Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

Lessons in Brand Improvisation

Roy Hargrove at Aalener, Germany Jazz Fest. Wikimedia Commons.

At the conclusion of an assignment to revitalize a client’s brand, I will often deliver a set of guidelines. Brand guides serve as a reference – a map – to help internal staff maintain the consistency and integrity of all marketing and communications.

In addition to documenting the various logo configurations, colors, and typography, there is usually a section that highlights what not to do. It simultaneously illustrates and warns against the most common pitfalls of the do-it-yourselfer, while also serving as a plea from the designer: “Please don’t f*** up all our hard work!”

Setting and maintaining standards is a good idea. They serve as a valuable foundation and establish a level of expectation: “Our marketing should always be this good.”

But, as my mom used to say: “Always is a long time.”

Setting the floor

If brand implementation receives ongoing support and attention – with an organization’s leaders making it a clear priority – then brand guidelines can help extend and elevate this work. The quality and consistency should improve immediately, and remain a cut above with careful cultivation.

Similarly, the growth and popularity of easy-to-use website templates points to the desire to make a good impression online. Why reinvent the wheel when I can just choose from a limited menu of options and build something that works?

In essence, both brand guidelines and off-the-shelf websites ensure a level of professional competence. They set the floor.

The best-laid plans

Be prepared, the Cub Scout motto implores. There is wisdom in planning for success.

I was thinking about the value of planning last week as I listened to Cautionary Tales, a podcast that tells true stories about mistakes and what we should learn from them. One episode focuses on the art of public speaking, contrasting the preparation and performance of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gerald Ratner, a successful British businessman.

King was known for his meticulous preparation and practice, refining his sermons for hours before preaching from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church. And yet, at the March on Washington, Dr. King abandoned his prepared remarks and improvised the words that became famous – his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Ratner, who turned a small retailer into a multimillion-dollar business, sunk his entire empire with his off-the-cuff remarks as a guest speaker in front of an audience of colleagues and journalists.

So the fateful question is: When should you stick to the script, and when should you improvise?

Reading the room

Martin Luther King was well-prepared on that day in 1963, but as he began to speak he could feel that the words were not meeting the moment. He felt his audience needed something more, and he deviated from his script.

Gerald Ratner, who came from a working class background, was considered something of an outsider by those in his audience. He was well-prepared as well, but tried to ingratiate himself to his high-powered audience by making jokes at his low-brow customers’ expense.

The first lesson of improvising is understanding the audience – from its engagement, response, and other contextual clues. Can you read the room, the thinking, and the mood of those for whom – and with whom – you are playing?

Miles Davis once explained his approach to jazz improv as creating the “freedom and space to hear things.” That phrase is instructive. It’s about listening to what the other instruments are doing, and how the audience is responding in the moment – as in a conversation.

Raising the ceiling

Maybe a high-floor, low-ceiling brand execution is the best you can hope to sustain. You could do much worse (and many do). Guidelines provide the solid foundation for a brand, and you really need to understand the rules before you can break them.

In order to soar beyond the ordinary, take some advice from Miles Davis:

“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”

Sheet music is like the guidelines for a song. It allows others to understand what notes are used in what order and at what tempo. But it’s a starting point.

The best brands allow for interpretation – variations on a theme. No one wants to hear a one-note song. Guidelines establish parameters, but also provide brand managers the tools and room to play, which extends the life and success of the brand.

“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”

Like getting a new haircut or rearranging the furniture in your home, a brand launch provides a jolt of energy. Even if you love it immediately, it will become more refined and more comfortable as you live with it. Building brand equity – and the skills to manage a brand – takes time. Consider both a work in progress.

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”

Nobody is perfect and, thankfully, few mistakes are fatal. If you give yourself permission to make lots of small bets, to try new things, you and your brand will continue to grow.

Experience and practice helps create the space to hear and see opportunities – to engage your audience, to pivot as needed, to evolve and try new things. If you want a brand that really swings, keep improvising.

Time is On Your Side

Collection of vintage rusty watches and parts on a brown old rusted background

In the 1950s, Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer, first urged advertisers and designers to embrace the idea of planned obsolescence by “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”

And while critics may complain about product quality, the perpetually discontented consumer has enthusiastically supported the practice, racking up debt and producing waste at an alarming rate. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is alive and well.

Fast forward 60+ years, and it should come as no surprise that the desire for newer, faster, and better extends beyond the products we buy to our every waking moment.

One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. Time is always slipping away – you will never get back the 40 seconds it took to read this far – and the competition for our attention has never been more fierce.

Built to last?

Gerry McGovern, an advocate for designing simpler digital experiences, started a discussion on Twitter by observing:

In all the web design meetings I’ve been in over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say: “How do we design this to last.” It’s just assumed there will be a redesign every 2-3 years. Why? Why is that assumed?

I can confirm that there is very little I have been asked to design that doesn’t have a relatively short expected lifespan, whether it be in print or online.

But the need to constantly feed social media channels has created a relatively new commodity – digital content – that frantically attempts to captivate short attention spans. McGovern again:

If there’s one thing digital has done, it is to explode the creation and production of digital stuff. It requires herculean efforts to focus on quality in a digital environment because digital tools are so relentlessly focused on quantity. Digital feeds and accelerates a culture of waste.

Rewiring – or overwhelming – our brains

Most people would acknowledge that the constant barrage of messages and stimulation has shortened attention spans, decreased patience, and undermined our ability to focus.

Some scientists believe human brains will adapt. But true multitasking – at least with the brains we’ve got – is a myth. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else. If you think you are multitasking, you are actually just switching rapidly between tasks. The human brain cannot perform two tasks that require high-level brain function at the same time.

OK – so marketing may not require high-level brain function – but the point is that there are those who see consumers’ very limited attention as something both valuable and disposable. You didn’t respond to this image? How about this one? Or this one?

Keep it coming until something sticks.

Quantity over quality

In a digital environment that is almost entirely focused on quantity, many experts will insist that “if you want to do it right” you must join the arms race to capture your audience’s attention. More! More! More!

If you have the staff resources to play that game, by all means, be my guest. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. For most mission-driven organizations, with staff stretched thin, this game is going to feel more like a hamster running on a wheel – a lot of exercise without getting anywhere.

Howard Rheingold, an influential writer and thinker on social media, points out that more mindful use of digital media means thinking about what we are doing, “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”

And that applies both to consumption – and creation – of digital design.

The long game

Taking a more mindful, zen-like approach to your marketing and design is not a call to surrender, but to re-evaluate the day-to-day tactics you are engaged in now. Is that itch to “do something” a response to your audience and what they need or want from you? Or is that your own short attention span calling?

There is no quick fix. Setting aside the flashy launch, branding is all about building equity over time. It requires the discipline to exceed expectations – again and again. That’s how you shape perceptions, build trust, and increase engagement.

Let the calm confidence of doing less, but more meaningful, work wash over you, grasshopper. You will capture more attention, and create more value, by altering your time frame – and produce less disposable design in the process.

Misplaced Certainty

Illustration of a school of fish – all swimming in one direction except for one of themAs a designer, in proposals or in conversation, I have often told potential clients that the most valuable thing I provide is not the logo, or the website, or any other designed artifact or experience. The most valuable thing I provide is the confidence to move forward.

Not knowing which option of many is the one to pursue, the one that will produce the desired goals, can be debilitating. It leads to uncertainty, if not inertia.

Meet David Starr Jordan.

Jordan, a taxonomist who catalogued thousands of fish species in the late 1800s, is the central figure in Lulu Miller’s book, Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love and the Hidden Order of Life.

The book’s central theme is humanity’s often heartbreaking effort to keep chaos at bay. Miller’s fascination with Jordan’s story is in no small part due to his ability to repeatedly bounce back from devastating personal setbacks – the death of his wife, his brother, and a child, as well as the destruction of his collection of specimens (twice).

The scholar seemed to possess a “shield of optimism” that protected him from the doubts that crippled lesser men. This confidence – his middle name was self-anointed – told him that the only way out is through, as they say.

Jordan came of age in a scientific world reshaped by the work of Charles Darwin. The natural world was no longer considered fixed and unchanging. But while the taxonomist embraced the idea of evolving species, he remained quite certain that the world was still governed by hierarchy. Some creatures were better than others.

I encourage you to read the book to discover where that story leads.

Embracing curiosity over certainty

For me, one of the key takeaways of the book was this: Don’t be so certain of what you think you know.

The world is changing rapidly around us. Experiencing cognitive dissonance – the mental discomfort that results from holding conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes – has become more frequent and jarring. When that happens, we are forced to weigh the social costs of changing our minds, or our interpretation of events, against the comfort of shaping narratives to fit long-held perceptions.

I would argue there’s never been a better time to put aside what you think you know, and ask better questions as a means of solving problems. It’s an invitation to find beauty in uncertainty – and curiosity – if not chaos.

Start at the beginning

Zen Buddhists find joy through the practice of seeing life with a beginner’s mind. They strive to drop expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and see things with fresh eyes, just like a beginner. Some might call this intellectual humility.

All too often we think more like an expert. I know the answer! Or, at least I know where to look it up. This has all been figured out already. Nothing to see here.

The problem with this kind of certainty – with assuming we know more than we do – is that it prevents us from asking better questions to get better answers. The same old thinking leads to the same old results.

Assumption audit

When an organization isn’t performing to expectations, it might undergo a brand audit – an analysis of customer awareness and perceptions, messaging, and competitors. If the website is underperforming, it might be time for a content audit. Take an inventory of everything on the site and assess whether it is relevant, current, or useful.

Like other audits, an assumption audit relies on research to uncover problems, but its focus is internal – on fundamental beliefs, values, and processes. Also, like other audits, organizations usually benefit from the fresh perspective of an outside consultant. It’s difficult to honestly examine the way you think.

The utility of assumption audits is supported by the fact that it is entirely possible to successfully address external factors like customer perceptions, and still be undermined by underlying internal assumptions and blind spots.

Assumption audits recognize that many symptoms of dysfunction are psychological in nature. The good thing about an internal cause – an organizational mental block – is that it can be faster, cheaper, and more effective to address than external causes. The result of an audit is a prescription for better long-term health and success.

By valuing curiosity over certainty, assumption audits can help organizations unlock new and better ways of doing things, providing the justifiable confidence to move forward.

Overcoming Fear

vintage commic book illustration, woman dramatically screaming "AAAA!"Terrorists. Security breaches. A global pandemic. Our media, entertainment, and political figures fixate on imminent perils to captivate audiences. Fear may be a great motivator, but unfortunately it tends to make us feel powerless rather than proficient.

Despite a focus on our (or their) shortcomings, we live in a time of unmatched abundance and technological wizardry that dwarfs the wildest imagination. We have decoded the human genome, developed developed new sources of clean energy, and made advances in human rights. We carry hand-held computers that can map every location we visit, play every song we’ve ever heard, and show cat videos on an endless loop. We land a spacecraft on Mars and people yawn.

We should feel empowered by our triumphs against long odds and all manner of dangerous obstacles. One would think we’d be more optimistic about outcomes based on our successful track record. Why aren’t we brimming with confidence?

The missing ingredient
Some people just have that “it” factor. In the boardroom, on the big screen, or on our bookshelves, we gravitate to confidence. It may show itself in different ways. Confident people can be funny, smart, or kind, but they are all driven by a passionate belief in what they are doing. They seem fearless – willing to go, say, and do what others are too timid to try.

When developing an organization’s brand, we often talk in terms of brand personality. I guarantee that not one successful brand is aiming for mousy, ambivalent, or feeble.

A lack of confidence is one of the biggest shortcomings in marketing and communications for mission-driven organizations. Most work is cautious – competent not compelling – because few are willing to passionately say or demonstrate how amazing their organization really is.

The fear of making a mistake – the fear of standing out – is a real problem in an undifferentiated marketplace. Throw in myriad personal quirks and office politics and it’s evident there are obstacles to confidently crafting stories that connect with the hearts and minds of your audience.

Leading the engagement
Confidence can’t be faked. False bravado or arrogance make timidity look like a desirable character trait in comparison. But it can be earned through practice that reveals your passions and expertise.

Here are a few of the ingredients necessary to taking charge of an assignment, or better yet, being asked to lead the way.

Know your shit.
Confidence comes from experience – a depth of knowledge gained through studying and applying what you believe to be important and true. This choice is better than that one. It comes from taking calculated risks and recognizing that the world didn’t come to an end.

Be a generous guide.
When you seek services – a restaurant, a hotel, an auto mechanic, an accountant – you want to feel like you’re in good hands. Understanding the context of an assignment – using situational and emotional intelligence – enables leaders to develop empathy for others. This, in turn, builds trust.

Survey your options.
What is the worst-case scenario? The most confident people are able to reduce the risks of the unknown by believing – even if it’s not readily apparent – that they will find an acceptable fallback position if the first plan fails.

Narrow your target.
Confident leaders excel at sifting through ten pages of information and distilling it into one, taking five bullet points and cutting it to three. That ability to focus applies to your target audience as well. Defining and prioritizing your audiences and project goals is key to making better and more decisive choices.

Ask for what you want!
Whether you’re communicating with colleagues or your target audience, it’s surprising how often the “call to action” is overlooked or buried under the weight of competing priorities (see above). Nobody succeeds alone. If you believe in the value of the offer, you’re doing the audience a favor by clearly letting them know what to do next.

Attitude adjustment
Confidence is essential for changing the conversations around what we see, hear, feel and know to be true. Good designers and writers see a project’s potential, and tell powerful stories that inspire action. Mediocre marketing and design has none of that.

The most valuable thing a designer provides is not the creative product – a website, a logo, a publication. The most valuable thing a designer provides clients and colleagues is the confidence to move forward.

Related content:
Confidence Makes Great Marketing
Do It Anyway

First Contact

photo illustration of flying saucer at night with beam of light shining on single person standing below itMy oldest son is a sophomore in high school. Last fall he took the PSAT – a preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test – and scored quite well. As in, 99th percentile well.

Almost instantly, hundreds of colleges are interested in him. The response time is impressive. He gets dozens of emails every day and he’s getting more printed mail than I’m getting bills, so it’s a lot to absorb.

What’s less impressive is the mind-numbing uniformity. More than half the emails he receives appear to be stamped out in a college recruitment factory.

With no photos, logos, or anything compelling or memorable to stand out from the crowd – in the way that his test score does – these colleges invariably open with a compliment on his academic abilities and move on to the offer:

You’ve been selected to receive Backpack Secrets of the Nation’s Top Scholars.

I’d like to give you access to Big Picture: How Your Favorite Movies Can Predict Your College Major.

That’s why I want to give you Best and Brightest: How America’s Top Scholars Choose Their Ideal College.

I’ve chosen you to receive an exclusive guide, Your Best School: How (and Why) to Choose a College on the Rise.

That’s why we want to send you 7 Key Questions: Finding the Right Fit in Your College Search.

Reply now!

As if.

sample of a generic college recruitment email

Sample of a generic college recruitment email

Savvy consumers
My experience is that kids are cynics. They know when they are being sold something. The attempts to “engage” fall flat. Last week, my young scholar reported with bemusement that online ads featuring Derek from [Blank] State University keep popping up in the margins of his web browsing.

It’s the place where Derek began his adventure!

Our apartment together was like a design studio!

Derek designed sneakers in Germany when he studied abroad!

My son’s takeaway: “They want me to think he’s cool, so I could be cool if I go there too.” He’s not buying it.

Be distinct
It’s a hard job marketing colleges to young students. Almost all of those emails are trashed with barely a glance. Almost all of the mail quickly ends up in our recycling bin.

For my focus group of one in this early stage of the recruitment process, what makes an impression to match the gaudy test score? Or at least makes him pause for a second or two?

Good design and good writing.

One email began:

We have learned that you recently suffered the indignity of squandering several hours answering dozens of irritating multiple-choice questions. Sorry about that.

Another had nothing but a giant photo of an orange with an arrow and the headline: Peel Here. Of course, he eats about a half dozen clementines per day. Another began with a curious illustration and the opening line: Why can a fly climb on the ceiling, but a human can’t? (See below.)

What are my early impressions of college recruitment marketing? If you really want to attract the best and brightest students, you’re going to have to step up your game. Delivering a generic first impression is a great way to get your young target audience to tune you out.

Photo of an orange with an arrow and the headline: "Peel here."Illustration of dark silhouettes walking upside down on the ceiling of a classroom. Today's Lesson: Lord of the Flies is written on the chalkboard

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Perpetual Beta Mode

Illustration by Tom Fishburne. People sitting at a table thinking about different types of lightbulbsI coach my son’s sixth grade basketball team. If there’s one thing I know from watching youth basketball, it’s that there is a very slim chance that five players will do exactly what they’re supposed to do at any one time. It’s a fluid game.

Despite that, my boys want to learn “plays” – a set of instructions that determines who does what in hopes of putting the ball in the basket. They want certainty. My most difficult task as a coach is to provide structure while teaching them to read and react to dynamic conditions on the floor.

Middle schoolers are similar to CEOs in one way – they are accustomed to working in a linear fashion. Projects have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s more important that work is handed in on time than done well. And recess is always right after lunch.

More organizations are starting to see the folly in adhering to a rigid system of working. In its place we are finding a more adaptive approach, one where continuous learning moves the organization closer to its goals.

Perfection is overrated
Nobody wants to be the “logo cop.” When I am asked to help with a new identity or brand refresh, clients will often regale me with stories of crimes committed against their logo. “How can we stop it?” they plead.

Seeking brand consistency is a worthy undertaking. And while consistency has value, it should really be considered the floor – not the ceiling – of achievement.

Do your logo guidelines document all the things “thou shall not do” to the logo? Time spent getting every last detail right remains an often fruitless effort to exert control over people. Instead, invest in setting a clear and compelling brand strategy – a foundation from which people can identify relevant stories for your audience.

A brand and messaging guide should serve as a launching pad, not a stop sign. Establish recognizable patterns – absolutely – but accept and encourage variation and evolution as the natural state of your brand.

Small bets
Solving problems is easy if you have a formula, but it only works when all the variables are known. In rapidly changing times that’s rarely possible. Key information is missing. Opportunities are fleeting. Solutions fail.

We cannot solve today’s problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein

Agile project management is rooted in software development, but its methods are now being used broadly. Why? It promotes adaptive planning, ongoing improvement, and a rapid and flexible response to change. Done well, it accelerates execution.

Similarly, designers are taught to solve problems through observation, idea generation, and rapid prototyping that responds to user needs. It is an iterative approach that produces solutions that traditional methods cannot. Done well, it accelerates ingenuity.

Both methods address uncertainty by placing many “small bets” – ideas that can be tried quickly and cheaply. This practice reduces the risk of missing the mark and increases the chance for true innovation. Small bets reveal what works, what doesn’t, and how to improve your ideas.

Minimum viable brand
The Industrial Revolution may be a distant memory, but the transformation of production methods and processes continues unabated. And today, it’s not just about manufacturing. Any service that can be turned into a cheap commodity will be. Want a logo for $99? Done. Want a website that designs itself? Sign up here.

The speed and agility of the marketplace almost guarantees that whatever big idea you’re working on has probably already launched. “Wait and see” turns into “missed the boat” in the blink of an eye. But just because it’s available doesn’t mean people will want it.

Frankly, it doesn’t really matter if your letterhead is the perfect shade of white, or if people like your Facebook page. It is necessary, however, to rally colleagues around your brand’s strategy.

At a minimum, this would articulate your brand promise (what you stand for), what separates you from competitors, who you seek to engage (your audience), and what you want to say (key messages) and show.

If these basic brand elements are clearly understood and communicated within an organization, you can launch ideas quickly, on demand, with fewer resources.

Beta is better
Perpetual beta testing is useful for measuring performance, understanding user preferences, and previewing new ideas. It embraces change as necessary to ensure customer satisfaction. It also guarantees that the most time and money will be spent on the most effective ideas and projects.

Traditional organizations move slowly, learning little, as they seek certainty in an uncertain world. Modern organizations create, listen to feedback, and continue to improve.

Related content:

Is It Time to See Brand Guidelines in a New Light?
What Are Little Bets?
Start-Ups Need a Minimum Viable Brand

Illustration (above) by Tom Fishburne

A Touch of Darkness

darknessI have an inherited sweet tooth. As a child, it was the rare week when my mom didn’t whip up a batch of homemade cookies for our school lunches. My grandma, who loved her ice cream, always said she started planning meals with dessert and worked backward from there.

Recently, I stumbled across “the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies” so, naturally, I had to try them. Like any cookie connoisseur knows, the right ingredients make all the difference. In addition to recommending the use of dark chocolate chips, this recipe adds just a touch of sea salt to the top of the cookies before sliding them into the oven. Mmmmm!

Good stories, like good cookies, require just the right touch of savory to balance the sweet. In more literary terms, no one gives a rat’s ass about a story without conflict.

Candy coated
Just about any PowerPoint presentation, press release, or research report, is greeted with stifled yawns, apathy, or even worse, cynicism.

No one believes in a story with a linear trajectory devoid of trouble. In this relentlessly rosy world, where increasing revenues are a given, and all your products and services are considered world-class, your audience might experience a sugar high if the message wasn’t so severely dull and pointless. To pretend otherwise is to live in a fairytale world of rainbows and unicorns.

The most memorable stories recognize that personal struggles, and hard-won victories, are universal. Exposing the obstacles along the way mines your audience’s shared sense of pain and increases appreciation for authentic accomplishments.

Finding drama
Deep down, human beings have a profound need to understand things on a personal level. Emotional experiences are clearly the most memorable.

“But my [life, company, organization, product, service] just isn’t that exciting.”

That statement is the adult equivalent of the child’s summertime bleating, “I’m bored.” When you frame your story as a struggle against a series of pesky antagonists, your audience will become invested in the outcome, and you become the hero. Without them, you’ll be ignored.

Antagonists come in many guises – time, money, deadlines, another person or organization, societal norms, the weather – virtually any opposing force or obstacle. Living life brings conflict every day. To ignore it or gloss it over is to miss the opportunity.

The best storytellers, artists, and organizations find ways to include both darkness and light in their work. As frenetic and original as Robin Williams was as a comedian, it was in his dramatic roles – Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Insomnia – that we saw the true breadth of his talent.

The work of the best-loved children’s authors is rife with all manner of unspeakable atrocities on the way to those happy endings. If the fans of Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, Roald Dahl, et al, can handle the dark side – hell, embrace it – then your audience can, too.

Honesty and persuasion
In some corners of the nonprofit world, and often in academia, there is a profound mistrust of those who aim to shape perceptions. Derogatory terms like spin doctor or snake oil salesman may be tossed around as a way of discounting emotion and elevating rational thinking.

“Branding is dishonest. We can’t be advertised like a tube of toothpaste.”

A common mistake when presenting an organization’s selling points is to believe that we can sway an audience solely with facts. No equation compels people to act or change behavior. The human mind is terrible at processing mathematical data.

The gravelly-voiced singer-songwriter Tom Waits once observed: “We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; Quantity is being confused with abundance, and wealth with happiness.”

We see what we want to see, we hear what we want to hear, and fit the data to match. We’re storytellers!

The most honest thing you can do is to use all that messy drama, the intractable struggle against antagonists big and small, to persuade people to listen and to care about your story. To tell compelling stories is to understand the difference between measuring things and paying attention.

Bigshots vs. Slingshots

David vs GoliathNo matter what anyone tells you, size matters. It’s a daunting challenge to compete against organizations with more people, more locations, deeper pockets, and a lengthy and successful track record.

Being recognized as a “big name” is a tremendous advantage, and the most valuable benefit of that familiarity is trust: “I’ve heard of them. They must be doing something right.” Whether searching for deals online, comparing products on your supermarket shelves, or listening to your teenager’s excuse for getting home late, nearly every choice we make, every action we take, is processed through a “trust filter.”

Blunt instruments
Big companies operate at a dazzling scale. McDonalds spends $1 billion annually on advertising. There are only two countries on the planet where Coca-Cola doesn’t sell its drinks – Cuba and North Korea (due to U.S. trade restrictions). If Walmart was a country, its annual revenue would make it the 25th largest economy in the world.

The big brands’ ability to broadcast – in the broadest sense of the word – means they can flood the market with every possible means of communication. They don’t need to worry too much about “building awareness.” In fact, they really don’t need to know who their customers are, what they prefer, or where they live. By virtue of sheer size, these giants’ customers are everywhere and include nearly everyone.

A common mistake of smaller organizations is to misunderstand their place in the market, pursuing tactics (“We need billboards.”) or strategies (“Let’s get more people to mention us on social media.”) similar to the big guys – competing in an arena that they just can’t win. It’s like a battle between a cigarette lighter and a flamethrower. You’re toast.

The wedge
When trying to split a slab of granite into smaller pieces, a stone mason uses the sharp end of a chisel. When trying to solve a complicated case, a detective will ask increasingly pointed questions. Working toward precision with the blunt end of a tool is like using a sledgehammer to swat a housefly – your attempts may succeed, but not without great difficulty and unintended consequences.

In order to make an impact, an organization needs to use the narrowest end of the wedge – a well-defined brand promise – to gain leverage. Rather than attempting to be all things to all people, maximum leverage comes from a razor-sharp focus – knowing who you are, what you do, and who your audience is.

The one advantage you have over a bigger competitor is an ability to focus on a segment of the market that they cannot possibly serve as well as you – to serve a group of people in ways that larger competitors can’t match. So, instead of spreading a few seeds in a vast parking lot and hoping something sprouts, smart organizations choose to concentrate efforts on only the most well-suited plots of land.

Every single large company was small at one time. What often gets lost when marveling at large-scale operations is that the biggest brands deliver on a well-defined brand promise better than anyone else – every day – again and again and again.

Being small is no sin. Being small and undefined is a recipe for mediocrity.

Promises, promises
What promises do you make to your customers? What promises can you keep? It’s not enough to nod to your competitors and say, “We can do that, too.” It’s not enough to claim location as a competitive advantage. To move people to action and inspire loyalty, a brand promise:

  • Must convey a compelling benefit.
  • Must be believable and defendable.
  • Must be kept every single time.

With its everyday low prices, Walmart promises you will save money and live better. Coca-Cola promises to inspire moments of fun, optimism, and refreshment. McDonalds promises to deliver quality, service, cleanliness, and value.

It doesn’t matter if you order a Big Mac, a Happy Meal, or a Shamrock Shake. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Portland, Oregon, or Portland, Maine. People choose McDonalds because it consistently delivers on its brand promise better than its competitors.

From a distance, big brands may seem to have insurmountable advantages by virtue of their size. Looking closer, you’ll see that their most remarkable advantage is the million little ways that they keep promises for each customer they serve. As it turns out, it’s not the size of the organization that matters, it’s the quantity and consistency of the promises kept.

Related content:
Not Busy, Focused

There’s Only One Best Practice

network of dotsSitting in a conference room, answering questions from my client about an impending website redesign, it dawned on me that what they really wanted to understand was best practices. What steps do we need to take to mitigate the risks of initiating this project? What must we do to increase the certainty of a successful outcome?

It’s my job to know these things, to guide them from point A to point B, and help them meet or exceed the project’s objectives. And it’s prudent for the client to adhere to best practices in many facets of the organization’s operations. It assures an acceptable standard of performance, a threshold of competency.

What best practices won’t do – what they often inhibit organizations from doing – is encourage people to set their sites higher. Scaling up the impact of nonprofit organizations requires a mindset that leaves best practices for those who wish to blend in, to be as good as – but not better than – what already exists.

Just do it
Nike’s longtime tagline leaves no wiggle room for the impassioned athlete. There are no excuses. For the vast majority who fall short, there is honor in putting forth one’s best effort in pursuit of the pinnacle.

Back at the office, we’re more often encouraged to hold our passions in check. Curiosity killed the cat. Look before you leap. Don’t reinvent the wheel. There’s no shortage of wisdom devoted to avoiding unnecessary risks.

Imagine what our world would be like if there weren’t dedicated individuals with a passion for helping others? Over the past ten years, the nonprofit sector has grown faster than both the business and government sectors, yet problems of poverty, education, the environment, and public health are as vexing as ever. We don’t lack passion. We lack alignment.

If you start with the premise that most everything we know is out of date, then the need to reach beyond conventional approaches – to discard “best practices” – becomes imperative.

Connect the dots
Imagine a symphony orchestra. Before the lights dim, before the conductor raises the baton, a discordant blend of strings, percussion, and woodwind instruments squeaks and groans from the stage. It is only when the musicians begin playing in unison that we can appreciate their talents.

For maximum impact, we need more people, departments, and organizations working better together. We need to be playing the same tune.

The most valuable skill set today is the ability to connect the dots. Collaborators will inherit the earth, or at least improve it. People (and organizations) that can assemble and marshal diverse resources – ideas, agendas, funding – have the best chance of enacting systemic change.

There are no marketing secrets or shortcuts. Creating remarkable products and services is the only best practice worth pursuing. And the best way to do that is through more frequent and effective collaborations.

Related content:
How Do Nonprofits Get Really Big?
Measuring Nothing (with Great Accuracy)

Rogue Designers

A group of people gather inconspicuously in a public place. Participants nervously wait for their cue. And then it begins, simply at first, then building momentum as more join in. The exhilaration grows as bystanders stop and watch with surprise and delight, finally bursting into applause as the unexpected performance reaches its conclusion.

Flash mobs – with singing and dancing that transform an ordinary classroom or train station into a scene from Glee – are usually performed by volunteers, often total strangers, for nothing more than the fun of it (and repeated views on YouTube).

When it comes to design or brand standards, most organizations are looking for consistency, choreographed through manuals, training, and the occasional friendly reminder. The goal is to display admirable skill and precision that reflects well on the organization – we are good at what we do! So, why is it so damn hard to get people to use your logo correctly?

The art of conformity
At one time or another, we’ve all encountered a well-intentioned – I’m giving benefit of the doubt here – “rogue designer” in our midst. This is the sort of departmental do-it-yourselfer who might decorate the president’s official business with a clip art border of puppies, or arbitrarily change corporate colors because they were “feeling orange” that day.

In the nonprofit world, where a “big media buy” means a trip to the copy center, each impression is precious. That’s why it’s so important to get everyone voluntarily pulling in the same direction.

I recently polled a few colleagues who’ve had success managing brands to assemble some best practices for keeping aberrant design behavior to a minimum.

Ongoing communication
Developing design standards is a painstaking process, but often too much is assumed. An email is sent, a couple meetings scheduled, and some files are uploaded to the website – then we move on with our busy lives. And, so do our colleagues. It reminds me of the warden in the classic movie Cool Hand Luke admonishing his prisoners, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Less famously, Mary Ridgway, creative director at Fort Hays State University, wisely notes: “Branding isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it process.” In fact, the process – planning how and when you will communicate with internal stakeholders – is as important as the product (logos, fonts, and colors). Keep in mind:

  • Transparency matters. Getting buy-in works best when people feel involved. Let them know what’s happening, how things are progressing, and ask for feedback. Start early and keep at it.
  • Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. How does what you’re asking people to do make their lives more difficult or less convenient? How can you make it simpler or easier? Ideally, this is a two-way street, says Sheila Hines Edmondson, a communications consultant. Empathy helps build trust and encourages open discourse.
  • Training days. The brand launch is only the beginning, a time for handing out balloons and coffee mugs. Schedule workshops – and annual orientation sessions for new hires – to bring everyone up to speed on what the brand standards are, why they are important, and how each person has a role to play in the brand’s success.
  • It takes a village. Recruit a committee of brand champions – ambassadors who lead by example and help you reinforce the brand consistently across the organization.

Chain of command
As a child, no one ever said, “Mommy, when I grow up I want to be a manager.” And certainly nobody aspires to the fresh hell of serving as a manager without authority. Brand standards won’t succeed unless there’s visible and vocal support in the executive suite. Without it, the benign paternalism of the brand manager can quickly devolve into resentment and bitter resignation.

Despite the benefits of ongoing communication, ultimately every brand needs a benevolent dictator. Allison Manley of the Chicago-based firm Rogue Element observes, “Getting buy-in from multiple voices is fine, but it’s impossible to please everyone. There must be one or two people making the final decisions, and willing to take any heat they might receive.”

Control of the purse strings is a useful policy as well, says Mary Ridgway. “If someone bypasses my approval, the purchasing department won’t pay the bill, and the rogue must pay out of their own pocket.”

Style and substance
It’s important to document the elements that define your visual brand. The style or brand guide is the foundation for everything your organization produces. These guidelines summarize the brand and illustrate components of the organization’s identity, including: key messages, examples of common print and online applications, explanation of the logo, typography, color palette, and graphic elements.

Make electronic files and templates easily available by posting them on your website. Do you really want to be the bottleneck that responds to every random logo request? However, to discourage foolishness, make those graphics and templates difficult to edit or alter.

Your aim is true
Let’s face it: designers are all kind of control freaks at heart. Accepting that some battles aren’t worth fighting or fretting over is a tough step for some. Where do you draw the line? The answer is rarely crystal clear. Accept that some of the “rogue” work is going to look fine and some is going to be horrible. Sometimes, the best you can do is to ask the offenders for future cooperation.

For most people, there’s joy and fulfillment in being part of something bigger than oneself – cheering on the home team, going to the cineplex, or gathering for Sunday services. Creating the conditions for brand success require tapping into that innate human desire to belong.

Finally, as with a flash mob, don’t underestimate the element of surprise and delight. Ongoing, involuntary drudgery inspires little brand enthusiasm. When all else fails, take the words of Chuckles the Clown  to heart: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”