A comedian on latenight television did a funny bit about a guy who hoisted his lawn mower up to trim his shrubs. After the blade hit a hidden branch in the hedge and flipped over, the lawn mower chopped off one of his arms. That wasn’t the funny part.
Once the one-armed homeowner recovered, he found a lawyer to sue the lawn mower manufacturer. Why? Because the box did not include a warning that the product should not be used as a hedge trimmer. Believe it or not, the homeowner won the suit. That wasn’t the funny part, either.
The funny part was that the lawn mower did come with a warning not to pick it up and use it as a hedge trimmer. Where was the warning? It was the words “Lawn mower” printed on the side of the box.
Last month I was at a conference in Indianapolis and went to grab breakfast. I lowered half a bagel into the toaster and looked for something to spread on it. Here’s what I found:
The peanut butter label pointed out that the peanut butter had peanuts in it. Funny, I thought the word “peanut” made that pretty clear. And the cream cheese label said that it contained dairy. Really? I was pretty sure that both the words “cream” and “cheese” suggested that there would be some dairy involved.
I have a friend whose son has a potentially fatal peanut allergy so I understand it’s critical to know when peanuts are present. And my daughter is a committed vegan, so I also understand the importance of knowing when there’s dairy in a dish. And finally, the lawn mower story reminds us all of legal liability. But c’mon, what’s more obvious than peanuts in peanut butter or dairy in cream cheese?
In the effort to communicate clearly, we sometimes become masters of the obvious and tell people what they already know — that our law firm handles legal cases, our accounting company files taxes or our motivational speech is about motivation. And in the effort to communicate we sometimes tell people what they don’t care about at all —how many computers we own, how many locations we have or how many years we’ve been in business.
But while we’re busy saying all this, what we don’t say is how what we do will make our prospects’ lives better. Why our law firm provides peace of mind. Why our accounting firm helps assure their family’s future. How our motivational speech will help our audiences achieve their goals.
Now I already know what you’re thinking, “Sure Bruce, that’s great for everyone else but I’m — big sigh — different. I have to explain EXACTLY what I do because you see — even bigger sigh — my business is unique.”
Really? Your business is too special to narrow down? Ok, then let’s talk about Volvo instead.
Volvo is in a lot of businesses. They’re in transportation, manufacturing, research and development, metallurgy, engineering, upholstery, design, import/export, logistics, just to name a few. Plus, they operate retail stores for both new and used products, sales and service, and accessories. Volvo operates under the governmental regulations of the hundreds of countries, states, and municipalities they operate in. They work in multiple languages, with multiple consumers, multiple currencies, and in multiple industries. And don’t forget that they don’t just make consumer automobiles. Volvo also builds busses and trucks and provides engines and engineering for other companies. Yet despite this incredible amount of complexity, they still describe themselves with one word safety.
Volvo knows they don’t have to sell transportation or even getting from point A to point B because that’s not what people are buying. Sure that’s what Volvo’s cars do. But there’s that pesky master of the obvious stuff again. Even though Volvo’s business is as complicated as it can be, they don’t sell what they do, they sell what they do for you.
You’re a better parent, a better spouse, and a better human being because you buy and use Volvo’s products. By buying their cars, you’re telling the world that you care about the people you love and people you’ve never even met before. Pretty good messaging for a company that makes cars, eh?
Cream cheese says “dairy.” Peanut butter says “peanuts.” Volvo says “safety.” And lawn mower says “cutting grass.” What does your brand say?
What does Kim Kardashian have that you and I ain’t got? Before you hit me with a snide, “go look in the mirror, Brucie boy,” I’ll sweeten the pot. What’s Donny Deutsch got? How about Thomas Friedman? Piers Morgan? Paris Hilton? What do they have that we don’t?
Are they smarter then I am? Well…yeah, Thomas Friedman is. I’d bet Deutsch is, too. Are they better looking? Deutsch and Hilton are, for sure. Are they better at what they do? Again, most of them might be, but Kardashian and Hilton? Please. They don’t do anything to begin with anyway.
So, how come we all know who they are and what they do and yet most people wouldn’t know me if I passed them on the street?
As far as I can figure, there are a few levels of fame and success that are pretty easy to document but not necessarily emulate. They’re the Three “C”s of Celebrity: Circumstance, Competence, and Creation.
Captain Chesley Sullenberger is a Circumstance Celebrity. Sully was pushed to fame and celebrity success the day he safely ditched US Airways flight #1549 in the Hudson River in New York. Is Sullenberger a hero? Of course. Is he a good pilot? Of course.
But is Sully a better pilot than most of the commercial pilots that safely crisscross the country every day? More to the point, is he a better pilot than the officer who was sitting next to him in the co-pilot’s seat that day? Is he an even better than my pilot friends Richard Kane or Tom Cowan? None of us know. And none of us care. Sullenberger is a celebrity because his heroic action on that fateful day saved all 155 lives on his aircraft.
Being a Circumstance Celebrity is an impossible thing to plan. You can prepare for greatness, but there’s no guarantee that the lightning will ever strike. Sullenberger might have trained for an emergency, but he didn’t plan for his brush with fame. Celebrity was suddenly thrust on him by — you guessed it — circumstance.
John Mayer is a Competence Celebrity. He’s a great songwriter and a good singer and a pretty good-looking kid, to boot. He’s got an arm full of trendy tattoos, a head full of wavy locks, a bed full of hot starlets, and a mouth full of stupid comments. And — oh yeah — he’s a damn good guitar player.
But is he a better guitar player than his guitar-picking peers such as John Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Sheppard or Jonny Lang? For that matter, is Mayer any better than my incredible guitar-playing friends Josh Chasner, Albert Castigilia or Josh Rowand? Again, none of us know. What we do know is that Mayer is a big celebrity because of his guitar playing and his life.
That means that becoming a Competence Celebrity is a tough row to hoe, too. Of course it requires talent, commitment, and perseverance, but making it on talent calls for something else, as well — timing, luck, contacts, opportunity, and that star quality that makes people want to see you do your thing.
Finally, there’s the Created Celebrity. But here the classification bifurcates because there are two clearly different types of Created Celebrity – the Talented Celebrity and the Lucky Celebrity.
Michael Jordan fits the first category of Created Celebrities. Of course Jordan’s a Competence Celebrity too, but a lot of his success came because of the amount of money Nike invested in his brand. From what I understand, Jordan signed a contract with Nike about the same time that Dominique Wilkins signed his contract with Pony. Both players’ deals were for about the same amount of money. But the big difference was that Jordan’s contract included a requirement that Nike spend money promoting him while Wilkins’ contract did not force Pony to do the same. And so years after their slam-dunk rivalry is a memory, Jordan is still a big star and Wilkins…? When was the last time you heard anything about him?
The second subset of Created Celebrities is the Lucky Celebrity. These are the people who should fall down on their knees and thank their lucky stars every single day for their unlikely success. I’m talking about the Kardashian clan, for example, and well as the unlikely cast of the Jersey Shore and Paris Hilton. They’re all popular and lots of people seem to care passionately about what they do, but few of us can actually understand why. It seems as if these celebrities are just famous because they’re famous.
Sometimes celebrities transcend their category and move between them. Justin Timberlake started his career as a laughable Created Celebrity in the boy band ‘N Sync. But even their insipid performances couldn’t dilute Timberlake’s outsized talent; instead, his prodigious abilities propelled him squarely into the Competence category.
By the way, up isn’t the only way to go in celebrity categories. Bruce Jenner started his public career in the Competence category, setting the world record and winning gold in the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Now, thanks to his willingness to expose the goings-on of his extended — and dysfunctional — family on Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Jenner’s kept his star shining by sliding solidly into the lucky group.
Before you think this blog is an attack on those people who have made it big in spite of their lack of talent, think again. What I’m really fascinated by is how people get to the place where we all know who they are without the obvious assets you’d think they’d need to succeed, such as talent or brains. Their public capital – the ability to sell products and services and promote their thoughts and ideas – increases significantly with their celebrity status. To me, figuring out how to get people to both know, and care, about who you are and what you do — regardless of how well you do it — is an increasingly crucial part of modern branding.
After all, as David Bowie sang all those years ago, “Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame.”
The power of euphemisms is something that most people don’t think about at all but we marketers obsess over.
I was in a board meeting and discussing new ideas when the guy at the head of the table commented on the concepts. He started with, “You know, it’s interesting…”
I think he said, “it’s interesting” without much preconceived intent, and no one else in the room seemed to notice, but my internal Lost in Space Robot sounded the alarm. “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!” Why? Because interesting is a euphemism.
“What do I think of your son’s portfolio from art school? Interesting.”
“Your wife has a flair for colors and wants us to make some changes to the Internet program we’re producing? Interesting.”
Interesting is a good way to say, “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME??!!” when it’s not prudent to say exactly what’s on your mind.
Of course, interesting isn’t the only euphemism in the quiver.
“You wrote it by yourself? Wow, I never would have thought of that.”
“Now THAT’S a painting.”
“You know, you just don’t taste home-baked treats like these every day.”
No matter which ones you use, euphemisms can be a great way to avoid a difficult situation but they can become habit-forming. And when used indiscriminately, euphemisms can gum up copywriting and turn off potential consumers who can’t find relevant meaning in non-specific statements.
How do you police and purge euphemisms from your writing and speeches? I’m sure there are plenty of sophisticated technical solutions and grammatical processes, but for me the easiest way is to simply read my copy in my finest W.C. Fields’ voice. If the words sound duplicitous and smarmy, they probably need some editing. After all, the key to good writing is not in the writing but the rewriting.
“Interesting, my little chickadee, interesting.”
My friend Chris Barr at Heinau Flowers creates incredible real flower arrangements that have been specially treated to last for at least six months. Really.
He has offered my friends and the folks in our office a special free shipping deal for Valentine’s Day. Because I believe in Chris and his products, I thought it would be fun to make the offer to all of you. This is not a paid promotion – I am not charging Chris to be on the blog and I’m not making any money on the flowers he sells. I just think it’s a great idea, a great deal and an easy way to take the pressure out of Valentine’s Day gift giving.
Here’s what Chris wrote:
“Roses are the perfect, classic Valentine gift. Their only imperfection is that they fade after just a few days.
Heinau Flowers are cut fresh at the farm and then carefully and naturally preserved. There’s nothing plastic or dried out or artificial here – the petals are as soft and supple as the day they were born, and they will continue to absorb moisture from the air. They’re maintenance free and do not need watering, ever.
Our flowers can help you make a small, subtle statement or a bigger, dramatic statement. Either way your gift will leave a truly lasting impression every day for a year.”
If you order before 10:00 AM, February 10th, Chris will give you free shipping and deliver by February 14th. Just enter the promo code LOVEBRUCE or LIKEBRUCEALOT (the codes were Chris’ ideas.) at checkout.
We were just finishing up our run the other day and my friend, educational consultant David Altshuler, was talking about his son Ellory’s cross-country team.
David said he likes cross-country because it’s a sport where you can really prove what you’re capable of doing. There are no defensive players trying to stop you; it’s just you against the course. David also told me he liked Ellory’s coach who had told the team, “If today you do what others won’t, tomorrow you’ll do what others can’t.”
I nodded, tacitly agreeing that the coach’s words made good sense.
But it got me to thinking – how many sayings do we listen to, accept, and maybe even follow just because they sound good? Are we guiding our lives on words that appeal to us simply because they’re grammatically convenient?
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog!”
“It’s not how any times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get up!”
“I used to be sad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”
Huh? What did you just say? Do we really believe this stuff or does it just trip off our tongues so lightly that we buy it without a second thought?
Maybe we shouldn’t be so easily disarmed by these simple sayings. Treacly aphorisms don’t just burrow their way into our brains and hang on the walls in sales directors’ cubicles. They can also change the world.
FDR buoyed a country devastated by the depression when he assured Americans that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” JFK ushered in a decade of public service when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
More relevant to our own times, Barack Obama sold what can arguably be considered the largest consumer product in the world, the presidency of the United States of America, with the uplifting cheer “Yes we can.”
Meanwhile, Senator Chuck Grassley almost single-handedly derailed health care legislation with the inaccurate but powerful phrase “pulling the plug on Grandma.”
In our over-stimulated, over-caffeinated, over-connected world, well-crafted clichés become the stenographers’ shorthand of clever communicators. And just like checking a new car’s quality by kicking its tires, the sayings often provide a comforting and expedient, if irrelevant, benchmark.
After all, if opposites attract, then why would birds of a feather flock together?
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then why is out of sight, out of mind?
Because the words sound good together, that’s why.