90% of the brand problems would be solved if we could just be curious enough to understand our customers and brave enough to act on it.
You’ve heard that saying, “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And it usually refers to uncreative solutions to problems: treating every problem the same, as if it will respond to the solution that you’re best at providing. But if you tackle tough problems with curiosity, you may find that, with good problem-clarity, you can move past your assumptions and create a new model. And real problems are much easier to solve than vague ones with fuzzy edges.
The most direct thing you can do is ask the right question, without worrying about whether you know how to answer it or not.
Some people think you need to know how to answer a question before you can ask it. But innovation in strategy is often goal-driven. And if you know your goal, you know all you need to know to make the most direct plan possible.
Let Me Illustrate
Let’s say your city is under siege. You know an army is going to move into a space across from your walls. You also know that their general is their motivation for fighting. If he’s gone, the battle is over. You’re wondering how you’ll execute the battle. There are two ways to move forward.
- You can go into auto-pilot and do what you always do. Follow military doctrine. Nobody would blame you. You set up the battle line, fortify your position and get prepared for a conventional war.
- Or you can ask questions that others wouldn’t ask. You could say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could find a way to take out the general soon after the battle started?” and then maybe “what if we could do it before the battle started?” Then new options become open to you. You could then ask “how.”
Scenario 2: The Most Imaginative, Direct Approach
Let’s assume you took scenario 2. The opposing general has moved into position. It’s the night before the battle, and everyone’s getting prepared for the next morning’s action. The general steps out of the planning tent to find a place to relieve himself. A single shot rings out, and before the battle starts, it’s over.
Because you dared to ask how to take out the general before the battle began, you made 3 plans. In the first, you analyzed the battlefield, finding the likely places the general would set up his command tent. You send snipers to hide on the enemy’s side, gaining angles on the general’s likely positions. Then you prepared firing solutions to hit where the general was likely to move, so you could hit it with artillery. Finally, you prepared several traps that would lure him into a position to be captured.
Experience is Often the Problem
Experience prevents us from asking questions like this. Experience makes us work too hard, spend too much money and get too frustrated. Boldness makes us ask the obvious questions that nobody wants to ask.
In fact, the plans from my scenarios would never have been thought of if nobody dared to ask the question “Wouldn’t it be cool if..?” And asking daring, ridiculous questions is where we find the most cost-effective, efficient, direct plans.
We sometimes think our brand is leading, when we’re really just following. We either follow analytics, because it’s the next big thing, or we follow cultural cues, because it’s the popular thing to do. I’m gonna explain why great brands transcend these two popular forms of followership and take leadership.
Most leaders either think it’s all about the numbers, or it’s all about what people want to hear: the Zeitgeist. So we become slaves to numbers that we don’t completely understand. Statistics that claim to tell us the whole story, but only give us a sliver. Or we become slaves to public opinion and political correctness, and we tell our inner selves to be quiet, stop fighting for what’s right. We’ll do that once we get next quarter’s numbers.
But that’s all been played out. Everybody’s either going with industry best-practices, or they’re pandering to political correctness. Today, the way to be innovative and edgy is to stop trying to be innovative and edgy. Instead, set your heart on excellence.
Excellence doesn’t mean pleasing other people. Now there may be some overlap, but you are not a slave to what others think. Whether it’s your liberal, artsy friends trying to get you to conform to their way of being “open-minded” or your conservative friends telling you to conform to the way it’s always been done.
Excellence, Not Method, Makes a Brand
When excellence is your goal, not a workflow or method, you gain the confidence to question the numbers. You become humble enough to admit “I don’t understand these numbers, could you explain them to me?” And then ask questions.
Here’s what you’ll probably find: the numbers tell you much less than what you thought. And you may find the researcher totally misrepresented them. It happens, and it happens often.
Following public opinion won’t get you there either. When excellence is your goal, you’re not gonna do what’s politically correct unless it’s also right. Think about this: what are the chances that, in all of history, we’ve finally discovered the true purpose of humanity and all the correct morals to go along with it? Society is always right about some things and wrong about a lot of other things. Do you want to do the right thing, or the popular thing? I think you’ll find that “right” is better than popular, especially if you’re clear about what you believe and humble (even if you’re straightforward) in your speech.
Easier Said Than Done: What Excellence Looks Like
It’s hard to call BS on culture. So how do you develop these disciplines?
Stop Trusting Experts
You cannot take people’s word for it, not even the experts. You’ll lose your grasp on reality. You’re the one who cares about your brand. Most other people have an incentive to tell you what you want to hear. Get good at the numbers, at a basic level. Don’t become a statistician, but make sure you understand how they got to that conclusion.
When I was teaching branding at the University of Oregon, my students made decisions on their own and then defended them. I wasn’t giving them workflows to follow; I made real strategists who could build their own workflows. And brand strategists ask a lot of questions, and make you feel uncomfortable when you can’t explain your stand with strong reasoning.
Refuse to Pander
Know what you stand for. Decide what you believe. Chick-fil-A knows what it stands for, and they don’t apologize when people don’t like it. Yet tons of brands that we all like make vacuous statements supporting politically correct causes because they’re pandering. But if you refuse to pander, but find what fires you up and know what really helps your customers, you take a leadership position. I mean, do you know what people need or not? Own your story by standing for what you believe in, and watch your heart–and the heart of your brand–catch fire.
Yesterday, to be daring meant to be counter-culture. Now, that’s the safe thing to do. Today’s daring leaders are getting back to logic, questioning the new values, understanding how they interact and improve on the old values. But they’re not just swallowing them because Obama, Hollywood, or some university professor says so.
Take control of your brand by knowing what you believe and why you believe it. Get out of the weeds, and ask people to help you understand what they’re suggesting you do. Don’t ask for reports, ask for explanations. If you’re trying to lead a brand by trying to keep up with all the competition, it’s time to get back to your values. Because there’s a bigger reason for you to be in business. Find it, and you’ve found your brand.