Monday, December 30, 2013

Walt Disney--Employer of the Year?

Why the fascination with Walt Disney? Earlier this year we had an off-off Broadway play about his last days, painting him as a sinister employer even in his final deterioration (that's to put it mildly--I sat in the front row and was sprayed by the blood the actor continually spat). Now in a lighter vein comes "Saving Mr. Banks," in which Walt convinces P. L. Travers to license the movie rights to her Mary Poppins series. It was made with the cooperation of Walt Disney's empire and filmed at the Disney Studios--corporate storytelling run amok.

A shelf of
Mary Poppins
books, courtesy
of Wikipedia

Did you ever wonder about the story behind the Mary Poppins movie? Neither did I. In fact, I've never read a Mary Poppins book nor seen the film. My childhood tastes ran to Nancy Drew, a young American gal of action, a great role model. But I love workplace dramas, and it's a holiday week, so off I went. Thank goodness Meryl Streep turned down the lead role, because Emma Thompson fits it like a silk stocking. 

The turning point scene rings false. After near-acceptance, Travers rejects the deal and flies in a huff back to London. Walt follows in haste, knocks on her door, and pleads his case in a my-childhood-was-worse-than-yours monolog. Research reveals this encounter to be pure fabrication. Fine; this film is not a documentary. But most likely Travers finally took the deal because she needed the money. 

Another puzzling point is the waste of a good actor, Paul Giametti, as Travers's chauffeur. At one point he confides to Travers that he has a daughter with a disability. Later she tells him he's the only American she likes, signs a book for the child, and gives him a tell-your-little-girl-to-buck-up lecture. That I can believe, but Giametti's role is sadly underdeveloped.

The film certainly notes that Travers loathed the animation segment of the film. It's why she flew home and almost walked away from the deal. But it doesn't mention that she refused to sell Disney the rights to any sequels. That omission is too bad. All it would have taken was a few words on the screen before the credits. It's not good corporate history if it doesn't deal with lessons learned. 

P.S. If you want a realistic picture of the Sherman brothers, the guys who wrote the music for the Mary Poppins film and many other Disney classics, check out the documentary on Netflix. Now there's an unvarnished glimpse at creativity. These men didn't like each other and grew farther apart as they aged, but they kept on composing together because they were productive work partners. Now there's a lesson learned.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Harry Winston: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate

In “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” Marilyn Monroe chants, “Talk to me, Harry Winston!” Few names in jewelry are so famous. Raised in the business by his father, Winston (1896-1978) opened his own store in 1932. He made his name by crafting magnificent gems into incredibly beautiful jewelry. Today Harry Winston, Inc., has retail locations in more than 20 cities worldwide, and since early 2013 has been owned by Swatch—the Swiss timepiece conglomerate whose brands include Omega, Tissot, Tiffany & Co. watches, and several more. The main About Us page (“Our Story”) is here.

The overall look of the About Us pages is excellent: each has brief but informative text and large, excellent photos, usually arranged into eye-catching collages.

Products/Services: A
If the About Us pages focused on technical details of Harry Winston pieces (color, clarity, carat ...), they’d soon lose our attention. Instead, the pages show stunning jewelry, beautifully photographed, often worn by gorgeous A-list celebrities. The News page section on the 2013 Academy Awards shows no less than 6 nominees wearing pieces by Harry Winston – with captions giving the style names of the pieces, and occasionally an estimate of their value. Rare Jewels of the World mentions the Taylor-Burton diamond and the 601-carat Lesotho diamond. The legendary Hope Diamond, donated by Winston to the Smithsonian in 1958, gets a page of its own.

In fact, the Harry Winston About Us pages offer more about famous gems than about the company’s history. That’s a great way to emphasize Harry Winston’s uniqueness. Only a couple of the store’s neighbors on Fifth Avenue handle gems with histories that run to decades or centuries.

Our Commandment 2 of About Us pages is “Thou shalt not generalize”: specifics are better than high-falutin’ mission statements. Winston Style is a great example of a mission statement that doesn’t sound like one. The text (again with excellent photos) explains why Harry Winston jewelry is unique: the choice of stones, the nearly invisible platinum settings that make the gems seem to float, the calculation of angles of reflections, the proportions. After reading this one-page description, we have the heady feeling that we can recognize Harry Winston-style jewelry – that we know why his pieces are exceptional. Given how technically complex jewels and jewelry-making are, and how subjective much description of style is, this is a remarkable achievement for a short web page geared to non-specialists.

Personality: A
Harry Winston died in 1978, but his vision is still what drives the brand. Rather than giving a detailed biography of Winston and his career, the company site stresses the founder’s expertise and dedication. It also makes Winston himself an intriguing visual enigma. The main About Us page includes 2 photos of him with his features hidden, and notes that “For security, Harry Winston never allowed his face to be photographed.” What a clever way to imply the treasure troves that this man routinely handled! That’s excellent corporate storytelling in a nutshell—or, more aptly, in a diamond.

Accessibility: C
The Contact Us page is unimaginative but adequate: contact a salon, locate an affiliate, send an email or letter.

Boost the impact of your corporate history by tying it to the broad picture: world history, American history, Hollywood history.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!

Today’s example was chosen at random; has no ties to this company. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Fed Reserve Timeline: 11,000 Artifacts, 100 Years

Drawing on 100 years of history, The Federal Reserve has organized some 11,000 facts, biographies, images, and essays into a single timeline. I find it well-written but sprawling. Your perception will depend on whether you want to read fairly long pieces on key events such as the financial crisis of 2008, complete with bibliographies and endnotes (I do), and whether you feel that such factoids as Ben Bernanke's service as a Board of Education volunteer in Montgomery Township, New Jersey, seem relevant or extraneous to his Fed chairmanship (a bit much, but it humanizes him). Of course, that's just a postscript to his biography. 

The home page, shown here, is deceptively simple. Top-level navigation includes Events, People, and Purpose; there's also a search box and a drop-down menu for "Trending Searches," which today includes Janet Yellen (no surprise). Interior pages can be maze-like.

All in all, it's a valuable corporate history timeline model for long-standing organizations with reams of material to showcase. And for anyone researching or writing speeches in the financial services realm, the essays will be useful. 

Kudos to The Fed for organizing its history at all. "Looking back at our historical experience provides important insights to economists, historians, and policymakers about how the Fed can best meet its objectives, today and in the future, to promote a healthy economy and stable financial system," Bernanke said in a press release. The announcement says that Fed also plans to update the site regularly. It's "
part of a broader effort by the Fed to mark its anniversary year of the centennial," and it will be interesting to see how that unfolds.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"20,000 uses for paper today"

Loved this op-ed by bibliophile Nicholas A. Basbane, author on On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History, in which he points out that:
  • There are 20,000 identifiable uses of paper in the world today: tea bag tags, playing cards, Reese's Peanut Butter Cup wrappers, cigarette wrappers....
  • Sales of "fluff pulp" are robust--that's the stuff used in the making of disposable diapers, wipes, etc.
  • Hard-copy printouts from 2012 were enough to "cover the surface area of New York City 237 times"
Why not dig into the ways your company has and hasn't used paper, and slip a few paper-related stories into your marketing?

Monday, December 9, 2013

Hammacher Schlemmer: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate

Hammacher Schlemmer’s roots are a high-quality hardware store that opened on New York’s Bowery in 1841. In 1926, the store moved uptown to 147 East 57th Street, where it began to focus on the unique, innovative merchandise that it’s famous for today. (The landmark store is still there, currently under renovation.) The family sold the business in 1953; it’s now owned by the heirs of the man who founded the Bradford Exchange. The main About Us page (“America’s Oldest Catalogue” in the footer, “165 Years of History” on the page itself) is here.


Products/Services: A+++
There are only two Hammacher Schlemmer About Us pages, and both are excellent. 165 Years of History is a one-page description of the company’s evolution from a hardware store to a purveyor of unusual products of high quality. The story is told with a flowing style and enough pertinent details and anecdotes to make it fascinating: e.g., the fact that Hammacher Schlemmer issued a catalogue of over 1,000 pages in 1912 and sold the world’s first pop-up toaster (1930) and electric razor (1948). The pictures are perfect: one of the original hardware store with serried ranks of employees; one of the Motorist Touring Kit for early automobiles; one of the pop-up toaster.

Our Commandment 5 of About Us pages is “Honor thy readers and their attention spans.” Few timelines do this. Most expect us to click a lot of buttons and somehow to retain reams of minutiae while trying desperately to get a big-picture view.

If we gave an award for best corporate timeline, Hammacher Schlemmer’s timeline would be the reigning champion. Its content and layout are stellar. The years run across the top. In rows below are Hammacher History, U.S. History, Extraordinary Items, Media (mentions in the press), and Catalogs. The illustrations are, hands down, the best use we have seen on a website of archival material. They range throughout the company’s long history and are categorized so the context is always clear. They’re accompanied by terse but informative text—just the kind of corporate storytelling that works best these days.

Hammacher Schlemmer’s two About Us pages are an unbeatable combination: a well-written overview that stresses the company’s products and goals, with a well-designed timeline with substantive visual and verbal content.

Personality: A
The About Us pages offer no information about the company’s owners. That’s OK, since the company’s mission – to find innovative, unique products – is clear. In fact, since the owners are associated with the Bradford Exchange, whose mission is quite different, it’s a wise choice not to broadcast the connection. Millions of Facebook denizens notwithstanding, not everyone needs to know everything about you.

Accessibility: A
The Contact Us page is very thorough, with several options for reaching Customer Service, Product Help, Corporate Gifts, and the New York store, plus contacts for press inquiries and inventors. We particularly appreciate the fact that the online contact form asks whether we’d like a response via email, mail, or phone.

If you’re going to include a timeline, emulate Hammacher Schlemmer: hone it until its content (text and visuals) is substantive and engaging, and make sure the context is always clear from the layout.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!
Today’s example was chosen at random; has no ties to this company.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"The pencil will remain alive"

Faber-Castell-Werk in Stein bei N├╝rnberg: The factory
in Germany, courtesy of Rolf Krahl/Wikipedia
"The pencil will remain alive much longer than we believe." That's my favorite quote from Jack Ewing's excellent New York Times business history profile of Faber-Castell and its CEO, Count Anton-Wolfgang von Faber-Castell. The Count's ancestor invented the pencil in the 1700s; the company now makes pens, crayons, art supplies, erasers, and sharpeners too.

The count also says: "Why do we manufacture in Germany? Two reasons: one, to really make the best here ... I don't like to give the know-how for my best pencils away to China, for example. Second, 'Made in Germany' is still important." He's a man with control of his corporate narrative.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Cool app for biz anniversaries

Diomedia's Calendar Historica app for iPhone and iPad is a cool tool for all of us who love history and anniversary timelines. At the same time, it's a sales tool for the photos licensed by this international stock photo house and digital media agency -- but still an informative showcase.

Looking ahead to December 7, Calendar Historica tells us that Persian astronomer Abd Al-Rahman Al Sufi was born 1,110 years ago, that Italian composer Pietro Mascagni would be turning 150, and that Willa Cather was born 140 years ago. As is visible from the attractive little interface at left, you can click on each entry to see more than 20 related images. 

You can also browse at top level, by the year. 

This may replace Solitaire as a way to pass the time on my next subway ride! 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Williams-Sonoma: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate

In 1956, Chuck Williams opened a store in Sonoma, California, that sold high-end kitchenware that few Americans had even heard of. By 1971 he had moved the store to San Francisco and had begun publishing a mail-order catalogue. The company went public in 1983; it now has over 250 stores and revenues in the billions. Its main About Us page is here.


Personality and Products: B
The text on the main About Us page is brief and not very exciting, but we do learn when the company was founded, what it sells, and its size. The best feature of the page, though, is the three photos above the text, which are very effective at conveying the style and quality for which Williams-Sonoma is famous.

The main About Us page includes a link to the page devoted to founder Chuck Williams. Instead of a bio, the page has a small image of Chuck surrounded by photos of brands and gadgets that he introduced to Americans: Le Creuset, Bundt cake pans, silicone spatulas, Wusthof knives. Rolling over a picture pops up a brief description of the item and a link so we can shop for it. This is a great way to make corporate history relevant: the page reminds us that without Chuck, we might never have heard of these items, and then gives us the option to buy them.

Accessibility: A
The Contact Us page offers the standard options (phone, email, fax), plus toll-free numbers for foreign customers and an online form. New to us was the “Let Us Call You” feature, which appears on every page. Those of us with limited phone minutes per month are always grateful if we can avoid time on hold. Our Commandment 8 of About Us pages is, “Remember to make yourself and your organization easily accessible.” “Let Us Call You” makes us feel like Williams-Sonoma really does want to speak to us.

Think about innovative ways to make it easier for your website visitors to reach you. And tie your business history into the history you share with your customers: it’ll be much more engaging.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!
Today’s example was chosen at random; has no ties to this company.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

JFK oral histories

One of the most effective museums I've ever visited is the Sixth Floor Museum of the former Texas School Book Depository in downtown Dallas, now owned by the JFK Library and redesigned as a memorial to the day of President Kennedy's assassination. What makes it so meaningful, in part, is the use of oral histories. The local disk jockey who was covering the motorcade on AM radio, the Parkland Hospital nurse who was the first to respond when the stretcher arrived, the motorcycle policeman who flanked the car on Jackie's side. . .their voices ring loud and clear through the headphones that the museum issues to each visitor.

Robert MacNeil (formerly of the MacNeil-Lehrer Report) covered that event too--he was in the motorcade. He lends his talent to a new oral history program that draws on recently discovered interviews. We Knew JFK: Unheard Stories from the Kennedy Archives can be heard in its entirety online at and is highlighted during this week's "On the Media" on public radio stations. as well. Worth a listen, especially for those of us who remember exactly where we were that fateful day. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Happy 23rd anniv to WWW

The World Wide Web turns 23 today, barely a college grad. How did we live without it? Inventor Tim Berners-Lee has been knighted for his work, a well-deserved honor. I'm glad they didn't name it "Mine of Information," but the poet in me has always wished that the protocol was "WEB-dot-sitename" (with a one-syllable WEB) versus "WWW-dot-sitename." The nine syllables of that WWW grate on the ear. Below is good history from The Writer's Almanac, that estimable service from PRI International. How prescient Arthur C. Clarke was!

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, courtesy of
Paul Clarke/Wikimedia
WWW ... "turns 23 years old today. The proposal for a new global system of interlinked documents on the Internet was published on this date in 1990.

"Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist who was working for CERN, wrote an early proposal in 1989. He wanted to create a more efficient method of information management and communication throughout CERN, but soon realized that the concept could be broadened to span the whole world. His first proposal didn't generate much interest, so he enlisted the aid of another computer scientist, Robert Cailliau. The pair produced a more elaborate proposal on this date in 1990, including a prototype Web page. They predicted it would take no longer than three months to have a Web of read-only files up and running, and they were correct. ... Berners-Lee and Cailliau tried on a few different names for their system, including Information Mesh, The Information Mine, and Mine of Information, but rejected them. Early on, they referred to the World Wide Web as W3, but that nickname didn't stick; most people just call it "the Web." ....

"The very first Web page was nothing fancy. There were no pop-up ads, no social media, no emoticons, and no funny cat videos. There was a page header that read "The World Wide Web Project," and an introductory sentence that explained, "The WorldWideWeb (W3) is a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents." The Web became available for use by the public in August 1991.

"The vision for the World Wide Web was already 20 years old by the time Berners-Lee wrote his proposal. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke had predicted it in the 1970 issue of Popular Science, writing that satellites would "bring the accumulated knowledge of the world to your fingertips." People would access this information, Clarke prophesied, through a machine that was a combination of computer, telephone, television, and photocopier. He also envisioned every home having its own small computer that would deliver to a person "all the information he needs for his everyday life: his bank statements, his theater reservations, all the information you need over the course of living in a complex modern society."

Monday, November 11, 2013

Dow Chemical: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate

Back in 1897, when Herbert Henry Dow founded Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan, the company produced bleach and potassium bromide. Soon it diversified into plastics, agricultural products, and other chemicals. Today Dow employs about 54,000 people in 36 countries. With sales of over $56 billion in 2012, it is one of the two or three largest chemical manufacturers in the world. The main About Us page is here.

(An aside: While Dow made bleach for industry in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 20th that the product made its way into U.S. households. The Electro-Alkaline Company, founded in 1913, launched that process. They’re better known now as The Clorox Company, and we’re honored to have written the Clorox history.) 

After half an hour on the Dow site, we had the uneasy feeling that we wouldn’t be able to find our way back to pages we’d already seen, and might well have missed important material. First problem: the navigation is incomplete. The drop-down menu under Company offers 12 choices, ranging from “Solutionism” to “Worldwide Olympic Partner.” Quite by accident, we stumbled across fascinating pages such as Leadership Insights and a Timeline. Why are these not accessible from the main menu?

A related issue: page names are deceptive and hierarchy is unpredictable. Awards are under Innovation. Geographies (which shows Dow sites worldwide) is under News rather than Locations. Our Commandment 7 of About Us pages is “Remember to keep navigation easy.” We mean not just visually clean and easy to read, but efficient at helping us find the information we want plus great material we didn’t realize we wanted.

Products/Services: C
A web search for “Dow Chemical” turns up stories about the Bhopal disaster, breast implants, Agent Orange, and the Rocky Flats nuclear weapon production site. To counteract this, the About Us pages of the Dow’s own site need to provide a stellar list of the ways Dow products have improved peoples’ lives over the past century – and to acknowledge negative events and perhaps explain them in the context of lessons learned.

They don’t. We thought there was no history of the company at all, until we typed “history” in the site’s search box and found a timeline that runs back to 1897. But its graphics are odd, its display occasionally goes awry (events of the 1940s march relentlessly across the introductory paragraph), and the pop-up, decade-by-decade format makes it impossible to get an overview of highlights.

The Discover Dow page links to a great archive of stories that explain Dow’s innovations in laymen’s terms. Good corporate storytelling—but unfortunately the stories are only accessible by clicking through the titles one or two at a time. With no indication of how many stories there are, few visitors will bother to keep clicking and clicking and clicking and .... Why not have an option for seeing stories by category, or at least for seeing a dozen or so titles at a time?

Personality: D
Herbert Henry Dow is mentioned only once on the Dow site - a one-line quote on the Timeline. Talking about how the founder’s vision drove the company would be a great starting point for an overview of Dow Chemical’s corporate history and its goals for the future. The bios of the current Leadership (buried under Investors / Corporate Governance) don’t give any better sense of the company’s direction. The Leadership Insights page features links to Dow’s management talking about important issues ... but that page isn’t accessible from the Leadership page.

And then there are the oddities. The Leadership bios are written as if for a third-party publication, e.g., “Andrew N. Liveris is President, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Dow Chemical Company, a global specialty chemical, advanced materials, agrosciences and plastics company based in Midland, Michigan with 2012 annual sales of approximately $57 billion.” This seems to have been pasted in without thought of the context: it suggests to us that no one really expects visitors to read the bio. In the midst of the text of the main About Us page we are warned: “References to ‘Dow’ or the ‘Company’ mean The Dow Chemical Company and its consolidated subsidiaries unless otherwise expressly noted.” We understand that Dow Chemical doesn’t want to be confused with, say, Dow Jones. But is this a website or a binding legal document?

Accessibility: D
The Contact page is easily available from the foot of the left-hand navigation menu. It leads to a one-size-fits-all online form: no options for specific topics or for the major departments of Dow. The only other choice for communicating with Dow is via telephone or fax.

Make sure that your site plays up the best aspects of your company, and that visitors can find the great material you put there.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!
Today’s example was chosen at random; has no ties to this company.

Monday, November 4, 2013

75 Years in 75 Seconds

Check out Xerox Corporation's video featuring 75 years of its history in 75 seconds, beautifully done.

Happily, there’s also a business history book that focuses on Chester Carlson and his invention of the photocopying machine: David Owens’s Copies in Seconds. 

Here's a great quote from Carlson (1906-1963) about the origins of his idea. Satisfying to see how he followed several interests at once and found a way to combine them, right from childhood. Of course, I also love that he "started a little inventor's notebook."

"Well, I had a fascination with the graphic arts from childhood. One of the first things I wanted was a typewriter—even when I was in grammar school. Then, when I was in high school I liked chemistry and I got the idea of publishing a little magazine for amateur chemists. I also worked for a printer in my spare time and he sold me an old printing press which he had discarded. I paid for it by working for him. Then I started out to set my own type and print this little paper. I don't think I printed more than two issues, and they weren't much. However, this experience did impress me with the difficulty of getting words into hard copy and this, in turn, started me thinking about duplicating processes. I started a little inventor's notebook and I would jot down ideas from time to time."  

[Quote source: Dinsdale, A. (1963). "Chester F. Carlson, Inventor of Xerography—A biography". Photographic Science and Engineering 7: 1–4]