President, Co-Founder and Lead Brand Strategist at Friends & Neighbors.
Let me start by saying I’m a huge nerd and DIY junkie. The phrase “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing” can easily be applied to my personal hobbies. However, my professional life as a brand strategist is the opposite. My job is to be a reductionist. I love making the complex simple and singular. Two projects—one recent and personal, and the other from my professional past—laid bare the folly of that paradox. And both presented a good marketing lesson I’d like to share.
I’ll start at home.
Years ago, when I bought a new car, I managed to put a big gash in my rear bumper by not pulling into my garage far enough. As the garage door came down, said gash was created. I immediately hung the “old tennis ball from a string” as a marker for how far to pull in. A simple solution, to be sure. Years passed and all was good, until recently. Somehow, after doing it right a thousand times, I got sloppy, didn’t hit the mark and put another gash into the bumper. Ugh!
So, I set out to solve this problem once and for all by harnessing better technology. First, I researched solutions on the internet and bought several off-the-shelf sensors, none of which worked right. Back to the internet I went, where I found a YouTube video of a 13-year-old kid making a laser sensor out of a cheap laser pointer, a nine-volt battery, and about $1.50 in miscellaneous electronic parts. Well, shoot! I can do that, I thought, despite having no experience in circuitry.
Down the rabbit hole I went. As it turns out, a nine-volt and a cheap laser pointer won’t really cut it in a 20+-foot garage. No worries. I would just make it more powerful. Back to the drawing board I went. Or, more accurately, back to Amazon I went to buy more stuff. And buy I did. Keep in mind Amazon is not interested in selling 10-cent items. You need to buy a hundred of each. Oh, and you need a new soldering iron, test cables and other ancillary stuff to make it all work. On about round five, I did get it to work, but only after weeks of work and about 100x that initial $1.50 investment. And it looks badass! But in the end, I had to ask myself: What if I had just moved the tennis ball up a few inches?
Returning to the brand world, I’m not a fan of the complex “laser version” of brand strategy. As I think back on my experiences over the years, one assignment pops immediately to mind. We (the client and agency) had spent months carefully crafting and refining a very clean, simple and powerful strategy. It was met by the rest of the business with enthusiasm and praise. Great news! But then came the memo from corporate—a new branding document to be used across all brands within the organization. Please “translate” your strategy into the new brand template, a seemingly simple ask. That is until you start trying to fill in all the boxes.
The fact is, we simply make things too complicated. From brand pyramids and houses to wheels and trees, we overengineer solutions to problems that need simple answers with complicated documents trying to explain a brand. It’s not so much the structure or metaphor that’s used that’s the problem—it’s the content, the marketing metaphysics of it all. We pack everything into these: purpose, promise, values, essence, value proposition, positioning statements, archetypes, personality, tone, benefits, attributes, RTBs, etc.
We end up creating more questions than answers:
• Where do we focus?
• What are we trying to say?
• How is each of these elements unique and/or related?
• Should purpose be at the top, bottom or center?
• How can all of this in one document be helpful, let alone discernable?
So next time you set out to define your brand or update a brand document, ask yourself: Do I need the complexity of a laser or the simplicity of a string? Do I need marketing metaphysics, or would a simple, thoughtful, well-crafted sentence or two be far more effective?
It may not look as cool as the laser, but I promise you it will work much better.
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