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Where would you launch the next generation breast pump

Where would you launch the next generation breast pump

You’re launching a new breast pump and the question is: where do you hold the launch events?

  • In hospitals on maternity wards?
  • At doctor’s symposiums?
  • In new parents’ support groups?
  • With leading retail pharmacy chains?
  • Or maybe at the London Fashion Week?

And the answer is, of course, London Fashion Week.

Well, it is if you’re the radical femtech company called Elvie. So it was that in 2018, Argentine model Valeria Garcia took to the catwalk during the Marta Jakubowski show at London Fashion Week wearing an Elvie breast pump under her bra and black trouser suit ensemble.

Continuing that radical approach you, if you’re Elvie, would follow it up by installing four huge inflatable breasts around Shoreditch and the City “to encourage people to talk more about breastfeeding.”

Tania Boler gained health degrees from both Oxford and Stanford and went onto do a PhD in reproductive health. She then spent 12 years working on sexuality education and HIV prevention for the UN, ActionAid and Marie Stopes.

But it was when she gave birth to her first child that she quickly “realized that there had been zero innovation in pelvic-floor health, even though 80% of expectant and new mums suffer with it in some way.”

It was the inspiration behind what would become Elvie. “I didn’t really have an idea for a company, I just thought there was a problem that needed to be solved and that tech could help,” says Boler. She believed that tech could stimulate innovation and aid product design. Something she would then bring to market in equally new and innovative ways.

Boler’s first action was to do her research into the best way to exercise pelvic floor muscles, but as she told The Standard newspaper, “This was done via a horrible device where women had to lie on their back in a hospital with a probe put in. I thought, ‘Why can’t we take the idea behind this thing that hospitals are using, and develop something fun and easy to use at home?’ At the time, sports tech like Fitbit was launching, and I thought those kinds of sensors could be applied to women’s health.”

She pitched her idea to the government-backed Innovate UK scheme in 2013 and won a £100,000 grant. She quit her job to focus on making a better device: a Kegel trainer and app used to help women strengthen their pelvic floor via five-minute workouts involving games.

While working on early prototypes, she met Alex Asseily, the founder of wearable tech firm Jawbone, and he helped her change her mindset. “He came on board as a cofounder and investor, and encouraged me to take a Californian mentality, raising more money and hiring the ‘A-team’ of engineers.”

It was two years before the £170 Elvie Trainer was launched. Already eschewing the traditional venues, Boler and her team hosted sales talks in west London and New York gyms and hosted parties in people’s homes. It took a while for things to get going. “Eventually it reached a tipping point via word-of-mouth success. Then all the retailers who’d thought we were crazy, and said they weren’t going to stock a vagina product, began calling us back,” says Boler.

After six months, the firm turned a profit; within a year, revenue hit $1 million then, three years after that launch, the Elvie Trainer was also made available on the NHS.

Riding on that success and it got it included in the $100,000 Oscars goodie bags and that helped create some celebrity fans of the brand, including Gwyneth Paltrow who featured it on her Goop site.

Boler started planning her next product.

In 2017, Elvie raised £4.6 million from angel investors and started work on “the world’s first silent wearable breast pump.”

Its launch at the London Fashion Week saw Elvie’s discreet pump peeping out of a black bra-wearing model mum. It was perfect demonstration that breast pumps didn’t have to be loud and cumbersome.

The tactics obviously worked because, despite the £250 price tag, “it was an overnight success story,” says Boler.

Turnover is now over £20 million and Elvie has been recognized as one of Wired’s ‘hottest start-ups’ and one of the 15 start-ups ‘To Watch’ by The Sunday Times.

The brand and Boler’s rise seems likely to continue. Elvie has four new femtech products in its R&D pipeline.

As Boler says, “Women tend not to talk about the health issues they’re facing, despite the fact that they’re completely normal. So by launching our products in a lifestyle space, we could normalize it.”

“Until now, the tech industry has always thought that focusing on women customers means changing the colour of a product or turning it into a piece of jewellery. There’s never been a tech brand for women before. That’s our ambition.”

And the moral is that next generation brands can compete in any market, including those targeted predominantly at women.

A brand with a sense of wonder, a sense of poetry, and a sense of foolishness.

A brand with a sense of wonder, a sense of poetry, and a sense of foolishness.

Rob Kalin likes making things.

He makes his own his own wooden furniture, has built his own cob oven to bake his own bread and sews his own underwear. He also manufactures high-end horn speakers, and colours self-made unisex tunics with a home-made carmine dye.

Perhaps most famously though he made himself a millionaire.

He was also a co-founder of Etsy.

His original dream was to be a photographer and so left home at 16 and moved from Brooklyn to Boston and into an artist’s squat. Once he had graduated from high school, he went on to attend five different colleges and in 2004 received his Bachelor of Arts degree.

To pay his way, he worked in numerous small-time, often menial jobs but which he views positively as learning experiences. “I worked many jobs: a cashier at a Marshalls department store, stock boy at a camera shop, freelance carpenter, lowest rung on the ladder at a demolition company, minimum wage floor help at the Strand bookstore and as an amanuensis for an eighty-year-old philosopher from Vienna. All of these jobs prepared me for being an entrepreneur and starting a company,” as he wrote on Etsy’s blog.

Then in early 2005, Rob and two friends, Haim Schoppik and Chris Maguire agreed to work on a design project for, an online bulletin board for crafters.  It made Kalin realise that many ‘makers’ were looking for a place to sell their products. They disliked eBay but didn’t have anywhere else to go. He himself wanted to sell his handcrafted furniture online.

Working out of Kalin’s Brooklyn apartment, the trio designed and coded a modest e-commerce website in 10 weeks. Etsy went online in June 2005.

Many sellers registered immediately and started spreading the word to other crafters and putting up information in online forums.

Rob’s approach was innovative.

Firstly, where others might have counted the number of users, looked at rates of growth or turnover as the most important KPI, Kalin and the team regarded “real conversations ” as the most important KPI. They wanted buyers and sellers to talk about what they made and how they made it – communicating about materials, the crafting process, the story behind the goods.

One of Rob’s early investors put it “Rob’s idea was idealistic, almost anti-commercial.”

Another innovation was the fee structure which Etsy split into two: a small basic fee to get listed and upload products and a transaction fee but only upon each purchase.

Rob and his co-founders also focused on the seller’s needs, constantly adding new tools to the site to help them gain exposure.

By January 2008, Etsy had 650,000 users in 127 different countries. Much was obviously going the right way, but Rob was worried he was making a mess of things when it came to managing the business. So, in June 2008, he demoted himself to Chief Creative Officer, and Etsy’s former COO Maria Thomas became the new CEO.

By late 2009, the brand had doubled gross merchandise value (GMV) and reached profitability.

However, all was not well. There were continual complaints from sellers regarding customer support and the site’s performance. Rob felt that the company had lost its way and, in pursuit of all that growth, was losing sight of its core values. He returned to his role as CEO and in a statement to employees said;” I’m here to restore a sense of wonder, a sense of poetry, and a sense of foolishness to Etsy.”

Putting together some of his quotes, it’s clear he wanted to (re-) establish “a global community of like-minded people”, build “a worldwide platform for creatives from Peru, Tanzania or the Black Forest” who enjoy “the magic of making things.”

He doubled the staff and added new features — including a social media function similar to those of Facebook — as a means of ensuring Etsy continued to move beyond commerce. He explained his thinking “On Facebook, you’re not going to connect with people who have different religious views, different political views, different tastes. Etsy adds a whole other layer on top of that: if a person who has different religious or political views is making me a custom sweater, I’m going to have this long conversation that I would have never had. To me, that’s a beautiful thing.”

He also wanted to “help keep commerce human”, so while many of the world’s biggest third generation companies like Facebook, Shopify, or Google rely on various messenger applications and bots for their real-time customer communication. Etsy under Kalin still preferred the human touch and real conversation.

Kalin and the board continued to have differences about balancing doing well and doing good, and in the summer of 2011, he left Etsy. Chad Dickerson who had been hired by Rob as Etsy’s CTO three years earlier took over as CEO.

As of 31 December 2021, Etsy had over 120 million items in its marketplace, and the online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods connected 7.5 million sellers with 96.3 million buyers. Etsy had total sales, or Gross Merchandise Sales (GMS), of US$13.5 billion on the platform and revenue of US$2.3 billion, and registered a net income of US$493.5 million.

Rob now owns and works from a former mill in Catskill, New York with a small community of artisans. He’s doing what he likes best – making things. As Fred Wilson an early investor once said Kalin was “more of an artist than an entrepreneur,” and as Kalin himself said trying to maximize shareholder value was ”ridiculous”.

And the moral of the story is balancing doing well and doing good isn’t easy, and in the drive for growth it can be easy to lose sight of both the original vision and the brand’s principles.

Footnote: Kalin also adopted a distinctly different way of talking about his vision. He read them a children’s book titled Swimmy.
Written by Leo Lionni, Swimmy tells the tale of a school of smaller fish who find strength and power in their numbers. Kalin recorded himself reading the book aloud and posted the video on Etsy’s blog, writing, “We do not want Etsy itself to be a big tuna fish. Those tuna are the big companies that all us small businesses are teaming up against.” – yet in the end that is what Etsy has become, a big fish.



Did you know that the world can be split into a grid of 57 trillion 3-by-3-metre squares?

And did you know they can all be identified by a unique combination of just three words?

Well, you do now, and if you want to use the brand, it’s called appropriately enough “What3words”.

So, if you happen to want to meet on the top of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square all you need to know is it’s powder.logs.evenly

From humble beginnings, what3words is now being used to save injured hikers in the middle of the mountains and to precise target remote forest fires. It’s being used by over 80% of Britain’s emergency services, including the Metropolitan Police and London Fire Brigade as well as many international emergency services including the Los Angeles Fire Department. It helps people find each other (and even their tent) at festivals. It’s a godsend for delivery drivers. It was fitted into Mercedes A-Class cars when they launched in May 2018. It has now become the main navigation system for new cars in India because it is more reliable than local maps which can be vague and have confusing street addresses.

What3words also provides addresses for places where traditional addresses are non-existent, such as Brazilian favelas, and in Mongolia, where about a quarter of the population is nomadic. Not surprisingly, the Mongolian Post Office has begun using What3Words instead of house numbers and street names.

The origins of the brand start, as many brands do, with a problem.

Chris Sheldrick used to work in the music industry, organising live events around the world. However, he was continually having problems with getting the right people and equipment, to the right places. Bands, musicians and instruments getting lost trying to find remote events was pretty common.

Chris often talks about one particularly bad day when a driver in Italy unloaded all the equipment at a venue an hour north of Rome… instead the right venue which was an hour south of Rome. He remembers another occasion when a keyboard player called him and said, “Chris, don’t panic, but we may have just sound-checked at the wrong wedding”.

He figured that there had to be a better way, something that would be easier than trying to remember a long GPS reference and avoid the problems that arose if you got just one number wrong.

Having identified the problem he decided he needed some help to solve it.

He first approached a mathematician friend, Mohan Ganesalingam. Ganesalingam not only had the idea of dividing the world into three-metre squares but also created the first 3-word address algorithm on the proverbial “back of an envelope”.  

They then approached another school friend, Jack Waley-Cohen, who was a linguist with a background in translation. Waley-Cohen suggested the use of memorable words and provided help on how to translate them. This was going to be key as the translations would not always be direct, as direct translations to some languages could produce more than three words.

Three friends and what3words was born. It was incorporated in March 2013

The first attempt at monetarization was selling “OneWord” addresses – namely the ability to brand a location with a word or character string of the buyers’ choice. It had to be between six and 31 characters, and could include letters, numbers and hyphens. These would be stored in a database for a yearly fee.

After a good start, when they managed to sell more than 10,000 OneWords in its first week, growth wasn’t as fast or strong as they hoped and the offering was soon discontinued.

The brand switched to a business-to-business model and started targeting logistics companies, post offices, and couriers, though emergency services and many NGOs would be allowed to use it for free.

Firms that signed up could utilise what3words as part of their in-car navigation systems. For example, drivers can enter their destination simply by saying three words, without looking at the display, reducing any distraction and improving road safety.

Clients include Mercedes-Benz, Ford, the AA and Addison Lee, and delivery/ e-commerce platforms such as Evri and BJS, and the service is now available in 193 countries. Though still relying on venture capital, the brand is growing rapidly and exploring new avenues, for example signing an investment deal with British broadcaster ITV

It is also encouraging businesses to tag their outlets

UK adman Rory Sutherland described it in a piece in The Spectator as “The best navigation idea I’ve seen since the Tube map” and a partner Bosch sums up its benefits brilliantly as safer.smarter.faster (now where in the world is that?)

The moral: The best brands solve problems whilst recognising that specific problems in one sector often occur in many other ones too.

Reports of the brand’s death are greatly exaggerated

Reports of the brand’s death are greatly exaggerated

When the lawyer for a new online trading company first heard the founder’s suggested name, he was a bit surprised to say the least. He didn’t think “Cadaver” was the most appropriate choice. Later when a number of financial analysts weren’t convinced of the business model, instead of saying “.com” they started saying “.bomb”.

That founder would have the last laugh and would soon be able to paraphrase a famous quote saying “The reports of our death are greatly exaggerated”*.

The founder was of course Jeff Bezos, and the brand would go on to become Amazon

The original name Bezos chose for the brand was “Cadabra”, not “Cadaver”, that was just what the lawyer misheard. “Cadabra” was intended as a reference to the word “abracadabra” and to show how magical online shopping was.  However, the lawyer’s response caused Bezos to re-think his plans.

He and his then-wife, MacKenzie Tuttle, began searching for alternatives. They registered the domain names,, and They also registered the domain name which according to reports in Business Insider was a favourite. However, testing on friends suggested it was often felt to be unfriendly.  It was dropped as front runner, but the pair kept the registration and if you type “” into your browser today, you’ll be redirected to homepage. (Go on, try it)

Like some previous brand founders, Bezos’ final choice was led by a letter. George Eastman is said to have come up with Kodak as he liked the letter ‘K’ and thought it was incisive**, but Bezos’ choice of ‘A’ was pragmatic. At the time, website listings were alphabetized, so a word that started with ‘A’ would be a sensible choice.

Bezos started leafing through the ‘A’ section of a dictionary. When he landed on the word “Amazon,” the name of the largest river on the planet, he decided that was the perfect name for what he planned would become earth’s largest bookstore… and more.

Bezos had a vision of explosive growth and ecommerce domination which was summed up in his motto “Get Big Fast”. He contended that the brand would not merely be a retailer of consumer products rather was a technology company whose business would be simplifying online transactions for consumers. He 1996 he handed out T-shirts with the motto printed on it at a company picnic.

It was this thinking that was often met with scepticism and led to financial journalists and analysts disparaging the company and referring to it as Amazon.bomb. Doubters claimed ultimately would lose in the marketplace to established bookselling chains, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble once they had launched competing e-commerce sites. The lack of immediate company profits seemed to justify its critics.

However, the brand was getting Big, Fast. It reached 180,000 customer accounts by December 1996, after its first full year in operation, and less than a year later, in October 1997, it had 1,000,000 customer accounts. Its revenues jumped from $15.7 million in 1996 to $148 million in 1997, followed by $610 million in 1998. In 1999 Bezos was Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

The company quickly began to diversify, selling more than books. Music and video sales started in 1998. That same year it began international operations with the acquisition of online booksellers in the United Kingdom and Germany. By 1999 the company was also selling consumer electronics, video games, software, home-improvement items, toys and games, and much more.

Bezos and his team worked tirelessly to claim the high ground of Internet retailing before anyone else got there.

Looking back in 2015 as he announced Amazon’s results Bezos said “Twenty years ago, I was driving the packages to the post office myself and hoping we might one day afford a forklift, this year, we pass $100 billion in annual sales and serve 300 million customers.”

Looking at the evolution of the logo raises a question for me, did he also choose Amazon as the name because it included the ‘Z’ and the potential to highlight the Amazon was the everything brand? The arrow (smile) linking the A and the Z only became part of the identity in 2000.

And finally, despite its size and success, Bezos can actually foresee the brand’s demise. In a recording of a 2018 all-hands meeting Bezos is heard to say…

“Amazon is not too big to fail … In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years”.

Bezos went on to say (then) that it was his job to delay that date by as long as possible, and ensure that reports of its death continue to be an exaggeration.

And the moral of this story is Think BIG. Amazon didn’t set out just to sell book, Disney is more than films… what is your Big Hairy Audacious Goal?

* The quoteThe reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” is often attributed to Mark Twain but it is not quite accurate. The real quote comes from Twain’s response to a journalist from the New York Journal who contacted him to inquire whether the rumours that he was gravely ill or already dead were indeed true.  He replied “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

** I tell a longer version of The George Eastman – Kodak story in my book “The Prisoner and the Penguin” which is still available on Amazon (and other retailers too!)

Celebrity endorsement made it better

Celebrity endorsement made it better

The wedding of “Bennifer” and the “Wagatha” trial shows our on-going fascination with celebrities.

As I have written about before, celebrity is a well-used tactic in marketing.

In my first book of brand stories – The Prisoner & The Penguin –  I told the tale of how the highly esteemed Eleanor Roosevelt finally agreed to do a celebrity endorsement. She did a commercial for Good Luck Margarine in which she said, “The new Good Luck Margarine really tastes delicious.”

Unfortunately, the brand was a failure. Asked about her experience she said she had received a sack full of letters in which “one half was sad because I had damaged my reputation and the other were happy that I had damaged my reputation.”   

I recently heard about another celebrity endorsement which centres on Roosevelt and thought I should add it to my collection of brand fables.

The celebrities in this story are the 1930s ‘it’ couple – The Bennifers of that era.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr was Eleanor and FDR’s fifth child and at the time of this tale a Harvard student. Ethel du Pont was the heir to the du Pont family fortune and so one of the richest socialites of her day.

The paparazzi loved them and followed them to every event they attended, and their pictures filled the society pages.

So, attending the Hock Popo Ski Club party at the Agawam Hunt Club, Rhode Island, in November 1936 was nothing out of the ordinary. Nor, at first, was the sore throat and slight cough that FDR Jr complained of the next day. It hadn’t even been bad enough for him and Ethel to leave the party early.

However, things soon changed. The throat got worse and a few days later FDR Jr had a fever and was put to bed. Just before Thanksgiving, and now diagnosed with an acute sinus infection he was admitted to the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Tiresome, but still nothing too much out of the ordinary or so everyone thought. He was a strong young man, and with some rest and something to take the fever down all would be well again soon.

Only it wasn’t.

The infection didn’t clear up and in fact got worse. He remained in hospital. His mother was getting more and more worried and insisted on a new doctor, a top doctor specializing in ear, nose and throat.

Checking over his new patient the doctor was very concerned, there was a tender spot under his cheek which looked like it was infected and the beginnings of an abscess. He immediately took a sample and discovered a highly dangerous strain of strep, one that could release poisons and other infections into the blood stream. If that happened it could ultimately lead to the death of the President’s son.

While the White House medical staff considered the option of a risky surgical procedure, the new doctor remembered reading some reports about a new drug, Prontosil, developed by Bayer in Germany. The reports spoke of near miraculous results and initial tests at John Hopkins were also very positive.

He recommended it to Mrs. Roosevelt.

At first, she wasn’t sure but having read more about it and in the face of the still worsening condition of her son, she agreed.

Some carefully wrapped glass phials were duly shipped from Germany to the USA. The doctor gave him an initial dose and followed it with further doses every hour.

Ethel sat in the room with FDR Jr, his mother sat outside working on correspondence. At first nothing seemed to be happening and the hours seemed to drag on and on but in the morning, things started to change.

The swelling around the abscess looked like it was shrinking. FDR Jr was sleeping better and seemed to have more energy when he was awake. Later that day his fever broke.

The doctors were amazed; never before had they seen a strep case that was resolved so well and so quickly.

FDR Jr was released a few days after Christmas.

He would later marry Ethel (the first of his five wives), be decorated for his service in WWII and go onto serve three terms in Congress.

However, what he also did was prove that celebrity could sell (if even his mother couldn’t).

The headlines in The New York Times and other prominent newspapers, the story of his recovery, and the role of the new wonder, heralded the start of the era of antibacterial chemotherapy in the United States and the success for Prontosil

And the moral of this story is …Celebrity sells (well sometimes)

Bremont: Chapter 2 Building the story into the product

Bremont: Chapter 2 Building the story into the product

I wrote a story about the origins of the Bremont brand back in July 2020 ( ) but on a recent visit to the Williams F1 pop up store In Westfield I saw the Bremont concession stand and went to take a look. (They are Williams sponsors)

In main original blog I talked about how Bremont’s differentiator was its storytelling, and the delightful man on the stand backed this up as he told the story of Stephen Hawking and the limited edition watch

Not only did he tell the story but he described how little details are built into the watch designs.

He showed me an astronomical map on the back of the watch incorporating actual little circular parts of the scientist desk to represent the planets and even tiny paper snippets from the academic papers he wrote

Later looking on the website I found this description

The classically styled Bremont Hawking Rose Gold Hawking features a retrograde seconds hand and grand date, contains 4 wooden discs inlaid into the back of the watch taken from the desk at which Hawking contemplated the mysteries of the universe. This exquisite chronometer also contains some meteorite to symbolise the cosmos displayed at the centre of the striking hand-finished case back, as well as an etching of stars from the night sky in Oxford on date that Hawking was born. The serial number is printed on paper from original copies of a 1979 seminal research paper commonly referred to as “The ‘nuts’ and ‘bolts’ of gravity”.

(Having a go on the Williams esports simulators was pretty cool too)

The first truly space aged drink?

The first truly space aged drink?

The second of my new space related brand stories, starts with a scientist but not a rocket scientist.

William Mitchell was General Foods’ top food scientist and the man behind a variety of American icons of the 1950s and 60s. Brands like Pop Rocks, quick-set JELL-O and Cool Whip. His obituary in 2004 in The Atlantic said of him that he “never became a household name, but most households you can name have something of his in it.”

In 1957, he developed what he called “Tang Flavor Crystals.” They went on sale in the United States initially; Venezuela and West Germany followed in 1959. It was marketed as a breakfast drink packed with vitamin C that “you don’t squeeze, unfreeze, or refrigerate” but wasn’t a high flyer in terms of sales until it was chosen by NASA to be part of its space programme.

Technicians at NASA had been faced with a problem the onboard life support system water didn’t taste very good (due to a nontoxic chemical reaction) but with General Foods as an already approved supplier to the US military they reviewed the company’s portfolio of brands and found what they thought was the answer – Tang.

A deal was struck to buy the powder in bulk but while the product was identical, a provision was put into the deal specifying that it would not say “Tang” on the NASA packaging, but simply what the flavour was – “orange drink.”

Another issue that had to be solved was zero-gravity. The normal means of dilution – pouring crystallized powder into a cup of water – wasn’t going to work.  NASA engineers came up with a system that involved squirting water with a needle into a vacuum-sealed pack that contained the powder, shaking it and then sticking a straw into the pouch.

So on February 20th when John H. Glenn, Jr. took off in Friendship 7 and went on to become the first American to orbit Earth, Tang went with him. The mission was only about five hours long and records are not entirely clear if Glenn actually ever used the Tang during that first flight.

That didn’t bother General Foods who began marketing Tang as a space-age drink.

Tang continued to accompany astronauts and for the next decade (through the Gemini and Apollo programs), General Foods proudly produced print and tv ads talking about the link and promoting Tang as packed with vitamins, easy to make and tasting great. In 1968, Tang sponsored ABC’s coverage of Apollo 8, America’s first manned flight around the moon.

Tang became one of the best-selling drinks of its day. John Glenn’s famous flight and Tang retained a place in many Americans’ memories and when the former astronaut ran for President in 1983 he was repeatedly asked if he really liked Tang.

He ignored the question.

In 2013, another astronaut, Buzz Aldrin – the second man to walk on the moon – did answer the question.

The never-subtle Aldrin, replied that while he did drink it, “Tang sucks.”

Can you just nip down to Sears and buy a future icon?

Can you just nip down to Sears and buy a future icon?

Apollo 11

I have previously told the story of how Coca-Cola used the Apollo 11 homecoming to run a PR campaign and claim earth as “home of Coca Cola”. In fact, I named one of my ‘story’ books after it – “How Coca-Cola took over the world” – so, you can imagine how pleased I was to hear two new space related stories.

One features ‘Tang’, which I will tell in a future blog, and the other which may be apocryphal features Sears.

It appears that with the focus on the ‘rocket’, the landing craft and the astronauts, the flag was almost an afterthought.

So, it was only a few months before the launch date that a plan was hatched. A team, led by NASA engineer Jack Kinzler, were asked to create a ‘flagpole’. The challenge was the ‘pole’ had to be set up by two men wearing space suits and who would have limited mobility.

The limited time frame meant that the flag was not specially made or ordered.

One ‘story’ is that flag was bought out of a government catalogue for $5.50.

The other which I favour, is that a number of flags were bought from Sears in Houston by secretaries from NASA who were sent out to get some during their lunch breaks.  This would mean that the flags were made by Annin, the USA’s oldest and largest flag maker and the official supplier to Sears. It seems that an executive from Annin following up on this story called NASA and had the story despite the lack of any real evidence.

What is definitely known is the selected flag was made of nylon and that engineers cut the labels off to make the flag fit onto their specially made poles.

If the story is right this mean that the flag; the first one to be planted in the lunar dust, the one that Buzz Aldrin saluted, the one that was seen by a wide-eyed worldwide TV audience was bought for a few dollars at an everyday mainstream retailer.

However a slightly sad end is that the flag is no longer standing.

Buzz Aldrin has that said that Neil Armstrong told him that he saw the pole blow over during liftoff from the lunar surface.

On a slightly happier note, despite an assumption that the rest of the Apollo flags have blown away or crumbled into dust, in 2012, a lunar orbiter took pictures over the landing sites of  Apollo 12, 16, and 17 and the photos showed shadows confirming that the American flags there were still standing, upright and intact, more than four decades later.

They are however all likely to have turned beige from relentless cosmic radiation.

Dropping the Icon: Tom Burrell

Dropping the Icon: Tom Burrell

The story of the other Marlboro Man

Tom Burrell is rightly a truly famous advertising executive. His story is that of someone who went from the mailroom to chairman of his own very successful agency. He was “the first Black person to work in a Chicago advertising agency.”

He started working in the mailroom of Wade Advertising in 1961 and when the situation presented itself, he pitched some ideas to the creative director and got a position as a junior copywriter.

Burrell’s first accounts were Robin Hood All-Purpose Flour and Alka-Seltzer, and he recalls, “I had no contact with the client. It was radical enough for a Black person to be working in an agency. Presenting that person to a client was another three or four steps ahead.”

He does not hold that against the agency; “I was extremely fortunate to be working in a milieu of really positive people. I never had any racial issues with a hundred and some-odd people who were working at that agency, which I think was very unusual.”

Over the next ten years, he worked at Leo Burnett Company, Foote Cone and Belding and Needham Harper & Steers.

Then in 1971, he and his friend Emmett McBain founded their own agency, Burrell McBain. In 1974 he bought McBain out and renamed the agency, Burrell Communications Group.

It was at Burrell McBain he created what is, perhaps, his most famous campaign, the Black Marlboro Man.

In 1970 Philip Morris wanted to spread the reach of Marlboro cigarettes to the African American community. The face of the brand was The Marlboro Man, and the prevailing understanding of the time was that to appeal to a Black audience all you needed to do was to take the white people in an ad and replace them with Black people.

And that was what Philip Morris tried. Morris’ ads featured cowboys, complete with horses, lassos, and Stetsons just instead of being white, they were Black.

The ads were a failure.

Philip Morris decided to turn to Burrell who had a revolutionary philosophy for the time. He summed it up quite simply: “Black people are not dark-skinned white people.”

What he did was to look past the cowboy and identified the essence that the white Marlboro epitomised: he was independent, assured and utterly cool.

So, Burrell dropped the cowboy and replaced him with a young cosmopolitan Black man, woven into the fabric of the Black community and its culture. He was an authentic and far more relatable figure for the Black audience to whom Marlboro wanted to appeal.

Looking back on the original approach Morris took, Burrell was characteristically succinct in his view of the original approach. In 2015 he said to NPR, “The last thing I want to do is go back a hundred years with a bunch of rural, cowboy white guys—doesn’t sound too safe”.

Burrell went on and developed campaigns for other iconic brands, including McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. He retired in 2004 but remains chairman emeritus of Burrell Communications. In a 2018 interview, he recalled that “We got rid of the cowboy and we had the coolest guys that we could come up with going through their daily activities, smoking. That was huge.”

His impact on advertising was immense and continues to this day. NPR reporter Sonali Gibson, who interviewed Tom Burrell in 2015, says, “I feel like what Burrell did open the door for the kind of ethnic micro-targeting that we see today. […] When you see an ad that seems like it was made especially for you, you’re probably right. And we have Tom Burrell to thank for it.”

The effects of his work and words can still be felt today. he showed how diverse talent can brings real value companies. Creative thinking and innovative strategies can only go so far when everyone in the room looks the same, thinks the same or comes from the same background. Through his boldness, the world learnt how we create better campaigns and brand strategies to truly connect with the diverse world we’re all trying to reach

What’s in a name? Stay calm and build a brand.

What’s in a name? Stay calm and build a brand.

What’s in a name? Well, if it’s the right name it could be the basis for a brand valued at over $2billion.

For Michael Acton Smith and Alex Tew, both of whom have previous when it comes to start-ups, it was a name that was to prove the inspiration for their next big thing – Calm.

And big it is. More than 100 million people now have Calm, after a huge surge in downloads during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is a brand that seems to have been built on a mass of contractions; it delivers an ancient practice via that essential tool of modern life your smartphone, it is a tension busting app on a piece of technology that causes huge amounts of anxiety, it is a highly active and rapidly growing start-up that sells doing nothing.

Prior to co-founding Calm, Michael Acton Smith was perhaps most famous for an online game called Moshi Monsters which caught on caught with a mere 80 million kids. However just as he was dreaming of becoming the next Disney, user-growth stopped almost overnight. As Acton Smith later told Inc; “It was a really humbling, painful lesson.”

Alex Tew was famous for a site called the Million Dollar Homepage which he built to help finance his business-management degree while a student at Nottingham University.

The idea was to sell blocks of a home page that consisted of a million pixels. The cost was $1 per pixel and they were sold in 10 × 10 blocks. Purchasers then provided tiny images to be displayed on these blocks and a slogan that would be displayed when anyone hovered over their block with their cursor. The final 1,000 pixels were put up for auction on eBay and went for $38,100, which meant the final total was $1,037,100.

Tew however dropped out of the course after just one term.

The two were introduced at a party on a houseboat on the Thames. Acton Smith recalls “I remember reading about the Million Dollar Homepage and thinking, Wow, this chap is either incredibly obnoxious or a genius.”

Clearly it was the latter, as they ended up becoming roommates in London’s Soho. There they would play video games and swap on business ideas.

It was during this period that the pair heard that the domain name was coming up for auction and as Acton Smith puts it “We saw it and thought, Wow, what a domain!” and immediately they started wondering “Should we try and buy it? We can build the world’s most incredible brand.”

Tew was already a dedicated meditator. It is something that he says helped him manage the stresses and strains of founding and running a business.

 Acton Smith was a more sceptical. “I didn’t really understand it,” he said. “It just felt a bit weird and strange, and I thought it had religious connotations.” For him it was a bit “woo-woo.”

However, under ‘pressure’ from Tew, he started reading around the subject, and became a convert “Wow, this is actually neuroscience. This is a way of rewiring the human brain. It’s one of the most valuable skills for Western society.”

Studies show that as little as 10 minutes of daily meditation lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels, while improving mood and reducing the incidence of anxiety and depression. It makes people more focused, more self-aware, more resilient, and happier too.

Not surprisingly the pair translated this  as a brand whose aim is to help people “Find their Calm” and they adopted a mission “to make the world happier and healthier.”

The two bought the domain name for less than the $1 million its owner wanted, though they decline to say just how much they did pay for it.

Tew built a few early versions and moved to California in 2011 to try and take advantage of its large pool of investors and engineering talent, not to mention an audience they felt would be open to its claims and willing to pay for. Acton Smith joined Tew in California a few years later.

Calm was launched as a website in 2012 and the app in early 2013.

Its success is in part down to an approach that makes meditation simple, accessible, friendly and not overly spiritual. It avoids using any Buddhist terminology.

Now it’s looking to build on its success. It is producing products including books, films, puzzles, meditation cushions, and weighted blankets. It is expanding into corporate partnerships, offering meditations on American Airlines and in UK Uber rides. Corporate partners include GE and 3M.

It even has ambitions to move into hospitality. There is a plan for an island retreat “We were inspired by Richard Branson buying Necker Island all those years ago,” Acton Smith says. A second inspiration is a more accessible one and one Acton Smith has previously aspired to emulate – Disney with its theme parks.

And the moral is names don’t always come after the idea for a new brand, they can be a source of inspiration. Pick a name you would love to own and think what brand you would create under it.