Tag: "tate linden"

Industry specialization: Great! Until maybe it isn’t.

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.
–Eric Hoffer 

Posted by:
Tate Linden

We’re frequently asked by prospective clients whether or not we’re specialists in particular industries such as healthcare or technology. The answer is that we’re not. And we don’t ever intend to be. While this sort of specialization was intriguing to us in the early days at Stokefire’s, we ultimately decided it would be better for our clients (and thus our long-term success) to go in a different direction.

I acknowledge that this decision seems to run counter to the traditional wisdom given to businesses of all types. And I’m good with that.

I can’t argue that industry specialization is universally bad. Far from it. It’s a critical ingredient in successful financially oriented businesses, such as auditing and investment banking. Even if the entire organization doesn’t specialize, employers retain industry experts that lend credence to an organization’s findings. Similarly, Stokefire employs or contracts with specialists to handle behind-the-scenes jobs that require specific training and experience, such as certain illustration styles, animation, or programming. Each of these is an industry of sorts. (No one, least of all me, wants to see what would happen if I tried to do this stuff by myself.)

I’ll also grant that, for the vast majority of organizations, industry specialization may actually be a good plan. But my reasons are something you probably won’t like.

As Jean Marie Caragher suggests in her article for AICPA, industry specialization includes benefits like high profitability, economical marketing, easily identified prospects and competition, fewer geographical barriers, prestige, increased knowledge of clients, and more. Studies (including this one by Craswell, Francis, and Taylor in 1995) find a link between industry specialization and the ability to charge more for the same services.

With a list like that, it’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t jump on board.

Put yourself in a client’s shoes for a moment and reread the list from their perspective. How many of the benefits help them? One could argue that industry experience helps projects run more smoothly, allows for common tasks to be done very quickly, and increases confidence that the work will meet industry standards. For accounting or other services that aren’t traditionally visible to the client’s target market it makes a lot of sense.

But what happens when the industry specialist’s work is front-and-center rather than hidden under layers of organizational process? What happens when it’s a branding, marketing, or advertising organization that decides to focus on a single industry? What happens when it’s the essence of who you are and what makes you the best in your industry that is crafted by an industry specialist?

Put on the client’s shoes again, if you would (this time as a client of an agency.) All the stuff that was desirable in the back-office is now questionable at best. Sure, the agency knows your competition, and may have even worked for them. But what does it say about the quality and importance of that work (or the ethics of the organization’s leaders) that they’re willing to immediately sell the same services to you? How could they avoid contaminating the guidance they give you with information gained from private meetings with your competitors? And if they share this information with you (overtly or not,) what would stop them from sharing your secrets?

Regardless of how they may position themselves, industry specialists serving most audiences are limited in the concepts that they can bring to you, since if they were to propose a concept that actually pulled market share from another client they might be liable for damages. An agency that gets a reputation for selling out its clients is an agency that won’t have that problem for long.

So, to my way of thinking, a creative agency that farms a single industry either doesn’t believe their work has the ability to materially change the fortunes of its clients (and thus can sell to direct competitors without worrying about conflicts of interest), or they don’t care that each new contract they get in their industry is likely to devalue the work they’ve done for others.

That’s why Stokefire doesn’t go in for industry specialization. When given the freedom to do great work for our clients we’ve enabled new industries and reshuffled old ones. To then go back to all the competitors our work has marginalized or impeded and say, “See what we did for XYZ Co? If you want to stand a chance against them then you’d better hire us.” is lacking in scruples even if it might make short-term business sense. (It’s not all about morality, though. Another reason we don’t do it is that many of our larger or more strategically-minded clients pay a premium to ensure we won’t work in their field for a period of time following our project on their behalf.)

I’ll again grant you that industry specialists may work faster or more efficiently, and that these qualities have the potential to result in lower over-all costs since they’re not billing as many research and administrative hours. I’ll even grant you that it’s a helluva lot easier to run a profitable agency that specializes in one industry. But I can’t seem to connect either of these with the sorts of outcomes creative work is capable of achieving or that clients actually need.

To those consultants who espouse industry specialization for creative agencies, and to those agencies that farm single industries for profit, I ask you this: How does your industry focus tangibly improve outcomes for your stable of competitive clients?

Anyone willing to venture in and share their contrasting views?

Steve Jobs and the Wrong Kind of Dent

 

Posted by:
Tate Linden (@Thingnamer)

Following on my previous post about Steve Jobs’s phantom “We’re here to put a dent in the universe” quote, I can’t help but wonder if the sentiment behind it is actually a good representation of what Jobs tried to do with his life.

There’s not much point in arguing that Jobs never said anything about denting the universe. I do, however, wonder why he said it.

First, putting a dent in something is typically associated with an act of brute strength.

He may have led with a sledgehammer in his back pocket, but hope for all our sakes that bending others forcibly to his will was not his end-game.If we consider Jobs’s leadership style there’s at least a little connection. He was seen as a “high maintenance co-worker” who was blunt with criticism. He dismissed people who didn’t impress him as “bozos”. If the universe he was trying to dent was made up of the psyches of the people who reported to him then this might apply. But it would also be a pretty shallow and callous goal.

Second, dents tend to make things harder to use and less efficient.

When I think of the products that came out of Jobs’s Apple I picture clean and easy-to-use designs, not duct-tape and Bondo. The work done under his watch seems to have done the opposite of denting the universe.

I know, I know. In theory we all love the character that stuff gets as it picks up the scratches and dings of our lives. But we still go out to buy the shiny new stuff that is easier to use than the perfectly working but slightly older equipment Jobs convinced us to buy a few months earlier.

Third, the only way that “denting the universe” actually fits didn’t apply until he was no longer a part of it.

There’s a difference between leaving a legacy and changing the way the universe works. Jobs helped us to understand that great design matters, and that capability and simplicity aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s his legacy.

Jobs was brilliant. He was able to conceive of or recognize concepts and guide the development and execution of them in ways that were virtually irresistible. That’s also his legacy.

The dent in the universe that he made, though? I really hope it isn’t something he wanted to leave. Two quotes from  Rob LeFebvre’s article from cultofmac highlight it pretty well:

“Steve Jobs, however, saw their potential and, with a characteristic mixture of blind faith, naiveté, and ruthlessness, refined them until they met his own exacting standards.”

and…

“Mr. Jobs’s own research and intuition, not focus groups, were his guide.”

The dent he was trying to make was something that only he seemed able to understand.

Is the dent Jobs made in the universe is the one left by the space he occupied so powerfully? While his legacy will live on, his exacting standards and the intuition that built the legacy are gone.

Now we’re left with a dent we have no idea how to buff out, and no knowledge of what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done. The decisions made by Apple since Jobs’s passing – at least as viewed from the outside – are looking more traditional than “insanely great”.

I miss the guy and I never even knew him.

And I’m more than a little pissed that he appears not to have taught anyone else how to use his gift. If he’d done it then wouldn’t we have something other than bigger iPhones and smaller iPads by now?

Anyone else out there hoping that Jony and the team are secretly working on some Jobsian creation and are just working out the kinks before they set the universe wobbling again? Color me hopeful, but not optimistic.

 

Taking a swing at a different kind of event – January 8th, 2014

Commercial design is broken, and (for the most part) we practitioners are doing a pretty crappy job of fixing it.

Years ago I wrote, “Design is an opportunity to continue telling the story, not just sum everything up.” And while I’ve heard from many designers who have embraced the sentiment, the industry as a whole remains focused on aesthetics and summation. While these qualities may make clients happy, they don’t do much to help clients make better decisions, move the design industry forward, or do much of anything other than ensure that clients are willing to write checks. On January 8, 2014 I’m looking to begin changing all but the last bit by hosting our first “Designers on Deck” event.

What is Designers on Deck?

Well, I’m working on that, but here’s what I have so far:

We’ll be turning the traditional “let someone brag while everyone else takes notes” networking event on its head. From my experience those events typically result in learning someone else’s singular solution to a problem you don’t have, rather than learning how to develop your own solution for issues you’re likely to encounter. The best way to do create value here, I figure, is to learn from someone who hasn’t been able to overcome their challenge. And lest you think no one will step up and where the “I’m with stupid” shirt with the arrow pointing up, I’m perfectly willing to be the test case. More than once, if necessary.

A few more potential details:

  1. We’ll be on a deck, or (as will likely be the case in early January) be deck-adjacent.
  2. We’ll have a limited number of guests from across creative (and related) professions with varied levels of experience. Probably enough to cover all the positions on a baseball field.
  3. We’ll start with around-the-group greetings, and anyone facing their specific un-solved problem can share it. Anyone interested in helping to resolve can connect after the main event.
  4. We’ll have a featured speaker or case study that quickly illuminates an unresolved issue with the commercial application of creativity or creative strategy; showing the impact of the issue and covering any attempts that have already been made to resolve it. Possible topics include consensus building challenges, inability to speak with decision-makers, failed brand launches, or something related to stories in the news or suggested by a guest previously.
  5. Following the presentation we’ll have an active discussion amongst guests and presenters, and will work to clarify the issue and propose methods of resolution. The presenter will commit to an update by a specific date if applicable.
  6. To close out the structured part of the event, we’ll have smaller chats around the issues guests identified at the start.

We’ll kick this off at our own HQ in Alexandria on January 8th and see how it goes. I’m guessing it’ll take a few tries to get it humming, but initial feedback from those I’ve spoken to is promising.

Interested in participating? I’d love to get a sense of the potential participant pool. Send me a note or drop a comment and we’ll try to keep you informed as this thing firms up. (And before you ask, the time is still TBD.)

__Tate

Cows! And Also the Secret to RFP Success.

I’ve been hearing from my peers in the branding and advertising industries that they’re getting invited to participate in many more RFPs, and that this is a sign that the economy is recovering. But I’m also hearing from them weeks later that they aren’t winning when they submit responses. Some firms are pushing three to five proposals per week out the door and only getting a nibble once or twice a month. Many respected and competent firms complain that the RFP process is flawed, and quite a few refuse to respond to requests for proposals entirely since most decisions seem to be made purely on price or back room handshakes.

I spent about a decade working for other people before opening up my own shop, and remember the constant pressure to get responses out the door. The bosses played the numbers, knowing that we’d land 8 to 12 percent of the opportunities, focusing our efforts on increasing the number of fish in the pond rather than becoming better fishermen. We used databases of canned responses and lightly customized them for fit. I recall numerous times where the final proof-reader, so tired from reading the same damn material on every single proposal, glossed over an instance where the wrong client name or industry example ended up being sent along. It upset leadership, but they still invariably valued increased RFP response volume over increased customization, believing that if we could just get into the final group we’d take the time to get it right. And when we did get into the pitch group most of my bosses did a good job closing the deal. We may have only landed about 10 percent of the RFPs overall, but when invited to pitch our success rate went up to about 40% – and that’s where the leaders focused.

As Stokefire approaches our ninth year in business I look back at a client list that includes Google, Motorola, Heinz, Charles Schwab, The US Department of Defense and hundreds of other worthy organizations, and realize that if I’d followed the tactics I’d been exposed to earlier I’d probably have landed about 10 percent of what we’ve gotten. And that’s where I was headed until something momentous happened.

About five years ago (prior to landing our first globally recognized client) a huge prospective client took me aside and said something like, “Look, man. You’re good. Very, very good. The fact that your four person firm has made it to the final four out of 128 agencies we considered should indicate that you’ve got something special. You brought up all sorts of insights and issues about the deliverables we asked for that proved you understood what we needed more deeply than anyone else. And then you lost your courage, and checked off every box on your RFP response and committed to delivering exactly what we asked for anyhow. And that’s the problem here. You have to admit, no matter how insightful you are, you can’t possibly deliver exactly what we’re asking for better than a nationally known firm a thousand times your size. And even if you could, the board members of a public company aren’t going to take a risk on an unknown like you . The only way I would ever get their approval to hire you is if you’d stuck by your guns and refused to give us what we asked for, and instead insisted on giving us what we need.”

There’s some serious paraphrasing going on there, but I believe I’m being faithful to his theme. It was a two hour conversation with a leader of a multi-billion dollar organization. And he so wanted to hire us that he not only took the time to tell us why he couldn’t, but to teach me how I could earn his business the next time he was in need as well. The last thing he said was that he was looking forward to working with us down the road.

No, he still hasn’t called us back (which would make this a much better story, I know) but we took his lesson to heart.

Today we respond to only a small fraction of the RFPs we receive. It’s not that we don’t believe in the process. In fact, it’s the opposite. We use the RFP process as a screening process to ensure that we’re actually a good fit for the client and opportunity. Our job as a branding and advertising consultancy isn’t to answer the questions and accede to the demands made in RFPs, it’s to figure out what’s behind the questions and demands, and ensure that the stuff in the RFP actually has the potential to get the results the client really wants, if they want anything at all. The RFPs we tend to respond to are the ones where we can prove there’s disconnect between what’s being asked for and the results they’re likely to get from the investment.

When a client knows exactly what they need and how best to get it, then my firm is like just another lowing cow lost among the herd, hoping that today it’ll be our milk in the pail the farmer brings to his own family. All the respondents are checking all the boxes provided. It’s like cows jostling and mooing – “You want milk? Well, I make milk. Let’s do this!” and “Me toooooo! Look how milky my milk is. It’s the very definition of what you’ve asked for! Why go anywhere else?”

How the Hell is the farmer supposed to choose when every cow can provide the requested services at the required levels?

When a prospective client requests a proposal they provide a structure for response so that each can be evaluated in parallel. The farmer says he wants milk, so he ensures that he only considers solutions that get him what he says he wants. Cows, goats, sheep, are the likely candidates. If he gets really creative he might consider almond, soy or rice milk – and feel all the more insightful for it. But what isn’t up for discussion – and is rarely even mentioned in an RFP process – is why the desired product or service is needed, and why the solutions outlined in the RFP are the best way to meet the need.

Stokefire doesn’t make milk. Real nor imagined. We figure out why the farmer says he needs it for his family, then determine if milk is the best product for the job. If it is? We go on our way – there are plenty of lowing cows ready to compete for his attention and give him what he asks for. If we find that the farmer’s real need is better served by something other than the proverbial milk? That’s when we invest the considerable time and effort crafting a response to an RFP – one that cannot be compared to anything else under consideration because it addresses the needed results rather than the ‘required’ methods and steps that have little chance of getting the farmer what he wants, and an even lesser chance of landing us the job.

The key to successful RFP responses isn’t getting the answers right. It’s having the courage and insight to modify the assumptions, questions, and rules so that the original request becomes irrelevant. Sure, the farmer said he wanted to bring milk back to his family, and there are millions of cows able to give him that milk. But what if you learned that the entire family was lactose intolerant, or that he was using it to fill his swimming pool at the rate of one bucket per day, or to clean the mirrors in his house? In each case, the best response wouldn’t be to fill the stated request and follow the process, it’d be to find a product better suited to the requirements.

Those uses may seem obviously wrong, but put in the context of what we see on branding RFPs are actually pretty reasonable. We’ve seen RFPs requesting logos that increase customer loyalty, demanding reuse of previously used campaigns for increased results without creative expense, and asking for a rebrand intended make a highly visible company scandal go away. These and many other RFPs got dozens of responses that checked every box. We didn’t check a single box for any of them. We couldn’t deliver what they asked for so we responded to the RFP we believed they should’ve written.

And we won.

Does it work every time? Absolutely not. About 10% of the time it doesn’t work and we fail to change the prospect’s perspective. About 5% of the time it doesn’t just fail, it fails spectacularly. If it was that farmer’s RFP, he’d grab his shotgun and unload both barrels into our chest. Then he’d tell us we didn’t get the job.

As bad as it sounds, I know from experience that being screamed at by prospective clients for having the nerve to challenge their assumptions is survivable. And it’s led to some wonderful client relationships months or years later, when the prospect has tried it their way and we have the, “You know, funny thing about that pitch you made…” conversation. It helps to keep that result in mind when resisting the urge to wipe their spittle from your eyebrows during the pitch.

If you’re not willing to take the risks needed to achieve results, but still blame the system itself rather than your ability to use it to your advantage? I’ve got no problem with that. In fact, I’ll even help. There’s a word you can repeat in your mind as a mantra that will ensure you always deliver fully compliant responses to RFPs. It’s easy to remember, and oddly comforting, too.

Say it with me…

“MoooOOOooooo.”

Happiness Is Thinking Outside The Checkbox

 

Posted by:
Tate Linden

In a brief exchange I had with @kwheaton and @Bryan_El_Parker over on Twitter, both raised concerns about the way large companies hire their employees. They were responding to our blanket rejection notice posted previously on our blog. Bryan pointed out that the traditional system strips applicants of their individuality by making them check boxes, to which we said that “unless you’re a checkbox you shouldn’t work for large employers.” Kristan reasoned that not working with big employers may be easier said than done.

And so we slept on it. For a week. And here’s what came of it:

The issue isn’t that big companies can’t work with highly creative or visionary types, it’s that the best path to big company employment for people with these qualities is probably not a system that rigidly dictates and automatically enforces the form and content of their applications. If you’re genuinely creative or visionary then you’re better served by either finding another way in that allows you to show your skills, or by breaking or manipulating the ineffective process to show why they need what you bring to the table. Your goal shouldn’t be to do the best you can within the system, but to prove that the system is set up to solve the wrong problem or deliver the wrong result.

Daniel Pink explains part of the problem in his book (which is excellent, by the way,)  To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others:

…a few years ago, the Conference Board, the well-regarded U.S. business group, gave 155 public school superintendents and eighty-nine private employers a list of cognitive capacities and asked their respondents to rate these capacities according to which are most important in today’s workforce. The superintendents ranked “problem solving” number one. But the employers ranked it number eight. Their top-ranked ability: “Problem Identification.”

Checkboxes seem best suited to addressing a presupposed problem for which the right answer is at least intuited, if not outright known. And that’s why big companies use them. They believe that they know what they’re looking for and how to find it. If you don’t have a better way to see things, or a different problem identified, then checkboxes are probably not doing you a disservice. But if you do see a different problem that needs solving than the company does, each box you check will make your unique value less visible.

If you want (or have) to work for a big checkboxy organization and aren’t a checkboxy type you can, of course, just suck it up, check the boxes and hope for a job and role you can’t stand so you can change things from within before you have the life sapped from you. Or you can show them from the start that the problem that needs solving and the person they need aren’t a part of their checkbox system.

If you’re good, the considerable effort and insight this approach requires will be nothing compared to the pain and frustration you’ll avoid by having a job that encourages you to think, say, and do exactly as you wish rather than forcing you to be someone you hate to see in the mirror every Monday through Friday, holidays excepted.

If you’re not quite good enough, or the organization doesn’t appreciate your obvious talents? That’s a conversation for another day, I think.

Many thanks to Kristan and Bryan for their help in identifying this particular problem.

No Consensus on Thatcher

 

Posted by:
Tate Linden

Back in 2011, while railing against the tendency to settle for ‘non-objectionable’ over ‘highly effective’ brands, I cited a portion of this quote from the (then living) Prime Minister:

To me consensus seems to be —the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no-one believes, but to which no-one objects. —the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.

What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner “I stand for consensus”?

Those are some exceptionally important words to me, and to the organization I’ve built. I reference them at nearly every speaking engagement and each new client briefing because they’re equally applicable to the fields of branding and design.

And today they seem even more relevant and true. Today there’s a new lack of consensus. Thatcher’s passing earlier this week has been simultaneously marked by loyal praise and passionate derision from those impacted by her efforts. She is now either loved or reviled by the masses for the things she held most dear and the controversial steps she took to effectively defend those things.

I can’t imagine that she would find this particularly upsetting. Thatcher didn’t stand for consensus; she stood for her convictions. And the United Kingdom as a whole and the world at large are stronger for it.

The lesson? As goes politics, so goes branding. Address the issues, don’t avoid them. Or do. After all, it’s only the wellbeing of your organization and its people at stake.

No.

Dearest potential applicant:

In our eight year history we’ve never brought on a single intern nor employee who started their cover letter with “Dear Sirs” or “To Whom it May Concern,” and then perhaps followed it with body copy that could just as well introduce someone trying to break into the laundromat business, or maybe rocket science.

The unofficial policy doesn’t hit home for you? Consider what it would be like if a purportedly reputable organization was staffed by people so lazy that instead of taking the time to understand and address each applicant individually, they just posted a blanket rejection statement on their blog and left it at that.

No, You May Not Have This Tasty, Tasty Apple.

I understand that everyone loves the Apple brand for its vibrancy, simplicity, and power. I really do. It’s a kickass brand, so it’s not surprising. But… Please don’t ask me to build you a brand ‘just like Apple’ unless Steve Jobs’ ghost is already on board to lead it. Because that’s what it’d take to make it work.

Look… Contrary to what most of the branding and advertising industry shouts at customers, the job of a great branding team is not to give you the brand that you want. Our job is to give you a brand with which you can succeed. Asking for a brand that looks like Apple may be an effective short-hand way to convey an aesthetic that you find appealing, but the whole underlying structure from which brands are actually built is overlooked in the process. Worse, the chances that what you and your staff find aesthetically appealing and what will bring a positive change in the behavior of your intended audience being the same are nearly nil.

What made Apple… well, Apple… was the insight, effort, and execution of Jobs, Wozniak, and their team. The name and logo they chose didn’t cause their success; the verbal and visible brand was a direct result of the unique qualities of the organization’s leadership expressed nearly to perfection. They changed the behavior of hundreds of millions of consumers around the globe by genuinely understanding who Apple was, delivering a product that could only come from such people, and communicating both their thinking and performance in a way that seemed to both illuminate and prove their difference. Or as I would normally put it, they used something very like Gandhi’s Pyramid. If you want to honor their brand or have similar successes then I’d advise you stop trying to copy the result of their efforts or the current state of their brand and start duplicating the effort and unique insights that led to it.

Making you look like Apple isn’t that hard. (Just ask Samsung.) But creating a lasting and valuable brand as unique and genuine as Apple from your own values and actions should actually result in a brand that in the end isn’t much like Apple at all.

 

The Painful Truth about Working With Stokefire, And How To Fail While Doing It.

Posted by Tate Linden

Arthritis Campaign by The Classic Partnership Advertising

Arthritis Campaign by The Classic Partnership Advertising

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.

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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.

 

A peek at Stokefire’s latest brand identity work:

One of DARPA’s [Ed: a client] strategic thinkers started up her own firm called Foxfire. We’ll post detailed information and back-story about the project another time – but we figured that given our recent silence we owed you a quick peek at the recently approved ID Kit! Til then… Enjoy!

(And if you’re a senior business executive or retired general or admiral looking for one of the best advisors and speech writers in the world? Get in touch with Courtney at Foxfire Strategies ASAP.)



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