Posted by Tate Linden
The truth about working with Stokefire? It often sucks.
I mean it.
Working with Stokefire is frequently extremely painful. Intentionally so. There’s a core belief at this firm that we can’t ensure a brand’s greatness until we have proven that it can withstand immense pressure. As our regular readers might recall, the philosophy supporting our work is structured around a quote from Gandhi, and though he may never have directly said as much, I personally believe that if Gandhi hadn’t gone through the painful challenges that he did he wouldn’t have made such an impact on the world. His philosophies would never have been tested and found to be powerful and effective. While we’re not known for putting our clients under the sorts of extreme pressures over which Gandhi triumphed, we are pretty damn good at making clients uncomfortable and even angry when it’s called for. And, for what it’s worth, it’s almost always called for.
A brand built by staying in your happy place may be fun, but it won’t help get you through the challenges that real organizations face during a crisis. My firm has had great success earning accounts that a little shop like ours “had no right to even pitch” (as one of our competitors put it) by going after that pain, and warning our prospective clients in advance that we’re here to cause harm but that the end result will be a battle tested brand that will get them where they want to go. We’ve had clients Google, Motorola, Charles Schwab, Heinz, the US Department of Defense, and the entirety of the US concrete industry. C’mon people; you must admit that our little shop in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia doesn’t seem like it should be able to even get business cards from the people that work at the agencies that land clients like those. (And candidly, we tend not to get those business cards. The people who work in the big agencies are not my biggest fans, from what I can tell.)
We don’t surprise clients with the bad stuff after they sign. No. We tell ‘em the first time we see them. Pretty much open the door and say, “You know, working with us is pretty much going to suck for you, right?” And then we tell them all the stuff they’re going to hate about working with us.
Among the things we cover are all the decisions and actions that they’ll want to make or take that we tell them in advance are off the table if they want to have a chance at a successful project. That list is about a dozen items long – and every one of the items has at some point caused more than one of our projects to end up less effective than it should have been. Clients are still able to go against the advice, but must acknowledge that in so doing our team is entitled to make changes to timeline, budget, and/or scope, or goals to compensate.
For the first time – that I can remember, anyhow – I’m sharing about half of this this list with the world, reworded in such a way that it might be Internet-ably digestible.
SIX EASY WAYS TO FAIL AT BRANDING:
Method 1: Avoid Risk, (Because Not Doing So Is So Gosh Darn Risky.)
Without risk you won’t get noticed. Without notice you can’t engage. Without engagement you can’t achieve any meaningful organizational goals, except perhaps downsizing, which you really don’t need our help with.
The most common way to avoid risk is to look at the industry and figure out what everyone else is saying and doing, and then find a designer who can mash it all together into something resembling a brand image. No need to hire a strategist because the work is already done! Go to the website of any competitor, then just cut, paste, and BAM! You just saved all sorts of time, effort, and money. Go ask for a raise.
Method 2: Insist on Consensus for the Wrong Things.
It’s critical to come to consensus about the goals for the organization and the brand, but when it comes to whether or not people like the resulting work we actually find positive consensus to be an indicator that the work isn’t as powerful as it needs to be. One thing that every great brand has in common? Someone out there absolutely hates it. We’re actually pretty pleased that most of the time there’s someone out there that truly despises our work, though often as not it’s the competition that screams the loudest.
Method 3: Keep the Decision Makers Out of the Process.
Keeping the decision makers out of the creative and strategic process is like making a baker’s favorite cake without access to the baker, and without access to the baker’s closet of ingredients or recipes. No matter what you come up with there’s little chance that that the baker will approve it because the result won’t match the recipe to which you never had access in the first place. If a decision maker is too busy or important to participate then they should delegate authority to someone who has the time and interest required to get it right.
Method 4: Demand that the Purpose of the Organization or Brand Include the Word, “AND.”
“And” is the bane of singularly effective brands and strategies. The moment you require a proverbial bullet to hit both the primary target and a second (or third, or twelfth) one you’ve made what should’ve been a relatively straight-forward shot into one that is effectively impossible. This is not to say you can’t hit all the targets, but the chances are better that you’ll end up winging them rather than nailing the center of any.
Method 5: Change Requirements or Assumptions Upon Which Work Was Based But Leave The Resulting Work Unchanged.
It’s like telling that aforementioned cook to prepare a meal for a meat-lover, then upon delivery of the delectable meat-infused foods being told that they made a typo and meant to say that the eater was vegan. There is no option except to restart from the step right before the assumption was made. The moment the assumptions in place are changed the work that resulted from the old ones either must be thrown out, or used for some other purpose. No matter how delicious that TurDuckEn may be, the first instinct should never be, “Well, maybe we can still use it if we just add more vegetables.”
Method 6: Keep the Project Hidden from Staff, Clients, and Stakeholders Until It’s Done.
Done right, the result of a strategic rebranding process should seem like you’ve scraped off a battered (or poorly chosen) coat of paint to reveal the beautifully crafted bones of the original structure that had been hidden before. That’s very hard to do if you don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the people who helped to build it in the first place, and those that live there now. Imagine coming home and finding someone you don’t know has repainted and repositioned everything in your home without asking for your permission or input, and then stuck you with the bill. Oh. And they appear to reeeeealy like pink. It’s likely you’ll find that the work covered up everything you loved about your home. That’s what happens when an employee comes in one day with new logos and mottos spread all over the office. It’s seen as “just another marketing thing” instead of what should be a powerful tool for helping the organization get where it needs to go.
No matter how risky you might think trying to engage existing staff or clients in the process might be, that’s nothing compared to the backlash that can occur when you try to sneak one over on them, or aren’t completely transparent with the reason for a change.
You may notice that almost all of these methods that lead to failure involve some sort of attempt to overtly or covertly avoid risk. Having leadership stay out of the process means that they’re not to be blamed for the direction the project has taken, requiring consensus spreads blame so that individuals can duck risk, having multiple goals means there’s no risk of alienating anyone, allowing assumptions to change without consequence means no one will have to risk their employment by asking for more funding, and keeping stakeholders in the dark means that we don’t risk blowing the project schedule by letting in rabble that could turn the whole thing to a muddled mess.
We’re not unique when it comes to recognizing that risk is a critical ingredient in a successful brand. Most agencies acknowledge this now – but I think the extent to which we’ve codified the ways risk avoidance can creep back into a supposedly risky position is less common. If you’ve got stories to share on risk avoidance or acceptance gone wrong I’d love to hear about ‘em.
When it comes to branding and strategy choices, I’m finding that almost every time the right choice for the client is the one that makes them the most nervous. Not in an “anyone who would do this is an idiot” way, but in a “can we really do that? Because no one in our industry would ever in a million years try something like it” sense. Which is kind of the point. Any retrenching towards what’s comfortable and familiar results in an avalanche of undone decisions that turn brand positioning and strategy into a mishmash of platitudes that no one finds objectionable and never gets mentioned outside of annual executive strategy sessions.
That’s it…I’m out of practice on this whole blogging thing, but I’ve got some more stuff I’d like to share in the coming days and weeks, so here’s to hoping I can continue to bring it back to life. Thanks to my Twitter followers who helped nudge me back on the hamster wheel. You can find me being my own bad self at @Thingnamer or tune into to the business-esque chatterings of the team (and me) at @Stokefire.