Archive for August, 2006

Fun with design.

You know, working with small companies – especially retail outlets with a very local and specific clientelle – can be pretty fun, especially when they are willing to step outside of their confort zone and routinely surprise their audience by not being… predictable.

Surprising people with something completely unexpected can be part of the appeal of superfly boutique brands. Differentiation isn’t always enough. Without a healthy little dose of style, maybe even humor, and a pinch of the “I know there’s an inside story behind this idea” vibe, you could be dead in the water.

(Super science to sell road bikes? Huh?! There isn’t even a bike or a cyclist in the picture. What gives?)

Sometimes, it’s just about having fun with your customers.

All I have to say is that not every client or employer I’ve had in my short but prolific career would have let me design a tongue-in-cheek promo like this one. (Then again, when a client only gives you three hours to come up with something cool, the result can be a bit unconventional.)

Quick! Think fast!

“Ca passe ou ca casse,” as they say back home.

We could have gone with a classic looking promo with images of the bikes or photos of cyclists and references to the USA Cycling Pro Championships (hosted right here in Greenville this weekend) – but everyone in town already did that. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but… what’s been done has been done, and… what’s been overdone has definitely been overdone. Know what I mean?

So… Here are four things I learned today:

All in all, this is the kind of work that –

a) makes a morning really fly by,
b) makes you feel a little guilty to get paid to have so much fun,
c) makes you thirst for more,
d) makes you realize that taking an occasional wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide design detour can breathe some fresh air into a branding strategy that was starting to become a bit too predictable, and
e) it’s amazing what you can put together in just a few hours if you just… let loose and have fun.

Whether the promo’s design will work remains to be seen, but at least we aren’t boring anyone to death with lame by-the-numbers crrrrrahp. We’re already putting together the next one, and it should be even cooler. (Having a bit more time to plan ahead helps.)

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"I want to be a yes man?"

Many people in the business world today – and especially on the marketing and creative end of things – like to talk about “re-writing the rules” and “breaking new ground” and “being rebels.”

Unfortunately, most if it is just that: talk.

In the end, most of us end up toning down our designs. Our ideas. Our business plans.

Why? Probably fear, mostly.

Fear that we might offend. Fear that our work will turn people off. Fear that we’ll lose market share or clients or prestige. Fear that we’ll push the cork just a little too far, a little too soon.

Fear that the client will walk away.

Fear should be the thing that drives you to train harder, fight smarter, race faster. Fear should be our motivation to excel and break new ground. To seek every possible advantage. Fear should make us bold. Fear should push us to the front of the pack, where the cheetahs or coyotes or wolves can’t get to us.

Fear should not paralyze us. Ever. Ever. Ever.

Playing it safe is not an option. It isn’t what we got into this business for. It isn’t why clients and customers came to us in the first place. Playing it safe isn’t what made Elvis the King, or Madonna a pop icon, or iPod a huge commercial success. Playing it safe isn’t what crushed Hitler’s war machine in 1944. It isn’t what broke world records. It isn’t what put men on the moon. It isn’t what cured polio. It isn’t what made anyone fall in love with you.

Whenever I see boring products on a shelf or boring advertising in a magazine, or boring copy, or a boring political platform, I can’t help but roll my eyes and ask why. Seriously. Why? Why bother? Why did someone waste time on this? Why did anyone spend money on this? Why would anyone think that being indistinguishable from anyone else (or just being… unremarkable, period) is even in the realm of good ideas?


Why play it safe? Is it smart to play it safe in love? In war? In politics? In design? In art? In business? In sports? In religion and philosophy? In literature? In our thinking? In our cooking?

Fear is a natural response. Fear is healthy. Fear is what makes us run faster, think better, fight harder, search deeper. Fear should drive innovation. Fear should drive us forward.

Fear should never turn us into cowards.

Everyone loves to talk about being bold and innovative. Everyone wants to puff out their chest and speak of the future as if it were something easily grabbed by the throat and pounded into rightful submission.

Unfortunately, most people (and companies) don’t have the oysters to actually go beyond the yapping phase. (If they did, I wouldn’t be so damn excited every time I run into a company or creative agency that actually puts its money where its mouth is.)

The good news is that I am slowly building a network of awesome, super talented, smart, visionary business people, thinkers, artists and entrepreneurs. They’re out there. I meet or discover new ones almost every day, and that’s pretty damn cool.

The bad news is that even if that very exclusive club grows to be several hundred strong, even several thousand, it will still only be a drop in the proverbial bucket.

The 1% of the 1% of the 1%.

Talk about a minority.

We really ought to try and make that number a little bigger. (That’s one of the reasons why many of us blog, if you were wondering.)

We really ought to lead by example. By not being afraid to be bold, and make people react and talk and think. We really ought to not be afraid to fall flat on our faces at times, or to make some people angry, or to step on a few toes.

Controversy isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a company. In many ways, it is the very thing a company might need to define itself as a brand. Standing for something. Style. Integrity. Design. User-friendliness. Something.

We owe it to all the kids who graduate from college and find themselves having to work for thankless companies that will waste their talent and rob us of their creativity for years and years and years.

We owe it to ourselves to be the rebels we once hoped we would be. The leaders. The groundbreaking pioneers.

I am not saying that you should expect to singlehandedly change the world. (I’m not saying you can’t either.) I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be afraid to try.

And that when you do try, there will be hundreds – no, thousands – of us cheering for you.

And yeah, if the first few attempts don’t work, we’ll be there to help you dust yoursef off until your perseverance pays off. It doesn’t matter if you’re a junior-level media buyer or a product manager or a sales management trainee.

Don’t be a chump. Don’t be a yes man. Don’t get suckered into creating average workor falling in line behind all of the other drones who had your job before you came along.

Playing it safe sucks. It always did.

Don’t just talk about rewriting the rules. Do it.

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Wow. I just tested three business owners and managers this afternoon, and all came up with shrugs and deer-in-the-headlights looks when I asked them these simple questions:

1. Do you know the average annual value of a customer to your business?

2. Do you know the cost of a customer complaint to your business?

3. Do you know the total cost to your business of resolving a complaint?

4. Do you know the cost of acquiring a new customer?

Assorted answers from my little test group:

“Um… no.”
“The what?”
“Am I supposed to know that?”
“Maybe the accountant knows.”
(Shrug.) “No clue.”


According to the actual survey, here is the breakdown:

Do you know the average annual value of a customer to your business?
Know: 12.9%
Don’t know: 87.1%

Do you know the cost of a customer complaint to your business?
Know: 9.7%
Don’t know: 90.3%

Do you know the cost of acquiring a new customer?
Know: 8.6%
Don’t know: 91.4%

Those numbers kind of blew me away. Anyone with a marketing budget – which is pretty much just about everyone who either owns, runs or works for some kind of business – ought to have at least some idea of how much each new customer costs, right?


Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Seriously, folks. This is something we all ought to know.

Hat tip to Spike and my zipcode neighbors at BoF for the heads-up on this small portion of Strativity Group‘s survey (via Fast Company).

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Big news: Starting next week, The BrandBuilder will start contributing little snippets of wisdom on the I/M/D blog (in addition to the already wicked editorial commentary you may or may not have been enjoying on Corante).

Boo-yah. (That means “flattered” in my neck of the woods.)

Since I haven’t had a chance to post anything of substance anywhere for about a week due to an insane amount of work, I wanted to reassure everyone and let you know that everything is okay: I have not been abducted by angry Plutonian aliens. I am not being detained in Guantanamo. I was not spotted in New York City wearing carboard boxes for shoes and trying to eat rocks. I’m fine. Just a little overwhelmed by a very, very, very busy schedule, an 8-year-old birthday party that somehow stretched into a three day event, a ridiculous TV interview, an overdue return to triathlon, and preparation for the media circus that will surround the US Pro Cycling Championship – which is coming to Greenville, SC next weekend.

And since I don’t want this post to be another self-serving, worthless little monologue about me, moi and migo, here’s something cool I thought you’d enjoy. (And yes, it is relevant to branding… somewhat.)

Via OrangeYeti, from AdPulp, here is a little bit of an interview given by Maurice Levy (Publicis Groupe) to Scott Donaton (of Ad Age). If you’ve ever worked for a company that was so set in its ways that it had grown stale, you’ll understand what Levy is talking about:

“I have never stabilized an organization. Crystallizing an organization is freezing the energy. In chemistry, instability is very good because it creates some combinations you don’t expect.”

“Without change, there is fossilization,and that’s the worst thing that can happen.”

“Ideas,are so fragile, so tenuous, that managers must destroy layers that can obscure or damage them. If you have an organization that is too administrative, you are just killing the ideas. As we say in France, when you ask a committee to draw a horse, you get a camel.”

Read the full interview here.

So there you have it: As a business leader, look for flux. Look for tangents. Look for the unexpected. Recruit adventurously. Give your people the freedom and flexibility to contribute in the most personal, passionate of ways. Eliminate silos and procedures when it comes to the sharing of ideas. When it comes to dialogue. When it comes to cooperation. Decentralize “meetings”. Disconstruct the project ideation process. Empower your people to set the stage for extraordinary new products and business improvements.

If you can’t trust your people enough to empower them, to literally give them the keys to the place, then you aren’t hiring the right people. Your job as a leader isn’t always to “lead”. Most of the time, because you aren’t there to bark orders or stand over everyone’s shoulder, it is simply to create an environment, an ecosystem, that allows your team, your army, to do the best possible work they can. It is to create a culture that makes them want to be a part of something greater than the sum of their job description. That makes them proud to be, even.

Ideas are fragile.

Without change, organizations die.

These are the two little mantras you should keep chanting every time you pick up the phone, or a magazine, or your TV remote. They should be in the back of your mind every time you shake someone’s hand or invite them to have a seat.

Embrace instability. Welcome change. Engage uncertainty. Welcome the unknown and love it for all of its infinite number of possibilities.

And they truly are infinite.

Being a leader isn’t about creating the illusion of safety.

(You aren’t a babysitter.)

Chew on that for a while. I’ll be back with more, hopefully tomorrow.

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Can anyone tell me how we got from August 1st to August 24th in like… three days? I know that the older you get, the faster time seems to fly by, but… jeez, I’m not that old!

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The BrandBuilder finds itself in good company once again (BrandXpress, Brand Infection, Brand Autopsy, SNDB, Own Your Brand, Corante, Seth Godin, and a dozen more), thanks to Larry Munn, over at the new Canadian Trademark Blog. Per Larry:

“One of the trends that we intend to track is how trade-marks fit within the brand development process. To that end, we’ve created the list below to help explore the branding blogosphere.”

For the complete list, click here.

Welcome to the conversation, Larry. You guys are already off to a great start. 🙂

Post Update: Thanks to BlogBridge for including the BrandBuilder blog in their short list of expert Marketing blogs, and to Mike Sansone, over at ConverStations, for also including me in his Blue Ribbon Finale list of top Branding Blogs.

Boy, it’s good to be popular! 🙂

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“Do not let ambition overshadow small success.”
Your lucky numbers today are 7, 15, 40, 38, 46, and 58.

Thanks for your feedback yesterday. If the BrandBuilder blog ends up moving to a new home (WordPress) this fall, I will make it as painless as possible for everyone… but definitely worth your while. 😉

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