That Should Be Part of Any Audit

For us at Marshall Strategy, we also recommend—and practice ourselves—to audit each organization’s intangible assets as well. If you know what you assets and liabilities are, then you know what your plan of action needs to be.

There are three main intangible assets we review with our clients:

  1. Awareness: When we begin auditing a company’s intangible assets and liabilities, we begin by listening to the executives about the issues they are facing, the challenges that lie ahead and what disadvantages they may have. You may have a great company in the public’s eye, but if there is low awareness about its potential obstacles among its executives, then that’s a problem.
  2. Image: We research our client’s image, which includes talking to audiences that are important to the organization, both customers and employees. We gather information on how they perceive the company. Whether employees have high or low morale, that’s something, for example, that gets sorted out in our initial analysis. Out of that we establish some identity objectives that would help alleviate the problems and leverage the advantages.
  3. Branding: Some of an organization’s strongest intangible assets deal with its brand identity. An organization’s name can be an advantage or disadvantage. Along that same line, its graphic expression may be detailed and intricate, but may also be meaningless. Our objective is to reduce those liabilities and increase the assets the company has to work with, which could be naming, messaging, visual expression or strategy.

My advice to Ms. Napolitano is to take an audit of UC, of both its tangible and intangible assets. Such an audit will not only help her understand the massive, intangible value of the university to the state, the nation and the world, but it will also help her identify the perceptual liabilities that threaten appreciation and support of UC’s great value.

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