The Spiral Staircase

Some friends of mine are selling their home. Everyone who sees the place raves about it. But there’s one caveat — the house has a spiral staircase and it’s freaking-out potential buyers.

“We love everything about your home, but we’re just not sure about the stairs,” they’ll say. So what’s the real problem with this staircase? Very simple — it’s different.

In the business world, “different” can be a good thing. Unfortunately, there are those companies who claim they want to be on the cutting edge and they want to do things in new ways, but when the moment of truth arrives they embrace change as if it were a wet dog. For them, proverbial is safe. It’s a cozy blanket. There’s a certain feel to the fabric and it has a familiar smell. If only they knew that to the rest of the world that security blankie is staaanky!

So every year the cycle continues, and organizations fork-out billions of dollars for stale, boring ideas. But fresh thinking can make a difference and deserves a second thought. Creativity knows no boundaries. It doesn’t matter if you’re in marketing, architecture, accounting, teaching, engineering… big ideas have been known to step out of the shadows and reveal themselves as a Toyota Prius or a Nike commercial, as HBO programming, an Apple Computer or an independent film.

Ironically, the advertising business is one of the biggest abusers. We’re afraid to show our clients the spiral staircase, despite the fact that it will do the job just as well and, most important, it’ll get noticed. We’re supposed to be all about fresh thinking, yet many of us sell clients on safe, boring concepts. Perhaps you’re they person who told your client that “Viva Viagra” will become the next “Where’s The Beef” lexicon? Or maybe you’re the genius who brought us the Go Daddy girl not once, but twice! Hey, thanks for the TWO blind dates with Glenn Close. Talk about a fatal attraction — I’m surprised the Go Daddy girl didn’t open the second Super Bowl spot with the words, “You won’t answer my calls, you change your number. I mean, I’m not gonna be ignored, Dan!”

Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a better horse.” Other icons of the business world – the Jack Welches, the Steve Jobs’, the Richard Bransons — they’d probably share a similar quote. My guess is that when they look down from on high and view the world they helped shape, they’d also tell us that the corporate ladder they struggled to climb over their respective careers was indeed a spiral staircase.

Seeing Around Corners

Chief Marketing Officers are under increasing pressure as the economy slows. They’re expected to produce instant results with some marketing fairy dust. The average tenure of a CMO is something south of two years. This churn suggests a lot of companies are creating change for its own sake. It seems that all of the media coverage of new media versus old and the collapse of mass media has led to an expectation that there’s a solution right around the corner that surely a new CMO will know all about.

Expecting CMO’s to predict future media habits is little like asking someone to read an eye chart with the letters on the back.

One of the more interesting people I’ve met, Ryan Matthews, makes a living as a marketing futurist. He calls himself the Black Monk, a moniker that justifies his sizable day rate all by itself. He’s self-confident enough to admit that predicting the future is inherently a fraudulent practice. Dark and mysterious is this future business.

Matthews points out that most predictions are the result of projecting the most recent history. The new, new things are harbingers of the next big thing. This is like imagining what’s down the road by looking at the rear view mirror.

Retailer, The Gap recently announced it was no longer using television advertising because it was no longer effective as a medium. We could easily use this as yet more evidence for the end of the 30-second spot. Yet, sister company, Old Navy, is running one of their best TV campaigns in years. Same company, two divergent brand strategies.

Maybe the reality is that marketing will always be best described by the famous John Wanamaker observation, “I know that only half of my advertising works. The trouble is I don’t know which half.”

The irony is that the work that is most measurable, that requiring immediate action, is also the least emotional, the least sticky over time. So at a time when marketers want to shake things up, it’s quite often the tried and true that produces the immediate result. It seems to me the smart brands are adopting new things incrementally and resisting the temptation to always be on deal.

2008 is the Chinese Year of the Rat. You have to give the lowly rat credit for at least one good characteristic. It’s a survivor. Appropriate if we’re thinking about how brands need to adapt in the future in order to avoid extermination in a tough global economy. While it would be smart to know more about the Chinese than what year it is, let’s also keep in mind it wasn’t long ago that everyone was conceding the future to the Japanese. While the Japanese continue to be best-in-class manufacturers and marketers, they’re certainly not steam-rolling the world the way futurists in the 80’s were predicting.

I’m convinced planning for the future is like managing a financial portfolio. Since no one can possibly know what’s going to happen, why not decide how much risk you can or should tolerate and plan accordingly? All too often companies want to blow up their marketing platforms and revolutionize things.

Yet the best brands seem to make the subtlest changes, they evolve slowly, steadily and ceaselessly.

Cottonelle toilet paper is out there using guerrilla marketing in addition to traditional media. Dove soap made wonderful use of publicity, traditional media and the web in its “real beauty” campaign. IBM is selling high-end, high technology business-to-business products like blade servers on mass media network television. These marketers know they have to try new things, yet they see the value of doing many of the same things in interesting, integrated ways.

When times get tough, it’s good to remember that the changes you make are no more important than the changes you resist.

Sudden, radical change is probably never a good idea. It takes a long time for people to catch on. So it’s probably much riskier to do something radical at precisely the time you’re most tempted to.

Mark Twain described himself as being opposed to change, but in favor of progress. I think that pretty well summarizes how one might want to look at the future. The fact is we’ll never need to change everything if we’re continually making progress with the things we’re doing. Good times or bad.

To improve your brand, try doing nothing.

The best brand people often make something out of nothing. It’s still called white
space. And it’s still the most important principal in good design.

The notion that less is more is one of the oldest arguments in advertising. It’s almost
laughable that anyone would argue with the aesthetic of a clean, simple message. After
all, Bill Bernbach won that argument once and for all 40 years ago with all those classic
VW ads. DDB launched a new school of advertising. My generation was inspired to get
into the business as art became a partner to commerce. The thinking went along the
lines that if we were going to intrude on people’s entertainment, why not be interesting
and engaging about.

We’ve obviously lost our way. Print advertising is harder to read than it ever was thanks
to image manipulation software and the ability to layer type and tone. With longer
commercial breaks, higher costs and shorter spots, TV has gotten much worse, too.
And thanks to technology, designers can digitize the clutter and put it on-line in a
comprehension defying jumble. Welcome to new media.

It might be a good time to put the design monster back in its cage.

Clean communications is largely the result of the Bauhaus movement, the invention of
Helvetica type and the insights of advertising design pioneers in the 60s like Helmut

In a brilliant 2007 documentary called HELVETICA, director Gary Hustwit chronicles
how this type innovation swept corporate logos, signage, collateral information and all
forms of mass communication. This movement coincided with the Golden Age of
advertising in the 60s and 70s. Helvetica type cleaned up all forms of mass

This film comes along at a good time. Between technology and a grunge movement in
the 90s advertising design lost its way. We can blame media costs for pushing clients to
want to pack more information into their advertising, but media costs have always been
too high. If anything, with a fragmented audience, we should be leaner and simpler with
our message anyway.

This argument is further supported by another timely re-visit to the white space
argument. In a 2006 article in the Journal of Consumer Research, academics John W.
Pracejus, G. Douglas Olsen and Thomas C. O’Guinn prove the value of negative pace
in an article entitled, “How Nothing Became Something: White Space Rhetoric, History,
and Meaning”

I’ll save you the details, consumers perceive messages with greater white space to
come from brands that are leaders. They perceive higher quality, prestige, trust, and
less risk when the only variable is the amount of white space itself. The executive
summary of this research: say less, you’ll get more out of it.