A few hundred years ago it was easy to know what someone did for a living. Mr. Shoemaker made shoes. Goldsmith hammered precious metals. Tailor sewed. Farmer farmed. Baker baked.
Today, it’s not quite that simple. When was the last time you met someone named Dr. Radiologist? Mr. Hedge Fund Manager? Ms. Account Executive?
Does Jackson’s father fix flats? Does Ms. Webman work on the Internet?
Of course not. Today we are free to pick the profession we think we’re qualified for regardless of what name we were born with.
So why is it we still use century’s old nomenclature when we describe ourselves to others?
Picture this: You’re at a party. You meet a new person – you tell them your name and they tell you theirs. The next thing out of your mouth is, “what do you do?”
If we still used the old system, being named for what we do, that question would be superfluous – our names would tell our new friend exactly what we do for a living.
But the bigger question is why is what we do so important that it’s the second thing we ask? Wouldn’t it be more interesting, and more instructive to find out, “who are you,” “what are you passionate about,” or “what’s important to you?”
Wouldn’t we know more about our new acquaintance if we knew that they were an hospice volunteer, that they collected 18th-century pastoral oils or that they recently emigrated from Perth, than that they were a lawyer or an accountant?
As we’ve discussed so many times before in this blog, what we do is cost of entry. Just like an empty restaurant that serves good food, if we’re not good at our jobs, no one will hire us. But just because we are good at our jobs doesn’t mean anyone will hire us, either. Why? Because people don’t buy what we do. They buy who we are.
In his 2006 book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink says that the way to assure yourself of business success is to create a compelling product persona that no one can copy. Pink’s example? Madonna. According to Pink, Madonna is the perfect business model because people don’t just buy what she does – singing and dancing – they buy who she is: Madonna.
(Of course, Pink published his book before Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta repurposed Madonna’s act and created Lady Gaga, successfully selling an old persona to a brand new market.)
Instead of focusing on the things we do, our prospecting focus should be on who we are and why that resonates with our customers and potential customers. Because even though the service we sell may provide the actual result our customers need, it’s the relationship we provide that will entice them do business with us instead of our competitors.
I think it’s such an important reminder that I had it engraved where I’d see it over and over every single day – on my new iPad: “They don’t buy what you do. They buy who you are.”
The other day I read a Twitter post that said, “I just saw Madonna riding the subway.”
A few minutes later someone posted a reply. “That means Lady Gaga will ride the subway tomorrow, only not as well.”
In last Wednesday’s USA TODAY, there was an article titled, “Funeral homes discover new life.” It described a new trend across the country where traditional funeral homes are marketing their centers “not just as a place to mourn the dead, but as sites for events celebrating the living, including weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, holiday parties and proms.”
The article explains that funeral homes can be less expensive than other venues, there’s greater availability, and they’re often quite beautiful. Most importantly, while the economy has caused many traditional wedding venues to shutter, James Olson, the spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association explains that, “funeral homes aren’t going away.”
Carla Fletcher, the special events coordinator of Flanner & Buchanan Funeral Centers in Indianapolis, said no one had thought of marketing her facility for other events “because people had tunnel vision…they thought since it was a funeral home they (couldn’t) sell it. But I don’t see a funeral home; I see an events center.”
Now a cynic could dismiss Fletcher’s theory with a snide “even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and again” but ever since Fletcher saw things differently, her Community Life Center “holds a dozen events each month and has nearly every Friday, Saturday and Sunday booked this year, including 99 weddings.”
Talk about thinking outside the pine box. Imagine how many other businesses could take advantage of Fletcher’s thinking. Sushi bars could open fishing shops and advertise “today’s plate, tomorrow’s bait.” Struggling music stores could market unsold CDs as flying disks or skeet shooting targets. The ideas are as endless as the lists of bad puns that show up in my email every few days.
But all kidding aside, repurposing old concepts in very new directions is one of the ways we can harness the power of our ideas. As we discussed last week, ideas are both worthless and priceless at the same time. So when new ideas are analyzed and respected, they can often produce useful and profitable results such as repurposing funeral homes into community life centers.
One of the reasons new ideas are so hard to come up with in the first place is that whole business of creating “new concepts” is so intimidating. Creating concepts is hard – and you have to be creative to do it. But truth be told, there aren’t that many new ideas around anyway. Love is a concept. Democracy too. God is a concept, and so is peace. Gravity isn’t a concept; it’s the law.
Many other new ideas are just a variation on a theme, a riff on the expected, a clever turn of a phrase, a new way of looking at the same old thing. Picasso combined a bicycle seat and a set of handlebars and created a bull’s head. Warhol traced a Cambell’s Soup can onto canvas and created pop art. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta channeled Madonna and created Lady Gaga. (For more on this, please see my September 27th, 2010 post Small Opportunities Get Bigger. Big Opportunities Get Smaller.)
Besides Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Louie Armstrong and very few others, most of us who spend our lives coming up with new ideas are building up our thoughts on the foundation of the ideas that came before and therefore standing on the shoulders of giants. Which is another reason why our new thoughts shouldn’t be so intimidating – they’re firmly rooted in the successful ideas of the past.
So when you look for new ways to guide your business or your life into the future, take inspiration from special events coordinator Carla Fletcher who looked at funerals and saw weddings. Because as Carla proved, the real trick is not to think outside the box but to think like there’s no box at all.
Seems like many of the blogs I read just posted their best or worst of lists for 2010. I thought maybe it would be a little more useful to create a list of five important ideas for marketing success in 2011.
1 The Future Started Yesterday.
When I speak on social media issues at corporate conferences, I always tell my audiences that “this whole Internet thing is going to catch on…it’s going to be huge.” Before you award me The Master Of The Bleeding Obvious medal of honor, please take my statement to heart. If your company hasn’t fully embraced the new online technologies, you’re already out of business; you just don’t know it yet.
2 Good Enough is Good Enough.
Trained as an art director, I always considered part of my position to be the protector of quality. We designers would spend hours on typesetting, worrying about kerning and line spacing, for example – painstaking chores that can now be done with the click of a mouse. In the name of fine resolution, we’d also fight with our clients to spend enormous sums for 16 or 35mm film when today you can buy a higher resolution Canon HDSLR for less than two grand. But regardless of what equipment you use, when was the last time you heard someone complain about the resolution on YouTube? Fact is, resolution has gotten so good, so cheap, and often so unimportant, that there are now cameras such as the Holga and iPhone apps like Hipstamatic that are popular because they deliver the humanistic artiness of lo-res.
3 Faster, Cheaper. Better. Pick All Three.
The old line used to be, “Faster. Cheaper. Better. Pick any two.” If you wanted it fast and good it was going to be expensive. Good and cheap would take time. And if you wanted it fast and cheap it would suck. But that was back in the day when our clients used to ask “what have you done for me lately?”
With the advent of online technologies, today’s question is “what have you done for me next?” As the taciturn comedian Steven Wright quipped, “I put instant coffee in a microwave oven and almost went back in time.” Or to quote Groucho Marx, “I’ll stay a week or two, I’ll stay the summer through. But I am telling you that I must be going.”
No one’s going to wait around for you to get it done. Not when there are Internet services, freelancers, Asian entrepreneurs, in-house departments, and computer programs just itching to do it. And because these days good enough very often is good enough, it had better be fast and cheap too.
4 Be Different. Or Be Dead.
And speaking of Asian entrepreneurs, in his best-selling book “A Whole New Mind,” Daniel Pink writes about the dangers of the ‘Three As’: Abundance, Asia, and Automation. Pink explains that anything that can be created in abundance will be; anything that can be made in Asia will; and anything that can be automated will be as well. As Pink sees it, if your products or services are so generic or duplicatable that those three factors can come to bear, you’re in big trouble.
Pink’s solution? Develop and cultivate six senses: design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. His example of a successful business that can’t be copied; Madonna. (Needless to say, the book was written before the rise of Lady Gaga.) In other words, just standing up isn’t enough anymore. To be successful you have to stand out and stand for something. Otherwise, no one will care.
5 They Don’t Buy What You Do. They Buy Who You Are.
Because of the three As, and because good enough is now good enough, consumers no longer need to buy products or services for their functions. Not because the functions no longer matter but because the functions have become ubiquitous. Instead, the best sellers are purchased because of the relationships they create with their buyers.
If Madonna is the perfect product, then what steps can you take to build your brand and its value (both real and perceived) to your customer? After all, if you’re not providing it then someone else will. And as we’ve already seen, they’ll do it faster, cheaper and maybe, even better.
Taken together, these five observations may appear discouraging, suggesting that technology has superseded the need for quality and craftsmanship. Instead, I think they provide benchmarks for building a successful and creative business in this new technological age.
As I see it, the future for everyone in my business and all creative businesses is in their ability to create powerful, compelling ideas. Whether it’s a new way to get attention, a new way to deliver customer service or a new way to build a better mousetrap, 2011 will be the year of the idea. After all, despite how powerful computers have become, they haven’t started to think…yet.
I’ll explore that further with you next week. In the meantime, here’s to a happy, healthy and very creative 2011 for you and everyone you hold dear!