Talking with . . .

John Bidwell
interviewed by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    I HEARD ABOUT John Bidwell (Mali 1989–1991) from his wife, Peace Corps writer Kris Holloway (Mali 1989–1991). Kris and John met in the Peace Corps and later married. All these years later she wrote a wonderful book about her work with an African woman who was her mentor in Mali entitled Monique and the Mango Rains. When I interviewed Kris for these pages about the memoir, I came to know John, and the work he has done to market and promote the book. In email exchanges with him, I realized he had a lot of smart things to say about how to market one’s own book, or “brand” one’s name, and I asked him if I could interview him for Peace Corps Writers. John said, “sure” and this is what he had to say.

    Where are you from and where did you go to school, John?
    Like generations of my family, I was born in Hartford, Connecticut but my parents needed a kin break, so we moved to New Hampshire when I was eight. I consider Wilmot Flat, New Hampshire my hometown. By the age of 18 I wanted a bigger world, so I went to Montreal for university, majoring in Religious Studies at McGill. I edited their arts and sciences magazine my senior year.

    Why did you join the Peace Corps?
    My aunt and uncle served in the Peace Corps in Micronesia in the ’70s. They planted the seed. Montreal whetted my appetite to see more of the world, and I calculated the most economical way to do that was to have somebody else pay for it. And I do have a strong sense of duty. Many in my father’s family served in the military, but an astute recruiter steered me away. He said it was more than my studies in religion; it was that fact that I had registered with Selective Service under protest, and didn’t score well at taking direction.

    What was your assignment?
    I was a water resource manager in Mali from 1989 to 1991, an assignment that grew out of some summer construction work. This involved some latrine building and health education, but mostly I trained men to repair wells. It was a plumb assignment. I loved it. Everybody appreciates clean drinking water so it was easy to harness the village motivation. The guys I worked with were fantastic and we had a good time. So I’m going to take advantage of this forum and share a story.

    Donkeys can be loud, especially the lonely males looking for . . . love. Such a braying beast was interrupting our work, so my friend Madou took the standard approach of finding a small stone to lob at it. The stone took flight and like a guided missile found its way right into the ass’s — well — ass. For a second, the world froze: all of us around the hole in the ground, the donkey, and by-passers. Then the world exploded in laughter while the donkey danced about, looking back at its rump. The unwanted gift dislodged and with a snort the animal wandered off.

    That story was repeated daily, and may still be since Madou went on to start his own well repair business.

         The hardest part of the work was discovering that I truly fear tight, dark, deep, hot places. My first time into a well deeper than 15 meters required intense concentration, keeping my eyes on the dirt in front of me and repeating my girlfriend’s name. I crawled out twice before finding the wherewithal to descend all the way. I was also driven by fear of humiliation: if Malians do this, I can. Only afterwards was I told that the locals avoid wells at all costs. You can fall. There may be venomous snakes. Heavy gases displace oxygen. You can die. Only the crazy and desperate go in. It was then that I realized half of bravery is ignorance.
         I also worked on a maternity repair project with my then girlfriend, Kris Holloway (author of Monique and the Mango Rains), and now wife. That was a wonderfully fulfilling project, involving the whole village, donations from home, and USAID funds.

    When you finished your tour, what did you decide to do next . . . go to school? Start your career?
    I had worked for several years between university and Peace Corps as a graphic designer. My mother’s side of the family is artistically inclined. My grandfather had me working with wood at a young age, and my great-aunt Betsy is married to Andrew Wyeth, giving me an intimate and unique exposure to art.
         After Peace Corps I considered public health because of how much I had enjoyed my work in Mali. I became a state certified HIV/AIDS counselor, working nights for two years at a local clinic. I took my GREs in preparation for a master’s degree, but in the end I returned to communications, working as a senior designer for a marketing firm and a national magazine.
         I love creative problem solving, and don’t thrive in bureaucracies. That is what I loved best about being a Peace Corps Volunteer. Sure, I had to jump through hoops to get in, but once in the field I was on my own. My foray into public health didn’t seem to allow for that.
         I started my own firm, Bidwell ID, in 1999, which is now at five employees and works with clients nationwide, many of them being cause-driven organizations: Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement, World Learning, the National Yiddish Book Center, hospitals, and colleges. My firm’s emphasis is on branding.

    Okay, what’s branding?
    Branding is the process of consciously creating in others’ minds an authentic and relevant image of your identity. Everybody — and every organization — has a default brand. It is your character, and how that character comes across to others. Thus, the question is never whether you need a brand, because you have one. The question is how you foster the part of your character that works best for you, that communicates what your mission and values are.
         Good branding is not just a logo. It requires knowing thyself, and finding communications that capture the best you have to offer, and using them in consistent innovative ways.
         That’s what I love about this work. It is authentic and gets to the heart of an organization, and can have a profound and positive effect.

    Give us an example of what you do to brand an organization.
    We worked to rebrand the Greater Lynn Mental Health and Retardation Association. Market research confirmed that the name was a liability: too long, hard to recall, and not in vogue. Their logo — a flying dove — didn’t help since it had religious and end of life connotations. The communications (brochures, promotions, website, etc) were ad hoc and inconsistent.
         We collaborated on name development, creating the name Bridgewell, which is short, easy to remember, easy to spell, and easy to locate in the telephone book. Most importantly, it communicates the mission of the organization, to help the disabled bridge a path to optimal wellness and independence — and instead of focusing on geographic or diagnostic limitations, it expresses a promise of growth and empowerment. In the new logo, we took that optimism a step further, with brush-stroke figures that are human in imperfection and exuberance, and upper and lower-case type that is friendly and accessible. To ensure that the new image communicated the requisite professionalism in all media, we established visual guidelines for the organization that included templates for the Web site, stationery, and collateral pieces.
         The organization now has a consistent identity that is uplifting, easy to identify with, and rally behind. Its positive impact has been felt in many aspects of the organization, from recruitment to outreach to development.

    How did you get into the branding business?
    I have always been interested in symbolism and meaning, especially since my religious studies. My senior thesis was on why we portray Jesus the way we do. It’s not like we have photos, or even a single reliable portrait. So, why does Jesus look like Jesus? What does that mean? Why does Jesus sometimes look different? I believe that symbols — visual and words — are packed with more than we realize, so it helps to have a better understanding of these symbols and how they relate to your organization. I like digging into the heart of an organization, the place of meaning, and creating the tools to communicate that passion. On a symbolic level, branding is a lot like well work. You need to dig down to find your wellspring, and create a safe and efficient way to bring that life force into the light.
         I also want our work to be a real asset for organizations, and that means transcending mere aesthetics. Communications must be well organized and relevant to the client and project, or it is just a waste. Pretty, but a waste nonetheless.
         Mostly, branding requires collaboration. This is a value I learned in Peace Corps. I may be the outside expert, but a project’s success requires that I partner with the client (or village), and not impose my solutions. Avoid the white elephant at all costs.

    How would you go about branding a Peace Corps writer?

    Branding asks that the writer differentiate himself and present himself in a clear and consistent way. Many RPCV writers focus on similar themes, such as “They helped me more than I helped them” and personal growth. While these themes may be personally significant, they are not unique. Most writers want to assume that good writing is all you need to do. I don’t believe that. Assuming you are a good writer and you are interested in public recognition, you need to be uniquely purposeful. What is the purpose of your writing? To borrow from the branding world, what are your vision, mission, and values? And how do you convey those in a new way?
         This became apparent to me when my wife Kris and I were working on Monique and the Mango Rains. Fortunately, Kris was not interested in simply retelling her Peace Corps experience, which helped brand the book in a unique way. The goal was then to keep the story on track:

    1. Focus on the cross-cultural friendship. Every scene needed to support that. The Peace Corps volunteer and her growth was important, but it was not the primary focus.
    2. Tell the story. This was not merely a string of isolated incidents. We studied fiction to get a better understanding of building narrative flow.

         These two things are not ground breaking on their own, but they are pretty different for a Peace Corps book.
         Having an honest, differentiated book was the first step. Next, we looked at audience, asking ourselves who would be most interested in the book. Thus, finding readings at schools made sense, especially in women’s studies or public health.

    [An aside about the author’s participation in promotion: As an author, if you want your book to be successful, you must get out and promote it. Nobody is going to do it for you. Kris deserves so much credit for taking her role as promoter seriously. She constantly works to improve her presentations, which are frankly fantastic. She pays close attention to her audiences, tailoring her delivery to make sure the connection between her story and her audience is clear. It is not the job of your audience to form the connection. It is up to you. I know that sounds preachy, but it is very important.]

         Key to all this is networking. Figuring out your brand is good, but will not open doors. It does, though, help you know what to say once a door is opened. Opening the doors relies on spreading the word through personal connections, your website, and PR.
         Like most books, we didn’t get an advance or have a huge budget. Thus, we knew that grassroots marketing would be essential. We hired Zach Marcus of Maverick Media Projects and Mary Bisbee-Beek of the University of Michigan Press to help us. Their expertise, especially with event planning, independent bookstores, and publicity, was crucial. We focused on reading book clubs. Kris made herself available to any clubs, a fact advertised on the home page of the book’s website (MoniqueMangoRains.com).
         As testimony to the power of networking I must mention the Literary Ventures Fund (LiteraryVenturesFund.org), which has been indispensable. LVF believes that great literature can thrive in the marketplace, given the extra help that most publishers can’t afford. Founder Jim Bildner and Editorial Director Ande Zellman immediately showed an interest in Monique after Kris sent them a galley. In the end, the book has to carry its own, but LVF’s contacts and funding have given us opportunities we would not otherwise have.
         Lastly, the brand focus needed to be carried though the promotional writing and imagery of the book. Wording and messages focused not on Kris, but on Monique and her friendship with Kris. The title of the book was a struggle, taking years to emerge. It had to speak to the individual (Monique), imply the foreign (mangos), and pique one’s interest (what the heck is a mango rain?).
         The design of the book was critical. We asked Waveland Press if Bidwell ID could design the book (layout, typography, images). They said yes. Readers love the cover of the book, which shows a large photo of Monique (not Kris, not a village scene, not even Kris with Monique). It intentionally draws you in. I tested the look against other book covers at bookstores to make sure it jumped out. My company also gave a lot of thought to the page design, making sure the font was not too small and incorporating icons drawn by Monique’s uncle. It is all appealing and attention getting, but also speaks to the heart of the story. I’ve been careful to use that exact image over and over, in ads and flyers and posters to build familiarity.
         All this is to say that good writing is only the beginning if you hope to have critical success, much less a chance at financial success. Writers must concentrate on branding their work. Don’t work in a vacuum. Remember to work collaboratively. Strong positioning not only sells your work to readers, but also to people who can greatly help you. It requires digging down to find your core message — your wellspring — and refining that message to be simple and clear. That is what people are going to remember.

    I grew up in the age of Marshall McLuhan and The Mechanical Bride, among his other books. How would your relate your world of “branding” and the use of Internet and electronic information to what McLuhan was writing about back in the ’60s?
    I think that McLuhan predicted branding, though he didn’t coin the term. According to McLuhan, mass communication homogenizes experiences, thus promoting specialization. Branding is the consistent presentation of a unique position, or specialization. So according to McLuhan branding was inevitable, but I note some mitigating factors.
         Television introduced a wider number of people to similar experiences, like the Super Bowl. So, you could say that this diminishes individualism. But now the Internet allows people to experience a wide range of sports, which, it could be argued, diminishes homogenization. After all, McLuhan instructed us to be aware of technology’s moral implications. Technology is not passive. It is not simply a vehicle of getting information from point A to point B. It touches points A and B. The implications of TV may have been to homogenize, but can we say the same of the Internet? Is not technology — including the Web, cell phones, and video games — more interactive than the technology of a generation ago? Does it not demand a more conscious participation, and promote individualism by default?
         I don’t fear a homogenized world, because I think that individualization can be overrated. Speaking of Canadians, I love Margaret Atwood’s poem Siren Song, which shows how we are all susceptible to the irresistible song that says we are unique.
         I think there is much to be gained from seeing we are more similar than we are bred to think. It requires great creativity to imagine yourself in somebody else’s shoes. Now that is a powerful conscious exercise.
         A discussion of McLuhan vis-à-vis branding is fodder for a book — consider his cautionary concept of the “global village” — and certainly more than I can cover here.

    Is it now possible for all of us to have Andy Warhol’s famous 15 minutes of fame?
    Wow, another book topic! I think that specialization offers the greatest chance we’ve ever had for 15 minutes of fame, but in a more limited sense than I think Warhol intended. Branding yourself within a specialized market improves your chances of fame . . . within that specialized community.
         Big-time fame — the kind that Warhol is talking about — is a different matter. Your chances may be better due to more communications in general, but then the idea of fame reorients itself. 15 hours of fame is the new 15 minutes, because 15 minutes isn’t worth anything. Big-time fame will remain as elusive as always.

    Since most RPCVs don’t have the money to hire someone like you, what basic things should they do to promote their book?

    1. Differentiate your book. Figure out what makes it unique, and promote that in a consistent and concise way. This will make it easier for you to talk about it, easier of others to remember it.
    2. Make it newsworthy so that it is more likely to get picked up as a news piece (free) rather than you marketing it (costly). This means linking in with one or more of the following: timeliness, trends, controversy, strong opinions, fresh angles, and/or proven expertise.
    3. Ask for lots of help and opinions all the time. Toss out the random subjective opinions, but pay attention to repeated comment. Be prepared to “kill your baby,” and toss out a lot of work. Don’t be a prima donna.
    4. Marry somebody like me. It worked for my wife Kris.

    Would you be available (for hire) to help an RPCV writer branding their book?

    Sure, I’m always free to chat on the phone, though most writers find it more affordable to simply follow good advice on their own.

    What Peace Corps books have you read and liked [or disliked!]?

    These are just a few that stand out:

    The Village of Waiting by George Packer (Togo 1982–83)
    Good, but I found it somewhat negative. George had a different experience than I did in West Africa.

    Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle by Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965–67)
    Old school classic.

    Fishing in the Sky: The Education of Namory Keita by Donald Lawder (Mali 1983–85) It’s about Mali and I knew Donald.

    River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler (China 1996–98)
    New school classic.

    Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway (Mali 1989–91)
    Hey, I’m biased, but I’m not alone in my accolades.

    The Peace Corps agency is continually reinventing itself. For a long while they used the line “toughest job you’ll ever love,” more recently they talked about “not your father’s Peace Corps” (which seemed to be a veiled dig at early Volunteers). Now they are pushing for retirees to volunteer. Looking at their website and promotional materials, what do you think they are doing right, or wrong to sell themselves to this generation of new Volunteers?
    The Peace Corps might be continually reinventing itself internally, but that is not visible to outsiders. In fact, most people know too little about Peace Corps. I run into people who are surprised Peace Corps still exists. That’s a shame since I believe the Peace Corps is a miracle. There is not a single government agency that does so much with so little.
         In terms of messaging, I prefer when the Peace Corps presents itself as a challenge — because it is true — but it is a challenge with unparalleled rewards. That is why “The toughest job you’ll ever love” works so well. It is also why I like the new “Life is Calling. How far will you go?” campaign. There have been messaging flops, such as the unoriginal and ambiguous “Not your father’s Peace Corp” campaign, but that seems the exception.
         More and more, the Peace Corps must consider competition. The Peace Corps’ biggest advantage, though, is that it is the original. The fact that a lot of competition bills itself as the “Peace Corps alternative” underscores Peace Corps strong position.
         Most of their messaging is successful because there is so much to work with: they are first in their field, they offer an incredible growth experience, they help others, and they polish our country’s reputation.
         Again, it is increasing awareness of Peace Corps that is most important. Peace Corps has no shortage of interesting stories; they just have to get them circulating. I want to see more of a Peace Corps presence on YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and in blogs. I want to see bigger events at schools. I don’t just mean events geared towards students, but taking advantage of programs geared towards alums, such as the Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth (ILIAD). Peace Corps needs advertising to remind people they are still around, but it is the personal stories that will bring in candidates.