Vimy Ridge Technology Lessons for Today

One hundred years ago this week, Canada achieved one of the swiftest, most decisive and unexpected victories of the First World War.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force’s triumph at Vimy Ridge came from an amazing level of innovation.  Earlier articles in this series presented the Canadians’ revolutionary approach to Leadership and Teamwork.  This article explores the vital role that Technology played in Canada’s Greatest Victory.

 

A Colossal Challenge

The Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge had a colossal challenge.  Their orders were to drive German forces from one of the most heavily defended positions on the western front.

Earlier assaults on the ridge by French and British forces failed to gain any territory and resulted in more than 160,000 casualties.

In order to achieve the enormous objective, Canadian Corps Commanders Julian Byng and Major General Arthur Currie knew they could not wage war as usual.  They needed to take a new approach and leverage every possible advantage they could devise in tactics and technology.

Old & New Technology

On the technology side, the Canadian forces used a wide variety.  Some were old, others emerging, and some were cutting edge inventions.

For communication they used carrier pigeons and laid miles of underground telephone wires.  To gather aerial photographs they deployed both old fashioned kite balloons and new fangled airplanes.  1917 was still the early days of aviation.  The Wright brothers had only proven powered flight was possible just 14 years earlier.

An Advance in Weaponry

A new artillery enhancement gave the Canadian infantry a much needed improvement.  The Number 106 Fuse was the most important weaponry advance at Vimy.

Developed by the British in late 1916, this instantaneous fuse detonated shells upon the slightest contact with the ground.  Other fuses were well suited to blasting through enemy fortifications.  The Number 106 Fuse, because it unleashed a shell’s full explosive power right at the surface, made it effective at cutting through barbed wire and clearing a path for foot soldiers.

Where Help Was Most Needed

The arena where the Canadian troops most needed a technological breakthrough was in locating and destroying German gun positions.  So Byng and Currie pursued a multi faceted program.

It began with reconnaissance and mapping.  The Canadian forces gathered every piece of information they could about German fortifications and artillery locations.  Any detail gleaned from field observations, trench raids or aerial surveys was added to maps and 3D models of the battlefield.

The technology of 1917 was rudimentary compared with the GPS and laser targeting systems of today.  To determine the precise location of enemy guns, the Canadian troops had to be inventive and resourceful.  They relied on visual and auditory cues.

Flash Spotting

The visual cues were provided by the light of German gunfire.  Canadian flash spotters were stationed at various points behind the front lines.  They kept their eyes peeled on enemy positions.   Whenever the German guns fired they recorded the direction of where the flashes appeared.  By cross referencing readings from several spotters, officers were able to calculate the position of the gun that generated the flash and plot it on the map.

Breakthrough Technology - Sound Ranging

The greatest technological breakthrough at Vimy was auditory.  It came from Colonel Andrew McNaughton, a McGill University Engineering Professor.  Perhaps due to his eccentricity – McNaughton kept a lion cub as a personal mascot – the British General Staff dismissed his idea to use sound waves to determine the location of German guns.

Byng and Currie however embraced McNaughton’s novel “sound ranging” theory.  McNaughton set up a series of listening posts from front line trenches to positions further back on Canadian-held territory.

Microphones captured the strength and direction of sound waves created by German artillery fire.  By comparing the measurements from different listening posts, McNaughton’s team was able to determine the type of gun being fired and its location within a 25 yard radius.  Perhaps most impressive of all was how fast they could get the job done.  Without the help of computers or even calculators, they delivered the location coordinates in just three and a half minutes.

A Long List of Targets

The extensive reconnaissance effort gave the Canadian troops a long list of targets – 213 German artillery positions.  The success of the battle would hinge on the Canadians’ ability to eliminate them.

In 1917, artillery targeting was a hit and miss enterprise, with misses being the norm.  Even today wind and weather conditions can interfere with shell trajectory.  Adjustments need to be made to hit targets.

For the big guns at Vimy to be effective, they needed real time feedback.  They looked up for help.

Help from the Sky

Canadian aircraft patrolled the skies over Vimy and watched as shells rained down on German positions.  They reported results back to the artillery units on the ground so they could refine their aim.

The standard air-to-ground communication method of the day was for pilots or airborne scouts to drop messages which had to be retrieved by runners.  It was a time-consuming and inefficient process.  There was a significant delay before the artillery crew received the aerial feedback.  It also required planes to constantly cycle back over the drop zone.

Wireless Technology

To solve these issues, the Canadian planes were equipped with wireless transmitters for reporting artillery target observations in real time.  Results were received on the ground instantaneously, allowing for faster artillery retargeting.  It was one of the first airborne uses of wireless technology.

Voice communication over two-way radio was not available, so all reports were made using the dots and dashes of Morse code.  The planes had only enough horsepower to accommodate the weight of a telegraph transmitter, but not a receiver.  So communication was limited to one way.

The Difference Between Victory & Defeat

The painstaking effort to locate and eliminate German artillery and machine gun positions was a great success.  176 of the 213 targets were destroyed.  The success rate was 83%.

This result saved thousands of lives and made the Canadian triumph at Vimy possible.

Some Technology Didn’t Work

Many of the new technologies deployed at Vimy were extremely successful.  Others were not.  The most blatant example was the tank.

The British introduced the tank as a secret weapon at the Battle of the Somme in September 1916.  At Vimy, the Canadian Corps was assigned a complement of six tanks.

The battle plan called for the tanks to drive up the Vimy hillside and take over German defensive positions on the far side of the ridge.  But they got bogged down in the mud.  They got no further than no man’s land and were easy sitting duck targets for German defenders.

Every Contribution Counts

Although the tanks didn’t achieve their battle plan objectives, they did draw fire away from advancing foot soldiers.  This was just a small contribution.  But in every major endeavour – whether in combat or in business – every little bit helps.

At Vimy, countless small contributions made monumental achievement possible.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was Canada’s Greatest Victory.

Technology Questions

The technology environment of 2017 is very different from 1917.  But the fundamental issues around technology are timeless.  Here are some Vimy-inspired questions for you to ponder.

Are you open to new ways of doing standard tasks?

At Vimy, the Canadian Corps used old fashioned kite balloons and new fangled aircraft for aerial reconnaissance.  Is there an area in your business where you can cover your bases with existing technology and see what’s possible by embracing something new?

The Number 106 Fuse was an important innovation for the Canadian troops at Vimy.  It came from enhancing a single component of a common device.  What shortcomings are you dealing with in the products, technologies or business processes that you rely on?  Is there one thing you could improve to create a much better result?

The Canadian Corps took a “both and” rather than an “either or” approach to technology.  To determine the location of enemy gun positions they employed both Flash Spotting and Sound Ranging.  Do you have a “both and” of an “either or” attitude towards technology?

The Canadian Corps made a big breakthrough by uniting aerial surveillance with wireless telegraphy.  What existing technologies can you combine to create your own breakthrough?

Thank You

Thank you for giving attention to this article and the amazing story of Vimy Ridge.  If you missed the earlier articles in this series on Canada’s Greatest Victory, here are links to Leadership Lessons and Teamwork & Training.

This series of articles is dedicated to the Canadian soldiers of WW1 and specifically to Lance Corporal Walter Mathews Oliver of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry, my Grandfather, who fought for Canada at Vimy and was wounded in the battle of April 9, 1917.

Vimy Ridge Teamwork & Training Lessons for Today

April 9th marks the 100th anniversary of Canada’s Greatest Victory.  This article explores the ground-breaking Teamwork and Training approach that led to success at Vimy Ridge.

Canada’s monumental victory at Vimy Ridge was driven by a revolutionary approach to teamwork and training that was unique in the military world of 1917.

The inventive leaders of the Canadian Army at Vimy, Lieutenant General Julian Byng and Major General Arthur Currie, took unprecedented steps in preparing the troops for battle.

Innovative Strategy & Painstaking Tactics

They created an amazingly innovative battle strategy and a painstaking tactical plan that was directed by Currie’s philosophy: Thorough preparation must lead to success – neglect nothing.  (Read more about the Leadership Lessons of Vimy in Part 1 of this series)

For the first time ever, every soldier was briefed on his section’s specific battlefield objectives and every soldier was given a map.  The Canadian troops were fully engaged and fully informed.

Smaller Battlefield Units

Byng and Currie revolutionized the infantry’s organizational structure by breaking it down into much smaller groups.   In the British model the smallest battlefield unit was the platoon.  Byng and Currie divided the platoon into sections that were a quarter of the size.  Each section was comprised of roughly 10 men each.

It was much easier to manage and communicate with a small section in the heat of battle.  Sections were more nimble and responsive, and allowed battle plans to be more precise and detailed.

Each section had specific objectives, but was given some latitude as to how to achieve them.  They could adapt their tactics based on the conditions they encountered.  They operated as self-directed teams rather than rule-bound soldiers in a large organization.

Cross Functional Teams

In carving platoons into smaller sections, Byng and Currie also did away with specialist units for machine gunners and hand grenade and explosives specialists, known as bombers.  They placed a machine gunner and a bomber in every section so that these skills could be immediately deployed as they were needed.  This enabled the infantry to use fire and move tactics to great effect.

The Model of Modern Warfare

Reducing the size of battlefield units and creating cross-functional teams may seem somewhat elementary today.  But in 1917 it was a radical change.  These smaller sections are the model of modern warfare today, 100 years later.  It is an enduring innovation from Vimy Ridge.

New Tactical Position

Byng and Currie also created a new battlefield assignment to solve a problem that had plagued the British.

In earlier battles British infantry charges would often stall immediately after taking a German trench line.  Once the British soldiers passed the line, undetected enemy soldiers would emerge from their dugouts and shoot them in the back.

Moppers up would solve this issue.  As troops advanced past a trench line, the moppers up would remain stationed at the trench to make sure no enemy snipers popped up.  The advancing infantry could focus on what was ahead, knowing that the moppers up had their backs.

History’s Most Rehearsed Battle

Before any Canadian soldiers crossed enemy lines on April 9, 1917 they had practiced their attack countless times before.  Miles from the front, Byng and Currie constructed a full scale replica of the battlefield.  Flags and tape marked the exact locations of German bunkers, trenches, gun batteries and barbed wire.

Canadian troops spent weeks on the training site walking through their assignments over and over again.  They weren’t just told what enemy position to attack, they physically marched to those locations on the training grounds so that they could visualize how far they would have to travel and know the obstacles in the way.

The soldiers became crystal clear on their assignments.  Vimy was the most rehearsed battle of all time.

Don’t Walk or Run, but Glide

At the replica site the soldiers were painstakingly trained in how they were to advance across the battlefield.  There was to be no running or moving in fits and starts.  Instead, every soldier was to maintain a measured steady march at the precise pace of 100 yards every three minutes.  No faster and no slower.  It would be essential to their safety and success.

Soldiers practiced again and again until the speed of 100 yards every three minutes was grilled into their muscle memory.  This slow and steady march became known as the Vimy Glide.

A Daring Battlefield Tactic

The Vimy Glide was a key component of the creeping barrage, a daring tactic that British forces introduced at the Battle of the Somme, but had realized only limited success.  Thanks to extremely thorough training, the Canadians perfected it at Vimy.

Standard battlefield practice of the day was to shell enemy positions immediately before an infantry assault.  During the artillery barrage enemy forces hunkered down in their trenches for safety.  As soon as the shelling stopped, the infantry charge began.  Enemy soldiers immediately resurfaced and started firing on the advancing infantry.

In the typical Great War battle, huge numbers of foot soldiers were killed or wounded during this phase of the assault.

The Creeping Barrage

Byng and Currie wanted to eliminate the gap between the end of the shelling and the arrival of the infantry.  They turned to the creeping barrage.

In a creeping barrage, artillery fire and the infantry advance are tightly choreographed, occurring in unison.  The artillery fire lands slightly in front of the infantry.  In the Vimy battle, the artillery would fire for three minutes.  Then the guns would be retargeted to 100 yards farther down the battlefield.  By gliding 100 yards every three minutes, the soldiers were under the continuous protection of artillery cover.

Dictate the Pace of Battle?

In the actual battle the creeping barrage eliminated one of the inherent defensive advantages of trench warfare.  It allowed the Canadian troops to advance across the battlefield in relative safety.  It dramatically reduced the casualty rate and allowed the Canadians to do the unthinkable, to dictate the pace of the battle.

This notion was scoffed at by the British and French High Command when they reviewed the Vimy battle plan.  They had serious doubts about the ambitious timeline for when each of the four lines of German defenses would be conquered.  The Canadian troops were scheduled to control the first line a little more than a hour after the assault began.  They were to take the fourth and final line in just under eight hours.

Battlefield Results

On the day of the battle the attack proceeded like clockwork.  The infantry glided across the battlefield under the cover of the creeping barrage.  Eight hours after the assault began three of Canada’s four divisions had reached their final assigned positions.  The advance of the fourth division stalled, but reinforcements drove the Germans from their last remaining Vimy foothold on April 12th.

All of the planning, teamwork and training led to a colossal victory.

The final article in the Vimy series will look at the vital role that technology played in Canada’s Greatest Victory.

 

Teamwork & Training Questions

Here are some Vimy-inspired questions to help you refine your company’s teamwork and training.

Are your teams the right size?  Are they large enough to be effective and still small enough to be responsive?

Do your teams have quick access to all the skill sets they need to be successful?

Do your people have all the training they need?  Do they know exactly what the battleground looks like before they have to step onto it?  Are the skills that they need engrained into their thinking and experience?

How well do your people understand what they need to accomplish?  Are their goals vague and fuzzy or crystal clear and tangible?

What can you do to foster greater goal clarity?


This series of articles is dedicated to the Canadian soldiers of WW1 and specifically to Lance Corporal Walter Mathews Oliver of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry, my Grandfather, who fought for Canada at Vimy and was wounded in the battle of April 9, 1917.

Vimy Ridge Innovation & Leadership Lessons for Today

This article on the Leadership Lessons of Vimy Ridge falls outside of my usual branding sphere.  But I think you’ll find the story valuable and compelling.  It certainly is for me.

Because of my Grandfather’s influence I’ve had a vague awareness of Vimy since I was a boy.  I knew it was a famous First World War victory for Canada, but not much more.  As I’ve delved into the details I’ve discovered a story of bold innovation, meticulous planning, united effort and undaunted courage.

Where Canada Became Canada

Lance Corporal Walter Mathews Oliver Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry

Lance Corporal Walter Mathews Oliver
Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry

Historians and politicians tell us that Vimy was a coming of age event for Canada.  Canada became Canada at Vimy Ridge.  If that’s true, it’s a story all Canadians need to know.  If you agree, you may wish to forward this article or other Vimy content to friends, family and colleagues.

This series of articles is dedicated to the Canadian soldiers of WW1 and specifically to Lance Corporal Walter Mathews Oliver of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry, my Grandfather, who fought for Canada at Vimy and was wounded in the battle of April 9, 1917.

I hope this article helps you understand the magnitude of the Canadian victory at Vimy, gives you a deeper appreciation for the officers and soldiers of the battle and provides useful insight for your career and business.

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Canada's Greatest Victory

Next month marks the 100th anniversary of one of the greatest battles and the greatest events in Canadian history.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force's triumph at Vimy Ridge was one of the swiftest, most decisive and unexpected battle victories of the First World War.

Success in Hours after Years of Defeat

In a matter of hours Canadian troops achieved what the French and British armies were unable to in two and a half years of fighting.  They drove the Germans from one of the most heavily defended positions on the western front.

Fighting together for the first time as a single unit, the Canadian Forces captured the strategic high point of Vimy Ridge, a five mile long, 500 foot high escarpment that was vital to controlling the coal fields of northern France.

An Inspiring Example for Today

The Vimy victory was a monumental achievement in the face of overwhelming odds.  But it’s more than just a shining event of the past.  It’s also an inspiring example for today.

Your circumstances are undoubtedly very different from those of the Canadian army of 1917.  But the core principles of how to accomplish a colossal endeavour are timeless.

The Vimy story offers valuable insights into leadership, teamwork, training and innovation that are relevant for every business in 2017.

The Cost of Victory on the Ridge of Death

As with any military battle, victory was very costly.  3,600 Canadian soldiers lost their lives.  Another 7,000 were wounded.  Although tragic, these casualty figures are remarkable for being so few in number.

Vimy had seen intense fighting throughout the war.  In repeated attempts to take the ridge, the French only ever realized temporary gains and suffered 150,000 casualties.  On the German side, there were another 140,000 casualties.  These severe losses earned Vimy the French nickname la butte de la mort, the ridge of death.

What Made the Canadian Troops Successful?

Why was Vimy so different from the typical Great War battle that dragged on for months and resulted in catastrophic losses with only tiny territorial gains if any at all?

Why were the Canadians victorious on the same battlefield where the French had suffered defeat after defeat?

A Radical Battle Plan

Success at Vimy came from an amazing level of innovation.  Canadian army commanders refused to follow the familiar patterns of past battles.  They would not wage war as usual.

Instead they designed and executed a battle plan that was radically different from any previous offensive.

New Thinking, New Tactics, New Technology

They adopted a new combat philosophy, implemented daring field tactics, leveraged new technology and embraced a revolutionary command structure.  In the process they created the modern model of warfare, which is still in use today.

Visionary Leadership

The groundwork for the Vimy victory was laid by two visionary leaders, Canadian Corps Commander Julian Byng and Major General Arthur Currie.  They began their planning work in the late fall of 1916.

Currie was a rarity in military leadership.  He had worked his way up through the ranks from lowly militia gunner, and was Canadian-born.  Byng was not a Canadian, at least not yet.  Three years after the war he became the highest ranking of all Canadians, serving as the country’s 12th Governor General.

A lifelong military man of noble birth, Byng came from a long family line of army generals that dated back 150 years.  He began his army career at age 17 and graduated from a leading military college.  He had a distinguished service record from postings in Sudan, India, South Africa, Egypt and the Dardanelles.

An Approachable Aristocrat

Byng was a high ranking British aristocrat with close ties to the Royal Family, but he was not a cold or distant commander.  He was refreshingly approachable and demonstrated a genuine concern for soldiers under his command.  He won the heartfelt admiration of Canadian troops who proudly identified themselves as “Byng’s Boys.”

Open to New Ideas

Despite his military bloodline, academic training and decades of combat experience, Byng was remarkably open to new ideas, even if it meant going against the prevailing wisdom of the day.

Byng and Currie rejected the war of attrition doctrine that saw combat as a pure numbers game where victory came to the side that threw the most men into battle.

They refused to perpetuate the senseless slaughter of previous battles where soldiers were ordered to march in tight formations right into the firing line of 500-round-per-minute machine gun batteries.  At the Battle of the Somme in 1916, this approach resulted in 57,000 British casualties in the first half hour of fighting.

Victory through Artillery

Byng and Currie were committed to make Vimy a very different type of battle.  They wanted to accomplish something that had never been done before, to pay the price of victory with artillery shells rather than men’s lives.

It was certainly a noble goal.  But given the results of earlier battles and the technology of the day it was a highly ambitious and perhaps unrealistic aim.  It would require significant improvements in identifying and hitting enemy targets and a new level of orchestration between artillery fire and infantry advance.

New technology was needed and new techniques would have to be perfected.  Learning would be vital.  So in the fall of 1916 Currie went on a fact-finding mission to interview British and French officers to learn what had worked and what hadn’t at the battles of the Somme and Verdun.

Thorough Preparation - Neglect Nothing

While on that trip Currie jotted in his notebook what proved to be the guiding philosophy for the Vimy battle plan.  He wrote: Thorough preparation must lead to success – neglect nothing.

A New Command Model

Byng and Currie scrapped the traditional command and control leadership model that treated soldiers as little more than human tools.  British Army training manuals of the day instructed soldiers to “instinctively obey orders without thinking.”  Their only job was to do as they were told.

In this top-down approach, battlefield objectives were only divulged to a select group of officers.  Rank and file soldiers were kept in the dark.  If anything happened to their unit leaders during combat, which was a common occurrence, the soldiers were left to drift aimlessly across the battlefield.

Making Soldiers Fully Informed & Fully Engaged

Byng and Currie refused to put their troops in this position.  They didn’t want an army of mindless pawns, but a fighting force that was fully informed and fully engaged.  So they took the extraordinary step of explaining the platoon mission to every soldier weeks in advance of the actual battle and walking them through the assignment on a full scale replica of the actual battlefield.

Every soldier knew which enemy bunker they had to capture, where it was located, how far it was from Canadian trenches, what route to travel and what obstacles they were likely to encounter along the way.  The soldiers learned every detail of the coming battle, except the date when it would take place.

Another Unprecedented Step

Byng and Currie took another unprecedented step.  In a war where maps were top secret documents only to be seen by high ranking officers, they printed 40,000 maps and gave one to every soldier.  At Vimy every soldier knew his mission and every soldier had a map.

Inspiring Leadership

The Canadian victory at Vimy started at the leadership level.  Byng and Currie were willing to break free from out-of-date thinking, embrace new ideas, learn from the successes and failures of others, and set up their people for success.

The next article in this series will explore the Teamwork & Training lessons of the Vimy victory.

 

Leadership Questions

Here are some Vimy-inspired questions to help you grow as a leader.

Are you open to new ideas?

What’s your best new idea of the past six months?

Is your company engrained in an old pattern of thought that could be undermining its future?

When was the last time you introduced a bold new strategy?

If you adopted Arthur Currie’s Neglect Nothing philosophy, what area of your business would you focus on first?

Think about the last six months.  What successful actions do you want to repeat?  What problem areas do you want to fix?

What do you need to do, to set your team up for success?

Does every team member have a clear view of the objective?  Does every team member have a map to get there?

Where Did Nike Get the Inspiration for JUST DO IT? -=- The Answer Will Surprise You

JUST DO IT.  It’s one of the world’s most famous and enduring taglines.  It has been seen and said, heard and read billions of times.

It is a phenomenal piece of copy writing.  It captures the emotional essence of the Nike brand in a tiny three syllable sound bite.

Three Syllable Sound Bite

JUST DO IT is a concise and potent motivational speech that ignites the inner athlete prompting you to get off the couch, get into gear and go the extra mile.

JUST DO IT is immediately understandable, instantly repeatable and always actionable.

Nike has featured JUST DO IT in TV commercials, magazine ads, billboards, posters and T-shirts.  And it’s been printed on a few billion running shoe boxes.

A High Value Brand Asset

Along with the Nike name and the ubiquitous swoosh logo, JUST DO IT is an extremely high profile and valuable brand asset.

The tagline played a vital role in Nike’s astronomical growth in market share throughout the 1990s and establishing itself as an elite global brand.

Remarkable Staying Power

And JUST DO IT lives on today.  In our era of mass communication where the half life of a Twitter blast is 24 minutes, JUST DO IT has shown remarkable staying power.  It’s just shy of its 30th birthday.

JUST DO IT is older than Google, Amazon and the World Wide Web.

Remember 1988?

JUST DO IT made its debut in 1988.  Do you remember 1988?

In 1988, Ronald Reagan was President.  The Berlin Wall was still standing tall.  The Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers were two of the best teams in the NHL.  1988 was a very long time ago.

The Surprising Source of JUST DO IT

JUST DO IT was developed for Phil Knight and team by Wieden+Kennedy, the trend setting Portland ad agency.  The most surprising thing about JUST DO IT is where the creative team found its source of inspiration.

JUST DO IT didn’t come from a boisterous brainstorming session or a weekend camping trip along the Oregon coast.  It came from inside the walls of the Utah State Prison and words uttered by a condemned man.

The prisoner was Gary Gilmore, a notorious spree killer who had murdered a gas station attendant and a motel manager in a pair of armed robberies in 1976.

Gilmore’s execution in January 1977 was a prominent news story.  Gilmore himself actively campaigned for the execution to take place.  It marked the first use of capital punishment in the U.S. in almost a decade.  It was only allowed to proceed after the Supreme Court overturned a number of earlier rulings that deemed the death penalty to be cruel and unusual punishment.

The Final Words of a Condemned Man

After he was strapped to an execution chamber chair in front of the firing squad, Gilmore was asked if he had any last words.

Gilmore’s final “Let’s do it” words were prominently featured in news coverage including a front page headline in the New York Times.

Gilmore’s final “Let’s do it” words were prominently featured in news coverage including a front page headline in the New York Times.

He gave instructions to the five marksmen who had their rifles squarely aimed at the middle of his chest.  “Let’s do it,” he said.

A decade later the words still registered in the memories of the Wieden+Kennedy team.  Let’s do it, morphed into just do it, and Nike’s quintessential tagline was born.

The story behind the tagline’s unexpected and rather sinister inspiration source was kept secret for 20 years.  But secrets seldom remain secrets forever.  Dan Wieden finally spilled the beans in an interview that appears in the 2009 documentary Art & Copy.

Listen to Dan Wieden tell the story about the inspiration for JUST DO IT

JUST DO IT Lessons for Your Business

The JUST DO IT story is more than an interesting trivia item.  It illustrates a couple of key marketing insights for your business.

The first is about creativity.  In the words of Dan Wieden, inspiration can come from the “most inadvertent” sources.  When you’re looking for a new idea, cast a wide net and be attentive to what grabs you.

The second and more obvious lesson is the immense value of a great tagline.  The right concise catchy phrase is an extremely valuable marketing asset.  It can catapult your brand to new heights and dominate your industry for decades.

Does your company have a mind-riveting tagline?  If it doesn’t, it would be a great idea to create one.  Given the benefits, this should be a top priority assignment.  Don’t wait another minute.  JUST DO IT.

Brexit: The Most Viral Brand Name of the Last 12 Months

Global Fame Came from the Name

With the right messaging, it’s amazing how much attention you can capture in a short period of time.

Think back to a year ago.  In mid February 2016, the date of the upcoming U.K. referendum had not yet been set.  Outside of Great Britain only political keeners had more than a vague awareness of the vote.

In just a few months that had all changed.  The referendum on whether the U.K. should remain in or leave the European Union was known to all.  And not just in Britain and Europe where the outcome would have an impact on everyday life.

Worldwide, the vote became a hot topic for millions of distant bystanders, even though for them it was devoid of any practical consequence.

Why Such Intense Interest?

Why did the referendum generate such intense interest?  Certainly the question of Britain’s membership in the EU is an important political, social and economic issue.  And it was given massive amounts of news coverage both leading up to and following the June 23rd vote.  But there are many significant issues that get immense media play and quickly fade from memory.

What made the U.K. referendum so mind-riveting and the topic of millions of conversations?

The Name Made All the Difference

The name did it.  Actually, to be more precise, the nickname did it.

The official title of the vote was “The European Union Referendum.”  It was a formal, predictable, and rather benign sounding description.  And it was extremely long, comprised of 4 words, 11 syllables, 26 letters.

The Qualities of an Exceptionally Viral Name

Brexit on the other hand is powerful, edgy and provocative.  It has all the qualities of an exceptionally viral name.

By combining the BR of Britain with EXIT, it gets right to the essence of issue.  Would Britain be in or out?  Should it stay or should it go?

Brexit is easy to remember, easy to say and instantly repeatable.  It drives curiosity and has a biting visceral quality.  Brexit feels familiar, but at the same time is a bit unexpected, which is a powerful combination to claim a place in the mind.

Perhaps most importantly, in our 140 character Twitter world, where every keystroke counts, Brexit is short.  A single word, just 2 syllables and 6 letters.

Easier to Write, Talk & Think About

As soon as Brexit took hold as the de facto title for The European Union Referendum, it instantly became easier to write about, talk about and think about.  Brexit went viral.  It made a complex international political issue highly contagious.

A Simple Bite-sized Identity

Brexit was boom for the media.  It was a one-word, two-syllable, six-letter gift for every journalist who had to write about the referendum, every newscaster who had to talk about it and every editor who had to craft a punchy headline.

Brexit gave the referendum what every complex idea and high tech product desperately needs to become known and talked about: a simple bite-sized identity.

Long Names Have Low Impact

Long uninspiring names like The European Union Referendum are barriers to engagement.  They get ignored.  Passed over.  The ideas or products they represent never get known or talked about.  They only attract a small audience and make a small impact.

Consider this deep space example.  In the early 1960s, a handful of elite astronomers began discussing a rather abstract but fascinating phenomenon, Totally Compressed Gravitational Objects.  Only that handful of astronomers knew or cared.  But as soon as the Totally Compressed Gravitational Object name changed to Black Hole, the entire world cared.

A decade later two Washington Post reporters investigated a series of break-ins and political dirty tricks.  It was only after these seemingly unrelated incidents were pulled together under the single name of Watergate that their revelations gathered enough attention and power to oust a president from office.

Brexit, Black Hole and Watergate quickly attained global recognition and became permanent parts of language.

How Do Your Company & Product Names Stack Up?

Think about your company and product names.  Do they have more in common with The European Union Referendum, Totally Compressed Gravitational Objects and a series of break-ins and political dirty tricks, or Brexit, Black Hole and Watergate?

Even the most ground-breaking products can fail in the market if they come across as too complex, technical or difficult to understand.  If you develop a revolutionary product but send it to market with a long uninspiring name, you’ll continually struggle to gain attention and generate any buzz.  You’ll undermine or ever sabotage your success.

Exceptionally viral names like Brexit are easy to recognize but extremely difficult to create.

Need Guidance? Call for Help.

If you need professional guidance for naming a new product, contact me to schedule a coffee or phone conversation.  It will be a solid first step to giving your product the viral appeal of Brexit.

A Preview of Presidential Headlines

Donald Trump has been in office for just a couple of weeks, but we have already seen a sample of the next four years of headline vocabulary.

A Change in Vocabulary

Trump’s policies are dramatic and for some even traumatic.  But in the headlines there will be less drama and trauma than what we saw with Obama.  Under President Trump we can expect more jump, grump, thump and plump.

The Nature of Headlines

There are a few factors driving the new vocabulary.  The first is the nature of headlines.  Headline writers have a tough job.  They must grab attention.  They need to get a strong point across in a short span of words.  Like anyone pitching an idea or product, they need to to break through the noise.

Their goal is easy to describe, but hard to accomplish – plant a message that will take root in the minds of millions.

An Excellent Headline Name

Fortunately for the headline writers, the Trump name is excellent raw material to work with.  The name is short and pithy so it leaves lots of room to add other headline content.  Trump takes up just five letters, which is half the length of Washington or Eisenhower.

More importantly, the Trump name gives headline writers access to one of the most effective tools for infiltrating minds, resonating rhyme.

The Allure of Rhyme

To headline writers, just as with school children in the playground, rhymes are pretty much irresistible.  And for good reason.  Rhymes possess a unique allure and are extremely memorable.  To the human brain rhyme is sublime.

And rhymes are everywhere.  From Mother Goose and Doctor Seuss, to teens & tweens and the old & bold.

Rhymes reside in common phrases, song & band titles, company & product names, technical terms and ice cream flavors.  Think downtown, razzle dazzle, hanky panky, chrome dome, mellow yellow, U2, Quiet Riot, Coca-Cola, Fitbit, Tutti Fruitti, Piggly Wiggly, 7 Eleven, Grill & Chill, Spruce Goose, Net Jets, hifi, wifi, Chunky Monkey and Chubby Hubby.

A Very Rhymable Name

In the presidential realm, Trump is arguably the most rhymable name ever – even more so than Ford, Hayes and Polk.  Trump provides a lot more rhyming options than Coolidge, Roosevelt or Van Buren.

The next four years will bring a flood of Trump *ump headlines.

Trump Bump

To date the most popular Trump *ump headline is Trump Bump.  It has received prominent play in Fortune, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CNN, Fox News and countless other print, broadcast and online media.

Trump Bump most often refers to the general uptick in stock market performance since Election Day.  It is also used in a more specific context to explain advancing share prices for individual companies – mainly in the petroleum and pipeline sectors.

Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island is experiencing a different type of Trump Bump.  The region has seen a surge in tourist traffic since a local radio DJ proclaimed Cape Breton a refuge for Trump-troubled Americans.

More Trump *ump Terminology

Throughout Donald Trump’s term in office, many more Trump *ump phrases are sure to follow in headlines, verbal barbs and political rally cries.  Here’s a preview of what’s likely ahead.

Trump Slump - If the economy falters over the next four years, you can count on Trump's political opponents to label any recession a Trump Slump.

Trump Grump - A term for disgruntled Democrats who still can't believe that the Hillary didn't get to move back into the White House.

Trump Plump - This term describes businesses that rise to new levels of prosperity with higher import tariffs but ultimately fall prey to complacency and fail to cultivate a competitive advantage.

Dump Trump - Dump Trump will be a common chorus among the president’s opponents who want to see him removed from office.

Trump Rump – Commentators could use this term to describe a political phenomenon that dates back to the 1840s.  Every movement attracts both a core group of supporters and fringe followers who often migrate to other camps when it is expedient to do so.  If the Trump bandwagon nose count plummets, the zealots who remain will be known as the Trump Rump.

These are just a few of the Trump *ump possibilities.  Other likely candidates are Trump chump, clump, crump, flump, frump, hump, jump, lump, pump, stump, sump, thump and whump.

If you were writing the next tabloid headline on presidential politics, what *ump would you pair with Trump?

 

How To Boost Your Brand’s Credibility

The Invitation To Buy Is Risky Business

Whenever you ask a prospective customer to buy from you, you’re asking them to take a risk.  For the customer, the first purchase from an unknown vendor is a risk of finances, a risk of time, maybe even a risk of reputation.

As the perceived level of risk goes up, the chances of making the sale go down.  For any business to prosper and attract new customers it needs to be very good at diffusing risk.

The Antidote To Buying Risk

Fortunately there is an antidote to risk.  It’s brand credibility.  If you’ve been running into risk resistance in selling to new prospects, it’s time to boost your brand’s credibility.

Many factors combine to determine your brand’s credibility, including how long you’ve been in business, the results you’ve created for clients, the business partners you’ve attracted, the quality and experience of your people and your reputation in the marketplace.

The Fastest Way to Boost Credibility

If you’re looking for the fastest and most powerful way to boost your credibility, harvest the value of the good work you’ve done in the past.  Enlist the support of your client base.  Collect quotes of clients saying good things about your company.  Display the quotes on your website, in your brochures, even in your proposals.

People generally put more stock in a customer’s opinion than a vendor’s advertising claims.  What you say can be dismissed as bragging.  What your customers say is accepted as truth, as long as the quotes pass the genuine test.

Can You Pass the Genuine Test?

This is where many attempts to harvest customer comments fail miserably.  All too often companies ghost write glowing testimonials for their customers to sign, but the end product comes across as contrived or coerced.

Prospects today don’t fall for manufactured testimonials that just sound like more brochure copy wrapped in quotation marks.  They can sniff out a phony a mile away.

Customer quotes are powerful, but they have to be real.

So How Do You Get Genuine Customer Quotes?

Here’s what I’ve found over the years to be the most effective way to gather genuine customer quotes.  In helping Identicor’s clients gather quotes from their customers I take the same interview approach that I used back in the days when I was a broadcast journalist.

The first step is research.  I find out from my client how they have helped the customer.  I put together a list of questions to draw out benefit-focused comments.

Make A Personal Connection

In the actual customer interview, the first priority is to set a friendly and personal tone.  Interviews yield the best comments when the customer feels relaxed.  I make a point of establishing some personal rapport with each customer before diving into the list of questions.

I use open ended questions to invite the customer to explore.  I encourage them to express their personality rather than use their “just business” voice.  When my client has informed me of hard dollar figure benefits the customer has realized, I prompt the customer to comment directly on the financial results.

Get The Exact Words

I record the interview on my trusty Olympus digital voice recorder.  It’s vital to get the customer’s exact words, so that the quotes will be based on their actual comments and not an approximate memory of what they said.

Preserve The Customer’s Voice

Next I’ll have the interview transcribed so I can see the customer’s exact words on paper.  I’ll edit the comments to produce concise potent quotes.  I take extra care in keeping the customer’s own words and thought patterns intact to ensure the customer’s real voice comes through.

By following this reporter interview process I have collected extremely valuable quotes to boost my client’s brand credibility and sales efforts.  In a recent assignment for a software company I conducted more than a dozen customer interviews at their users’ conference.  The interviews yielded more than 100 powerful customer quotes including gems like these:

“Over the last 9 years, we have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars thanks to [insert Identicor’s client’s name here].”

“I think of my [insert Identicor’s client’s name here] system like an employee who is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week, and who doesn’t need benefits or an invitation to the Christmas party.”

With genuine customer quotes like these, brand credibility goes up and sales resistance goes down.

What customers will you interview in the next week to boost your brand’s credibility?

Would You Fly on an Airplane Named Boom?

Supersonic Whiplash

I’m recovering from a serious case of supersonic name whiplash.

A Very Cool Airplane

It started when I saw the photo illustration of an amazing new passenger jet being developed by a Denver start up.  The firm is pursuing a daring mission – to reintroduce supersonic flight to commercial aviation.

For the company’s team of skunk works engineers this must be the absolute dream job – to create an iconic new aircraft and conquer the speed of sound!

The super sleek aircraft has a projected cruising velocity of Mach 2.2.  It will fly at more than two and a half times the speed of any current day airliner and will be 10 percent faster than the old supersonic Concorde, which had its last flight in 2003.

What’s the name of this visionary aerospace company?  Boom.  Boom Technology.

Perfect at First Glance

At first glance, Boom seems to be the perfect name for the world’s fastest ever passenger plane. Boom is bold, evocative and exceedingly cool. Boom is gutsy, memorable and instantly repeatable. Best of all, it says supersonic in a single syllable.

The engineers undoubtedly love Boom. I bet there was giddy excitement when they chose the name. And what could be better than going to work wearing a Boom T-shirt?

Boom is a great piece of naming.  It immediately filled me with wild blue yonder excitement.  It reignited my old grade school dream of one day becoming an aeronautical engineer.

Supersonic U Turn

But as I moved my thoughts beyond the confines of the test lab and took on a wider perspective, some significant Boom shortcomings came into view.  My opinion did a supersonic U turn.  Name whiplash hit me hard.  Suddenly my perfect name conclusion seemed hasty and seriously amiss.  Here’s why.

The engineers building the plane are the first audience for the name, but certainly not the only audience. And they’re not the audience that will bring money in the door.

Different Audience - Different Message

For the much larger outside audience Boom conveys a very different message, and stirs a very different set of emotions.

To the engineers Boom means speed. To the outside audience Boom means danger. For engineers Boom elicits emotional excitement. For the outside audience Boom feeds fear.

The last thing any air traveler wants to hear is a boom. A mid air boom is never the start of anything good.

No brand can afford to fall on the wrong side of fear.

Will Airlines Be Comfortable with Boom?

The first customers for Boom jets are the airlines.  They operate in a safety-focused and highly regulated environment.

Will airline CEOs agree to shell out mega millions and stake their company’s reputation on a jet named Boom? Is the Boom name a fit with the airline culture?

What Will Air Travelers Think of Boom?

For the 10-30 percent of the population already afraid of flying, the Boom name could well strike panic. It’s unlikely that your nervous Aunt Nola from North Dakota would ever take a Boom flight. Or for that matter famous white-knuckled flyers like Wayne Gretzky, John Madden or Mr. T.

The company is probably not targeting aerophobics, so making the already fearful a little more anxious isn’t a big concern.  But is it possible that the name is edgy enough to cause others to hesitate?  Could the name sabotage ticket sales?

Consider the example of my frequent flyer friend Todd. Todd has no fear of the flying part of flying. In fact he’s the type of guy who would be eager to take a supersonic flight.  When he was a boy his dad worked for the airlines and received family travel passes, so Todd pretty much grew up on airplanes.

9/11 Terrorist Concerns

But when I asked Todd if he would fly on a plane named Boom, his response was rather tentative. My question had hit a nerve.  Then he explained. “Prior to 9/11 I would have had no problem getting on a plane named Boom. But since then I’ve been feeling a lot more cautious.”

The Name Would Keep Him off the Plane

He isn’t as wary now as in the fall of 2001, but the Boom name is still intense enough to activate his terrorist alarm system and overrule his desire for a super fast flight. The name would keep him off the plane.

Is any name cool enough to use if it scares away your potential customer base?

Regulators & Anti-Noise Activists

How will the name be received by influential non-passenger audiences?

Imagine you worked at the FAA and were in charge of issuing airworthiness certificates. Would you be more stringent in reviewing a plane from Boom than one from Boeing?

What about the anti-noise activists who live close to big airports? How will the company ever convince them that a plane called Boom is actually quiet?

Inviting Headline Ridicule

Boom leaves the company vulnerable to ridicule. If there ever is a mishap, the name will be inviting fodder for the media. The tabloid headline is already written – KA-BOOM!

If that nickname gets riveted to the plane, it will be impossible to shake.

Boom is great for boldness.  But is it just too risky?

What’s the Boom Lesson?

The mini Boom case study shows that names are powerful and make powerful impressions.  But depending on the audience, the same name can stir markedly different, and potentially undesirable impressions.

When you’re naming your company or product it’s all too easy to focus on what a particular name means to you without giving enough attention to other ways it can be interpreted. You need to consider what thoughts and feelings the name evokes in the marketplace.

To arrive at a name that will be a solid foundation for your brand, you need to balance creative enthusiasm with sober second thought and customer research.

What Should the Company Do?

The Boom name has some great strengths but also enormous weaknesses waiting in the wings.  Should the company stick with it for the long term?

For now the company is isolated from the downside of the Boom name.  The drawbacks are still only theoretical.  The main audience for the name is the engineering group designing the aircraft.

That will all change beginning late next year when the supersonic jet has its first test flight.  Once the plane takes to the skies, the name will attract a lot of attention and much of it will be negative.

If the company’s CEO called to ask my advice, I would suggest replacing Boom with a new name – a name that conveys a sense of supersonic engineering but not at the expense of safety and credibility.

To spare the engineers from feeling cheated out of a name they love, Boom could live on internally as the name for the jet propulsion division.  This would allow the engineers to keep the Boom T-shirts in their work wardrobe.

The Sooner the Better

The sooner Boom is replaced the better.  The flurry of publicity that the test flights will unleash should be harnessed to establish a strong new name rather than publicize a problematic one.

The company’s amazing new aircraft needs a name that will give it a lift, a tailwind, some sort of an advantage.  The Boom name puts too many unnecessary obstacles in the flight path to success.

Would you fly on an airplane named Boom?