Category: A-ha
September 16th, 2019

Sorry, not sorry, Sarah Connor. Mortar is rocking AI.

The launch of Varian’s Ethos ™ therapy today marks Mortar’s fifth foray into machine intelligence* this year.

We kicked off 2019 with Cloudability and machine learning (ML) in the cloud. Apptio snatched up Cloudability earlier this year.

We featured ExtraHop’s use of ML to stop threats outside the corporate firewall in their 2019 campaign. (See the Rise Above the Noise video here).

Our friends at global hearing aid giant Phonak (the parent of Mortar’s client Advanced Bionics) built AI into their new Marvel hearing aids, delighting the hard-of-hearing (the sound from the new devices is apparently incredible!) and resulting in a massive spike in earnings (and, of course, exciting implications for Cochlear Implant recipients—but we can’t talk about that yet. More on that in a future post).

Our most recent project, e-commerce disruptor CommerceIQ is built around using AI to unify Advertising and Sales on

Of Sunday’s launch of Ethos ™ therapy, Varian said their innovation “marks the moment when artificial intelligence and adaptive therapy combine to create the world’s first application of Adaptive Intelligence”. Varian goes on to say their breakthrough will “inspire healthcare professionals worldwide to reimagine cancer care”.

It’s not quite the mean, machine-driven apocalypse that James Cameron presented in Terminator. But hey, there’s still time.

From the cloud to advanced hearing loss to empty shopping carts, and eliminating cancer, we’re hoping machine intelligence can continue to make our lives easier and yes, maybe, curb suffering. 

Wanna be a part of it? We’re hiring.

* At Mortar Machine Intelligence means the various flavors of machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). And yes, dear readers, although we know that you know that we know there is a difference between the two, confusion about the difference is undeniably rampant.


April 30th, 2019

Why all this fuss about difference? Be like the Eskimos—they have 50 words for snow!

Yes, Eskimos really do have more than 50 different words for snow.

Why there’s “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” for  great sledding, to “matsaaruti” for wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, “pukak,” for crystalline powder snow that looks like salt. The Inupiaq of Wales, Alaska, use 70 terms for ice ranging from “utuqaq,” ice that lasts year after year; “siguliaksraq,” the patchwork layer of crystals that forms as the sea begins to freeze; to “auniq,” ice that is filled with holes, like Swiss cheese. (See this article in the WashPost, doubters).

If our Northernmost neighbors can find room for multiple ways to describe the most plentiful stuff they know, surely we, dear marketer, can find ways to separate our products and services from everyone else.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review in 1980, Theodore Levitt forcefully pointed out that there is no such thing as a commodity—in consumer or industrial goods. In the marketplace differentiation is everywhere.

But why? Why is differentiation so critical to marketing?

Simply put, we will pay more for what we perceive to be difference.  And difference can be produced by pulling on one of at least seven distinct levers:

  1. Target: Because not everyone cares about what your organization does or makes, we must learn early to focus on those that matter: the people who need what you make, and desire your solution. Insights into your target audience that lead to a superior understanding of motivation can go a long way to drawing a firm line around how you solve problems others can’t.
  2. Purpose: Customers can be very tribal: they find community in shared ideas. We see the differentiating power of purpose in politics, social networks, car ownership, and American’s odd belief that peanut butter pairs well with chocolate.  How you state your purpose can set your offering apart. Using your product can be self-affirming and rewarding.
  3. Story: The story you tell about your product and your heritage can be a powerful motivator and a distinct feature. Many of our favorite brands are as much story as they are performance—think about how you feel about Apple’s genesis or Nike’s much applauded transition from footwear manufacturer to champion of fitness everywhere. How you tell your story gets you noticed and feeds word-of-mouth.
  4. Experience: What you are like to do business with can be very attractive—how we meet customer need can be fulfilling and valuable. Southwest, Nordstrom, Zappos and Rackspace have all made a name for themselves by providing stellar customer service.
  5. Quality: Here in California, In-N-Out burger still attracts long lines of passionate customers despite the availability of much cheaper, more readily available burgers. One reason for In-N-Out’s continued ascendancy is the quality of their product, which, unlike its rivals, actually matches the product it advertises (and tastes awesome IMHO).
  6. Strengths: This is an easy one. If you are well-known for a specific attribute others find valuable, differentiation is often a given. We see strength in Amazon’s domination of the cloud in terms of high awareness, robust services and widespread use.
  7. Attitude: We love an underdog. We love a rebel. We often seek out and reward those who challenge the status quo because they see a need to do something different. And we agree with them. We see this effect in the zeal of Trump and AOC supporters alike. Many of our favorite brands started life with a novel take on the world. See how Eat24 upended online food delivery by attacking cooking—and ignoring their rivals claims to have organized the Internet. How we talk to the world about what we do—and don’t–can be as liberating and refreshing as our products.

Ultimately, effective brand differentiation needs to create value in the minds of its intended customer. And to do that you must pull on one or more of the difference levers to set yourself apart.

Making the decision to be different is a vital part of any marketing strategy. If you’d like to know how we can help you pull that off, send us a email.

April 25th, 2019

How smart decisions deliver powerful brand experiences: The SD & A-ha Infographic

The much-vaunted Sd & A-ha Mortar brand development process in one.

March 4th, 2019

Wondering if there is life after Security? Yes, look to User Privacy.

2018 was the year for Enterprise Security in the Valley and at Mortar.

Client after client gathered around the whiteboard to describe how Security was transforming their business.

Each time I was struck by the odd sense that something vital was missing.

Security dollars have been flooding the Valley for years as big business seeks to defend itself from attack and protect valuable customer data. Last year Gartner estimated the global cyber security industry would soon be worth over $96 billion. We have yet to see a similar estimate of the opportunity in user privacy.

The Security debate has come to emphasize the protection of big company data, and not protecting individual users and their personal data.  It’s almost as if the Valley expects Google, Apple and Facebook to do that job for users. For free.

At least that was the prevailing view going into 2018. But, after 12 more months of large scale breaches at Equifax, Yahoo, Starwood Hotels, UnderArmor, T Mobile, Google. The Cambridge Analytica scandal shining a harsh light on how Facebook handles our private information. And Russian intervention in US elections. Congressional hearings on user privacy. Individual users exited 2018 with increasing anxiety about their ability to protect themselves online.

Looking back at those events today, it’s not hard to see that the privacy opportunity that had been simmering gently under the big waves of Security, was finally ready to burst forth and soak the toes of the Aware.

Now, just as Mark Zuckerberg was busy defending Facebook’s pillaging of modern user privacy to Congress, your pals at Mortar were well into an extensive study of modern privacy in support of the launch of a new app designed to help individual users seize control of their personal information. (You can access the Beta of the FigLeaf app we named and helped launch, here).

We are all exposed online: and we don’t like it.

Still, we—and every user we know—remain horribly exposed online.

Everything we do digitally is tracked, parsed, analyzed and has the potential to harm us. Nowhere is it safe. And once revealed, our personal internet history can be traded with abandon by unknown actors. Our personal information has become the currency in a bitter new cold war between Russia, North Korea, China and the NSA.

This is hardly news. Either to you or to savvy global internet users.

In fact, the pundits often reassure us that we have gladly traded this intrusion into our personal lives in return for the promise of discounts on chips and waffles.

The truth is a lot more complicated.

Our research revealed that savvy internet users have a much more nuanced view of online user privacy. Users want it when they want it—and although they are aware of the benefits of trading personal data for a better experience, users do want to control who has what and what others do with their private information.

The facts about our views of what we will accept in digital privacy are tantalizing. Our global survey of online user privacy revealed that most users were already very concerned about their privacy.

More importantly, a major portion of the audience that expressed concern (perhaps half) were already spending good money to paper across the privacy cracks they knew about. (It is not hard to get savvy users to acknowledge how helpless they feel attempting to stay private, online).

Savvy users are already spending significant money on anti-virus—which we are used to thinking of as security technology, but is well on the path to evolving into a version of personal privacy protection. Concerned users and workers also spend to hide their private and corporate surfing data with VPNs. (Many use the same technology to skirt the rules for streaming movies and music online).

Subscription-based password services like Dashlane (which exceeded 10 million users in June 2018), 1Password and LastPass are booming and adding privacy features like credit score alerts, identity theft insurance and Dark Web scanning. (The entire password management category is predicted to exceed $2.5 billion by 2025).

Another security play, Lifelock (which surpassed $500 million in revenue way back in 2015) is now part of $4bn Symantec’s anti-virus empire, and is widely thought of as one of the earliest privacy successes by the growing privacy community).

Legacy is playing in the privacy war too.

Even legacy business is paying attention. Credit reporting bureaus like TransUnion and Experian are bouncing back (after spilling everything they know about us onto the Dark Web) with new subscription models designed to help us monitor and stay on top of our credit histories and digital identities. Add to all that ad blocking software and regular browser cache cleansing (the Firefox browser too just added Dark Web scanning), and it’s pretty clear that personal data privacy is already a booming and growing market quite distinct from cyber security.

It’s also worth noting that most of the members of this growing crop of security and privacy tools is fairly reluctant to use the word Privacy to describe their products. And certainly no other apps exist today to challenge the breadth and power of our FigLeaf app. No doubt that will change soon as more businesses realize the potential of offering a more robust promise to protect personal privacy.

Brush up your resume

And if that’s true, all those juicy new privacy players will soon be on the look out for talent—much of which can pretty much only come from one place: the booming ranks of cyber security.

Here’s our prediction: Security is huge. Privacy will be even HUGER. Maybe it’s time to brush up your resume?

February 25th, 2019

Mortar on Brand Architecture: Why we hate new stuff. And how that is a problem for us every day. Especially if you manage brands.

By and large people hate, hate, hate new ideas at work.  New means different. Different means change. Change means work. Uncertainty. New things to argue about. And cuts. No matter what anyone says, cuts always threaten to follow new. Especially in big business.

It doesn’t help that new is almost always championed by someone crazy. Even Geoffrey Moore in his seminal Chasm theory work couldn’t help but describe the innovators who spark every revolution as, well, off their rockers.

These folks, he pointed out, are the first to get on board with a new idea. They don’t care about features that don’t work—they regard faults as a leading indicator of ambition. For early adopters, flaws symbolize vision not sloppy design. Innovators know revolutions are hard, thus revolutionizing they argue, is not for snowflakes. No surprise then that the ones we do credit with creating massive change—Karl Marx, Steve Jobs,  Henry IIX, Caesar, Luther (the cleric not the detective, silly), Brando, Napoleon—were also a giant pain in the ass.

Workers long ago learned to run from change as if their lives depended on it. And who can blame them?

You know this.  As a Marketer your success depends on your ability to get people to accept the new. Embrace change. Back it with so much enthusiasm that they devour everything you give them about your initiative and scream the benefits from the rooftops.

It’s called Marketing and yes, it’s quite unnatural.

This is a central premise of our work at Mortar: nowhere is the desire to resist change more ingrained, powerful and destructive than to the output from Marketing. And that’s important because most thinkers about brand marketing — on the agency and client side— persistently ignore the challenge of how.

Let’s consider how this applies to the Brand Architecture.

Wikimedia defines Brand Architecture as the structure of brands within an organizational entity”.

Computer away a little more, and you will find multiple pundits describing the common forms of brand organization. The models are free and widely available. What is striking is how little the experts address the how: how do you take an organization that has grown up working with a range of products and change how it thinks about those products and their relationship to one another and their customers?

Ok so you have the models to follow. Nevertheless, how should you tackle a brand architecture issue? What is the best way forward?

Here’s five things to pay attention to:

Start with high-level vision, not tactical needs: Your organization has some idea of where its market is headed and what customers need now and in the near future. You simply cannot suggest any new level of marketing organization without first capturing and clarifying those assumptions.

[To be clear, brand architecture is an organizational challenge. There are two broad types of firms working in brand. Those guided by business and those driven by design. In our experience, firms with a strong design heritage tend to approach brand architecture through the doors of visual design rather than organizational necessity. Organizations approaching brand architecture through the design portal need to be wary of putting too much emphasis on the elegance of their structure over the necessity of getting folks on board with the change.

The best way to get vision down is to individually consult top executives—especially leadership like the C-level and the Board—and then follow up by gathering them together around a whiteboard to resolve any differences and tease-out the long-term implications of the company’s vision.

If there is one thing we have noticed, few organizations take the time to think through the long-term impact of their world view. Be sure to ask leadership: how will our vision change the world? How will our customers change? What will they seek from us? What will happen internally? And what changes can we foresee internally?

Address buy-in at the outset. People drive change. Support, positive feelings, belief, motivation, optimism: all these things are essential. To drive organizational change you first need to understand what is working and what is not. And you need to catalog why people feel the way they do. Emotion plays a big part in getting teams on board with embracing the new. Making sure you hear from the right people, and that you have a sense of who listens to who, is a critical success factor in any company transformation.

If in doubt ask: who needs to buy into this idea? And how do we reach them? Why will they care?

Assemble the facts. Every team has its own version of organizational history. The freshest faces (an agency like us) arrive at the ball with their own ingrained ideas for how things should improve, often honed after hours of viewing rival websites and presentations. Or if you are especially lucky, informed by similar discussions with rival teams.

It’s easy to suggest new ways of looking at problems: we often tell underdogs they should think of themselves of leaders. Or remind the downtrodden that night is darkest before the dawn. Reframing how to approach a problem can be a vital first step.

But sooner of later you will need factual justification—a deep well of facts—to both convince colleagues to accept change and stay the course when it has been set. Thankfully, there is rarely a shortage of professional analysts and pundits in any growing industry. The trick is deciding who to listen to and how to fill in the gaps between what is known and what needs to be known. [To quote Donald Rumsfeld, the known knowns and the known unknowns are both critical].

Don’t forget to think in terms of qualitative and quantitative feedback. Logical types are rarely swayed by raw opinion—but are often putty when confronted by hard data in the form of surveys or well-researched reports.  A handful of customer interviews—especially if presented in audio format (forgo the video—it’s rarely worth the effort and it is far easier to get customers to consent to recording a phone conversation)—can be extremely effective in swaying the Stubborn.

Once again: don’t skip a step! Make sure to dissect the research you conduct with your core team—and go out of your way to encourage spirited and energetic dialog. Don’t simply review the report and store the binder on the high shelf never to be reviewed again. (I have lost count of the orgs we have worked with that repeat the same basic exercise every few years without ever pausing to consider the-last-time-we-did-this. One Mortar client provided us with a catalog of four reports, each of which were commissioned by a previous marketing leader, and each of which studied essentially the same issue. They all reached broadly similar conclusions too. It appeared that no one had actually read the darn things).

Strive for simple. There are indeed a small handful of brand architecture models to consider. Consider them all. But remember the lesson of attempting to wrestle an octopus into a string bag: it’s easier if you cut the legs off.  The simpler the answer the better. Simple is easy to understand. Simple is easier to communicate. Simple is easier to manage. Simple costs less. Simple stands the test of time. But simple is often not 100% possible. This is an organization-wide challenge after all, so pragmatic considerations can not always be avoided. Still, strive for simple, your colleagues will thank you.

Roll-out with a long-term plan. When we gathered the Mortar team to discuss what we had learned from our long careers in brand organization, one of the first things to rise to the top was the need to communicate the importance of how you communicate a new brand structure and how easy it is to bugger it up.

Brands don’t always take kindly to change. And the teams that are impacted will often grumble—unless you paint a motivating picture of the future that this new structure makes possible. And then ladder in how excited management is about the new direction. How the industry has been waiting for you to come to your senses and the new opportunities the changes will unlock. How you plan to watch over the rearranged family to ensure it is headed in the right direction and how you will handle unanticipated revisions. How much easier everyone’s job will be now and in the future. How bonuses will be tied to this change. And that we all need to get our act together because we are launching this new idea in a 30 days. A strong, confident, well thought through roll-out is essential for any organizational change.

So be sure to discuss the plan in detail with those that matter—and have plenty of ammo for those on the front-line of change.

We wouldn’t have our careers without the need to communicate about change constantly. Driving the new is the cross we chose when we got into Marketing.  But never forget people are hard-wired to hate the new.

Remember that as you start your next day: for most ideas from Marketing are TROUBLE writ large.