Tuesday, January 31st, 2006

Unforgettable corporate communication

Unforgettable corporate communication
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Following is something that’s not really a blog article. Rather, it is the written version of the content I presented last Monday at a little event for the HTCE, here in Vancouver. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of what Catherine Ducharme has accomplished with her marketing events.

For a scant $15 a person, those interested in marketing for high-tech (and often most any other industry), can drop in, share in some conversation, and meet someone in a really friendly environment. (Sometimes Catherine even throws in a nice snack.) It’s as close to a networking event as I can get to, without getting the heebie jeebies.

As noted, I took part in a little presentation. Some of the topics sold-out early, so I’m posting this for any who missed our chat, and wanted to know what the scoop was.

Hi, I’m Eric.

Catherine contacted me a couple of weeks ago, and asked me to discuss trends in design. I wanted to help, but really couldn’t think of anything that fit the suggested topic while still being relevant to you. Trends are kind of weird. In my mind, the inherent flaw in following trends, is that you are following. I feel, that is quite often a mistake.

Additionally, the notion of discussing trends seems somewhat contrary, as we’ve been working so hard to avoid them. I can however talk about what the people in our small firm believe, and are working towards. If there’s something that’s useful to you from this discussion, that would be great. That being said, I wouldn’t throw away your marketing textbooks just yet.

So, instead of following Catherine’s direction, I’m going to talk about a series of connected observations that took us until last year to really sort out. They may seem almost overly simplistic, but they have changed almost every aspect of how we do business and service our customers.

The title of my presentation today is, “The Hidden Key to Unforgettable Corporate Communication”; however I think that we could just as well call it “observations that have changed how we approach design”

Companies are stupid

Really, I mean that. They just don’t think. Some companies have been engineered by people who are really smart and have great vision. To the outsider, these companies seem to be to have some intelligence. Don’t be fooled–they aren’t. They are simply a collection of organic programs and systems, created by people. They are fallible, and need human direction as much as we need nourishment to survive.

Companies only exist due to the actions of humans. Somehow, we forgot this somewhere along the way, and now we’re left with a kind of “wag the dog” scenario. Our belief in the company has lead us astray. Some companies believe they can even act beyond the laws that apply to us as individuals. Ethics and morality often take a back seat to profit and competition.

The key issue I see here is in how this misdirection has lead us to sometimes do things that don’t feel right. I fear that we are missing something by trying to second guess our real impulses. For example, we are all very concerned with being “professional”. Corporate life loves professionalism. My fear is that this layer of conduct inhibits us from really communicating–it keeps a layer of decorum between us and our peers. I say strip away any construct which limits us from saying what matters.

Forget the company, sell to the people

Do your desks build relationships with your clients? Of course not, they are only tools. They are not so different from your ads, email newsletters, and web efforts. You can’t expect objects or constructs to take the place of sincere human communication. Without attaching a human voice and real meaning to those devices, they are left as dead as their base materials.

I’ve encountered a few companies who initially felt that we missed the mark on their marketing efforts. The comment went something like this, “We’re dealing with businesses, and we have to keep that in mind.” My response to this is generally the same, “Isn’t it a person who will actually sign the purchase order?”

You aren’t selling to a company. You are selling to a human, and they respond like, well… humans. (Weird, eh?) So, isn’t it likely that if you make meaningful contact with a person within a company, you will actually have a better chance of doing business with that company?

You can’t apply a blanket generalization to the people in these companies. Instead, you have to get out there and talk to people, learn about them, understand their challenges and fears. If you can gather even a bit of this information, you will inadvertently build relationships with your clients.

People are emotional

Whether we are considering fictitious characters like Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, or pseudo-fictitious individuals such as Donald Trump, business culture seems to laude those stony icons of industry, who rigidly make only the right decisions. They arrive at their conclusions through calculation and dispassionate logic. They aim to never become emotional, seeing this trait as a kind of weakness. I’m not prone to believing in this particular myth.

Passion motivates great advances. Anger and frustration inspire innovation. Love helps us forget discomfort, and do things beyond our preconceived notions about ourselves. Emotions are good.

Don’t get me wrong, logic is great. You always require rational thinkers around you to ensure that you are progressing as intended. Let’s just not forget that many good things come from messy human emotions. See your emotions as qualities that tune you in to your audience and help you build connections. Business is personal.

It’s not “us” and “them”. It’s just “us”.

We use interesting words when we get into the world of sales and marketing. In our creative briefs, we often refer to “targets”, such as the “primary target” for a campaign. Doesn’t this seem sort of weird? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a “target”. That sounds like you are going to do something bad to me. Alternately, we use words like “audience” or “user”, but most of these still work somewhat backwards, as they separate us from the people we are trying to reach.

So, we are left with marketing efforts that anticipate the reaction of a group, and often try to exaggerate claims to make a point, or manipulate the emotions and intentions of the people who may choose to buy what we are selling.

History however has already taught us how dangerous this sort of thinking is. “Us and them” thinking puts us on opposite sides of the table. We’re left with polarized relationships, and our entire method for communicating is short circuited.

Honesty leads to meaningful work

This observation has singularly made the greatest change in our firm over the past years.

It’s not that you have to be foolish in your adherence to this point; however, honesty does change how you work. Why is that? Well, first off, it gets you asking the right questions.

Instead of asking, “how can we sell this?” you can ask, “what do we have to offer?” or, “what do we do differently from others?” From there, all kinds of interesting things start to happen. One of them may be finding yourself completely stumped. It could be that you really have very little to offer. This is not a bad thing. It just helps you identify a core problem with your offering.

It is hard to be honest. It takes a huge amount of self discipline to acknowledge your weaknesses as readily as you promote your strengths; yet, the truth of the matter is that a lot of great answers are found in what you believe to be your weaker points. Your company may be small, but perhaps that allows you to offer more personalized service. You may find that your products are really rather ugly–perhaps this will lead you to concentrating on the durability or function of what you offer. (Or to just redesign the product.)

If you can uncover what is truthful about your offering, you are likely miles ahead of your competitors.

Networking blows

I feel that networking is representative of much that is wrong with how business operates. The process of networking has become a forced effort in which we pretend to like people in order to personally benefit from a relationship. It’s cheap and crass–I encourage you to avoid it. It makes you feel dirty. I maintain relationships with my friends because I appreciate who they are, and how we interact. I do not choose friends by examining what they can do for my career, nor can I imagine building a meaningful relationship in that fashion; yet, this is the notion that networking promotes.

Knowing people is important, as is talking to people. I’m just not sure how much to force a situation like this. Part of it comes down to patience. We just have to wait for our relationships to grow. Your relationships will likely grow when your company does as promised. No amount of superficial banter can shortcut a meaningful bond between friends or clients.

Connections rule

Connections are big, and I mean really big. When our client (and friend) Regina from Crescent Spur encouraged her friend Trent from Ascent to call us for identity design, he took her word for it. There was no brochure, coupon, or price guarantee involved. We didn’t have to say or do any of these things. Our commitment to an existing client proved that we were trustworthy.

Isn’t it strange how often companies try to get us in the door, and then lose our patronage due to poor service? Reward your current clients. They already have invested in your company and have placed their trust in you. Keep them happy and you may never need an expensive marketing campaign.

Connections are built with sincerity and time. They pay in huge dividends.

Things you believe in matter

If you do not believe in the product/service you are selling, you have two solid options. The first is to ask why you don’t believe, and address the challenges which arise. The second is to quit, and find something you do believe in.

We ask this of every project we work on, “If I were on the other end of this product, would I want it?” If the answer is “no”, we either did our part of the job poorly, or what we are selling has a root problem which has to be addressed.

It’s like asking your child to eat their brussel sprouts, when you won’t… Good luck.

Does it make you feel yucky whey you say it?

Something I started to find with our company’s website a few years ago, was that it felt like a pitch. And of course it did! That was the whole point, wasn’t it? We had to SELL what we were doing. The problem in that however, is that most people do not want to be sold.

Although few of us want to be pushed to do something, many of us are willing to listen when someone says something meaningful. At smashLAB, we chose to take everything that felt “sales-like” out of our site and marketing efforts. Instead, we wanted to simply articulate what we do, so that people might consider us, should they need our services.

The way we test for how close we are to our target, is in actually reading out the copy that we write. Would we feel weird repeating it to a friend, while out for brunch? If so, we might still have to look at how we are presenting ourselves.

Our communication must ring true in all of our messaging, and be echoed on every level of our organization.

Real words are the antidote to marketing b.s.

ROI. Solutions. Synergy. Innovation. All of these are bad words… very, very, bad words. Don’t blame them though, it’s not their fault. They are the victim of bad marketers… very, very bad marketers who strip-mined them of all of their value, for use in often meaningless campaigns.

These words and a number of other ones will often turn your marketing message into a complete and utter pile of poo. You have a huge advantage though. You know that there are at least a quarter of a million other words out there, all vying for your attention. Try them out, maybe even try using the words you use in everyday conversation in to your marketing materials. You might find that they fit even better than you had expected.

Two years ago, we started to promote our company with the phrase “kicking ass.” This is the kind of thing we say regularly in the office. It’s just how we talk. We like expletives, no matter how boorish they may seem. Regardless, I can’t tell you how many people identified with that phrase. We earned business as a direct result of it. I wonder if IBM would consider rewriting their website with this in mind.

Do work you care about. Present it truthfully. Have patience.

Marketing and business are demanding pursuits. They require so many things to align in order to work. It’s made ever more complex when we veer from who we are, and what we really need to say. To bring sanity to your corporate communications, you have to start at the very core of your organization and align your messaging to reflect your values as directly as possible.

This is incredibly liberating. It allows us to bypass looking at our competitors and trying to match their offering. We simply have to consider how we offer value, and articulating that clearly. Additionally, this leads us away from looking to whiz-bang solutions to solve all of our marketing challenges.

For companies like ours, design is most often employed as a form of communication. If our messages are dishonest, convoluted, or misinformed, we stand no chance of making meaningful design. Forget about trends. Focus on what you really need to communicate. You’ll likely end up in fewer award annuals, but it will work (and feel) better anyway.

Three books that helped lead us to some of the observations above (and are good… very, very good.)

Luke Sullivan: Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This
Jim Collins: Good to Great
Ernie Zelinski: The Lazy Person’s Guide to Success (It’s really worth a read, no matter how misleading the title may seem)

Follow @karj to hear about these posts first.

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