We never use that word

Your organization probably has one.

You may even have notebooks full of them.

They are “the words we never use when we talk about our __________.”

(Product, service, company, employees, tool.)

I get it. I do.

You have good reason for never wanting to use those words.

But what if, just maybe, one of those words you never use is actually the perfect word?

Fresh. Concise. Immediate. Visual.

Maybe times have changed enough that the word doesn’t mean what it used to back when it landed in the Book of Forbidden.

Semantics do evolve.

Maybe that word needs to be released.

Take a look at it. Write it down. Put it in a comp. Look at it with fresh eyes.

Let it breathe. Try it out. See how if feels. Test it.

You never know.

Small Batch Branding – Realer Than You Think

My in-laws are in the process of sifting through a late relative’s estate. He wasn’t rich by any means, but he did have an eye for good craftsmanship, and left behind a modest collection of antiques. There’s nothing to get rich off, but the items are still too nice to simply cart off to Goodwill. Clearly, this is a classic job for eBay, and, eventually, the dreaded post office.

But this Thanksgiving, as I showed my in-laws around the eBay mobile app, I was shocked to hear my wife rattle off, verbatim, the commercial for Stamps.com, which runs at least once per episode on our favorite podcast. She knew everything, from the promo code to the sign-off. It was like a heartwarming, homespun version of The Exorcist.

Almost as shocking: the fact that I recognized she was repeating it word for word.

We are, clearly, big podcast listeners. And we tend to be very loyal to our favorite shows.

Podcasting is an especially intimate medium, with the familiarity of radio, and the peer-to-peer rapport of the internet. What it might lack in numbers, it more than makes up for in loyalty and engagement (though some of those numbers are nothing to dismiss). We’ve heard that commercial thirty or forty times, and could recognize it by heart—happily. When was the last time you could say that about an overlay ad?

I bring this up to illustrate a point, which organizations still seem reluctant to put into practice: The future belongs to the hard core. The market is too fractious and flat to market broadly anymore. But small, fiercely devoted audiences will make your nut and spread the word more effectively than the widest marketing blast, or the most mimicked “influencer.”

That means that the stories you tell have to be richer in detail, more pointed in their specificity, more sincere in their desire to truly connect. It means that building a relationship with your user isn’t a metaphor for sales acquisitions. It’s for realsies.

That means that the product has to be, too. It has to be worth saving, worth passing on to a good home. If you want a relationship with users, you first have to craft your half of the equation: not just a quality product, but the personality that outsiders will want to spend time with. You have to find sincere partners and vehicles for your message, who will share your goal of authentic, intimate connection to a devoted following—who value quality engagement over quantity engagement.

Call it brand if you must, but it can’t be synthesized. It can be only discovered and refined. Brand can’t be constructed, only realized. And that’s not just hard—it’s scary. It means exposing yourself for a judgment as honest and true as you are. For some people, smoke and mirrors are more appealing. But if you can connect authentically and intimately, your message will spread everywhere your users go.

And I’ll see you never at the post office.

Kids Play With Rocks All the Time

Kids play with rocks all the time but we never let them play with matches. That’s because anyone can strike a match.

One match head against a striking surface can set just about anything flammable ablaze. Once it ignites, there’s no turning back. But slamming two rocks together in search of a spark requires a more discretionary process of arrangement: tinder, then kindling, and finally timber. There is an investment in process, a study in vantage points and respect for the craft of getting it right. Spark + oxygen + tinder is a ceremony of creativity—an investment in the potential of change.

No matter how lean your thinking, there is always the hope that this solution, the one you’re sketching out right now is the one. Perhaps with just a few minor tweaks, this could be it. Business objectives addressed—check. Users needs solved—check. Market and pricing established – check and check. If we can just present this to the client correctly, we’re golden. (High fives around the room.)

Queue up Powerpoint and Omnigraffle. Volley the pitch language back and forth on Google Docs. Set that meeting to present your solution to the client and then: wait. Perhaps you tweak, polish some pixels, sharpen the copy but mostly, you wait.

Patience vs Waiting
Patience makes the choice to select small rewards in the short term—or to hold out for a more valuable reward further down the road. Waiting consists of sitting on your hands, in suspension until the next move or counting on being selected. (More often the latter.)

Waiting is a common trait of the failed solution. It often highlights failures in client/agency or intradepartmental communication, lack of clarity in scope, or a broken/unearned circle of trust. It’s an indicator that those grand ideas will likely remain ideas, or else be sublimated by committee. The reason? The environment required to nurture the solution is not in place. The change management required for the concept to flourish is too much for your organization to tackle.

Friction is a necessity of good creativity
Differences of opinion get a bad rap. Exchanging information about a project—data points, best practices, past project histories, team members, business goals, user needs etc.—is an exercise that thrives on the collision of assumptions. It’s the consistency of that friction which creates energy and change, not the big presentation or the one-off strike. In fact the danger is the one off strike, the big simplified presentation.

We want both to cut our meetings down to 15 minutes and ensure that we are leaving no stone unturned in our discovery and research as we march towards an innovative solution. But you can’t have both until you are operating in a culture that values true solutions. Finding the next great idea or innovation is not that hard if you are patient. There are smart, talented people in your organization (or at the agency you work with) with creative concepts that, with a little friction, could start a fire that radically improves your business. But friction requires two stones, not a stone and wall. Untangling the resistance to change is often an exercise in artfully reassessing power structures. That’s sometimes really hard work. The answer is not a new creative director or an agency shift or a revolving door of CMOs, but a commitment to a culture where friction is honored as a means for propulsion.