In response to last week’s blog post How To Skin A Horse Of A Different Color, John Calia wrote, “A great modern day parable that explains the power of inductive reasoning. It’s McKinsey-level strategic thinking applied to everyday business and personal challenges.”
Thanks, John. I just thought it was a simple explanation of a complicated concept.
That’s what we do every day — reduce very complicated and not very compelling product explanations into short, simple, easy-to-understand, and profitable brands. Because these strategically simple messages make consumers regard, remember, and respond.
But if you’re thinking about how to reduce your brand message to just one word, I know what you’re thinking. “Sure, Bruce, defining an issue and standing for something makes a lot of sense and I can see how it works for others, but…(big sigh)…I’m different. After all, my business is much more diverse, much more creative, and much more customized to my clients’ specific needs…(bigger sigh)…you see, I do too many different things. There’s just no way I could shoehorn everything I offer into a couple of words.”
Really? Your business is too complicated to brand simply? Well then, consider Volvo.
Volvo is ostensibly in the car business. But that means they are really in a number of different businesses — transportation, manufacturing, research and development, metallurgy, engineering, upholstery, design, import/export, logistics, to name just a few. Plus, they operate retail stores (for both new and used products), and also provide sales, 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, and in multiple currencies. And don’t forget that they don’t just make consumer automobiles. Volvo also manufactures buses and trucks and provides engines and engineering for lots of other companies. And yet despite this incredible complexity, Volvo still describes themselves with their commitment to one word: safety.
Volvo’s brand description isn’t even about what they actually provide. Nowhere in their branding do they talk about transportation or about getting from point A to point B. They talk about safety. And this positioning is so valuable that when Volvo introduced an SUV, arguably the new American suburban family car, their XC70 outsold all foreign SUVs (European and Asian) combined.
But it’s not just Volvo that understands the value of a simple brand position.
New York is “The Big Apple.” Chicago is solidly Midwestern. Los Angeles is movies, Las Vegas is sin. Miami is hip. What are you?
Apple built their brand on the da Vinci line, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and it’s driven their product philosophy ever since, most recently resulting in one single button controlling your iPhone or iPad. Despite the outcry from Blackberry users, Apple’s iPhone does not have a raised keyboard.
Here’s what Mr. Mo’ sang:
“Two cars, three kids, six phones; a whole lot of confusion up here in my home.
500 stations on the TV screen, 500 versions of the same ol’ thing.
Y’all know it’s crazy, and it’s drivin’ me insane.
Well, I don’t wanna be a superman, I just wanna go somewhere, use my hands.
And keep it simple.
I called my doctor on the telephone; the lines were open, but there was nobody home.
Press one, press two, press pound, press three; why can’t somebody just pick up the phone and talk to me?
Well I went down to the local coffee store; the menu went from the ceiling all the way down to the floor.
Decaf, cappuccino, or latte said the cashier; I said gimme a small cup of coffee and let me get the hell up outta here.
Y’all know it’s crazy, and it’s drivin’ me insane.
Well now I don’t wanna be a superman, I just wanna go somewhere, use my hands.
And keep it simple, real simple.”
Thoreau famously wrote, “Simplify, simplify.” But maybe if he had heard Keb’ Mo’s song, he would’ve cut his credo in half to just “Simplify.”
The other day Peter Shankman tweeted, “After 16 hours of travel, I just really need to ask: It’s 2012. Where the hell is my personal jet pack?” That got me thinking, “Yeah! Where the hell IS my personal jet pack?”
We’ve pretty much gotten everything else we were promised: Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio? Got it. It’s called a smartphone. The instant meal machine Rosie used to make dinner for the Jetsons? Got that too. It’s called a microwave oven. Why they’re even cloning bladders, tracheae, and ears in Petri dishes for Pete’s sake. But as far as I can tell, no one’s got my jet pack yet.
Yeah, the Air Force drags an old jet pack out every other Fourth of July and flies it around a football field somewhere in the heartland, but that one costs nearly a million bucks and only goes about 50 feet or so. And I’ve recently seen a water-based pack that sucks lake water into a pipe and forces it back out the bottom, shooting its wearer a few feet up in the air. But that invention requires a big lake and you get all wet and can’t fly it in an immaculate tuxedo like James Bond did anyway.
Think about what jet packs could do for us. Regardless of where you live, I’m pretty sure you’ve bitched about traffic within the last week. But if you had a jet pack, you wouldn’t give two hoots about traffic at all. Got parking woes? Lets face it, a jet pack takes up a whole lot less room than your Cadillac Escalade ESV (or your Toyota Prius, for that matter), and you could stash it anywhere. Gas mileage? While I don’t imagine my jet pack will be hybrid or solar powered, if we figure out the technology to make these things work, I’m sure we can figure out how to make them frugal. And zipping around with our jet packs on, we won’t be wasting gas idling in traffic or at red lights.
Don’t worry. I’m not entirely quixotic about my request. I know my jet pack won’t work when it rains and I know it’ll be ineffective when I’m traveling with my kids. It also won’t work when I have a lot of stuff to carry or when I need to tow the boat. But the rest of the time, I think a personal jet pack is exactly what we all need to get around quickly and easily.
So who can create these for us? Yesterday I needed to look up the gestation cycle of the Byzantine Fruit Fly and Google found the answer for me in less than .00002 seconds. If they can figure that out, I’m sure Larry and Serge have the smarts and the resources to get my jet pack done. I also needed to communicate with my agent who was vacationing in Athens, Greece and did that in real time right from my computer. The guys who figured out how to make that possible could certainly figure out how to make me a jet pack. And today I parked next to a beautiful new Tesla that was created by the same guy who created PayPal and SpaceX. Surely someone like Elon Musk, who could dream up those things while also serving as the model for Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Iron Man could build my pack, don’t you think?
Of course I’d want to brand my jet pack but truth is, I don’t care who makes it a reality. In a perfect world, I’d like Apple to be involved so it’ll look cool and I’d like Porsche to be involved so it’ll be fast. Volvo could help make it safe and Taco Bell could make it affordable. If Starbucks would repair them there’d be a service station on almost every corner and if Swatch helped out they could make sure everyone could get one. And Marriott could make sure jet packs worked the same way no matter where you were in the world. But I don’t really care whose logo is on my jet pack as long as it works, it’s reliable, and I can afford it.
Am I setting my sights too high? In today’s world of CAD/CAM (computer-aided design and manufacturing) it seems like anything that can be imagined can be created. Besides the examples I’ve already mentioned, our lives are chock-full of modern miracles — from the unbelievable capacity of tiny flash drives to contact lenses, to Saran Wrap, which Mel Brooks’ 2000-year old man says is “the greatest thing mankind ever devised.”
Have you seen those guys who jump off mountains with their flying squirrel suits on? They zip around the countryside with nothing more than some fabric stretched tightly between their arms and legs. I’m thinking we could sign a few of those yahoos up as our test pilots to make sure the jet packs work. After all, if those guys are gutsy enough to jump off mountains in skintight Slankets, they certainly won’t be afraid to try out our new jet packs.
If you want one too, maybe we could start a movement. Perhaps if we demonstrate significant market demand, some forward-thinking engineers will get started and build our jet packs already.
Franklin B. Adams wanted “a good five cent nickel,” Huey Lewis wants “a new drug,” and I want a personal jet pack. Is that too much to ask?
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?
Have you ever been witness to the Pocket Pat? When it’s done well, it’s a thing of beauty, lemme tell you.
I was invited to lunch by a guy I’ll call Lloyd. He’s a successful local businessman and pretty wired into the goings-on in South Florida. When the bill came for our lunch, Lloyd made a flourish of snatching the check from the waiter and announced that it was his treat. He snapped open the restaurant’s little vinyl folder, examined the charge, and reached for his billfold. That’s when I witnessed the Pocket Pat as performed by a master.
Lloyd looked up at me with a look of abject horror as he went through the motions of patting down each of the pockets in his suit. “I must have left my billfold on my dresser at home,” he said. “I’m so sorry. It was my treat.”
“Was” clearly was the key word. I picked up the check and handed the waiter my credit card.
Months later, Lloyd called me to get together for lunch again. Now I might be crazy but I’m not stupid, and I really didn’t relish getting together with him and watching the Pocket Pat again. After all, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice — well, you know what happens then.
But before I could beg off, Lloyd reminded me that he owed me lunch from the last time and it was his treat. He’d be sure to remember his wallet. Okay, so maybe I was wrong. Maybe he really did forget his wallet. I forget things all the time. It could happen to anyone.
Near the end of the meal, Lloyd answered a call on his cellphone. After listening to the phone for a minute or so, his face drained of all color and contorted in pain. “Oh my God, I’ll be right there,” he said as he hung up.
The he mumbled something about having to attend to an emergency while he absentmindedly reached into his pocket and threw a bill on the table as he ran off.
When I finally looked down I found a dollar bill laying there. “He must have meant to leave more,” I thought, “but was clearly distracted. An honest mistake.”
I paid the other 27 bucks.
Stupidly, I agreed to have lunch with him again a few months later. Not because I wanted to pay a third time, but because I needed to ask him about a particular piece of business that he was privy to. Plus, I figured he’d already exhausted his bag of tricks and wouldn’t dare try to shaft me again.
But you know what they say about fighting with a pig — in a word, don’t. They’ll just pull you down to their level and cover you with mud. Plus, the pig enjoys it.
This time I was in a hurry and told Lloyd, who I was now referring to as Pocket Pat (just not to his face) that I had a hard stop at 12:50 and would have to leave then. We picked a cash-only Cuban restaurant near my office. Service was slow and we didn’t get done until almost 1:00, so when the $17 bill came I was really in a hurry. Pocket Pat again made a flourish of pulling out his billfold, but wouldn’t you know it, all he had was a hundred. Well, we could always wait for the waiter to get change (did I mention that I was now 15 minutes late?). I threw a twenty on the table and rushed off to my next meeting.
So why am I telling you all this? Is it because I enjoy telling people I like and respect that I’m a chump? Hardly.
The point of this blog is to talk about branding and Pocket Pat has certainly developed his own brand. After all, as Dov Seidman writes in his book How, “How you do anything is how you do everything,” and needless to say, I’m not the only one Pocket Pat has snookered. As my former partner Phil Schwartz used to say, “If they’ve screwed you, they’ve screwed everyone else.” And being the gossipy little biatches we are, we all talk about it. So Pocket Pat is known around town as a conniving deadbeat.
You see, brands are created whether you decide to build them carefully and compulsively or do nothing at all and just let them develop. The problem is, you only have so much control over what people think of your brand to begin with. And if you’re not scrupulously managing your messaging and activities, you’re abdicating responsibility to lots of forces outside your control, many of which are eager to see you fail — or at least laugh at you behind your back.
Saab didn’t control their brand. Instead of consistently standing for something emotional and focused, they kept grasping at straws and searching for meaning. What happened? While their Swedish countrymen, Volvo, became one of the most profitable European brands in the United States, Saab has been passed from hand to hand and may or may not be out of business by the time you read this.
Sarah Palin didn’t control her brand. Given the opportunity to run for one of the most powerful and prestigious offices in the world, she didn’t do her homework and prepare for news interviews. Instead she watched her public persona dwindle from superstar to question mark to laughing stock. Sure, she built a name for herself and put some money in the bank, but at what cost?
Puerto Rico didn’t control its brand. Once one of the most desirable tropical tourist destinations in the world, years of inconsistent messaging and an island-wide obsession with the Statehood vs. Commonwealth fight has eroded the brand so thoroughly that the Dominican Republic — still arguably a Third World country — has eaten PR’s lunch, fufu and all.
Like Pocket Pat, all these brands lost market share because their actions were not in lockstep with their messaging and chipped away at their marketability. As we’ve said many times before in this blog, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy who you are.” And if the who you are does not present people with a consistent and compelling image of what’s in it for them, they probably won’t buy at all.
Unless it’s lunch. And you’re with Pocket Pat.