You really can’t.
So I’m going to say this again. This is not any old project, your brand. It’s not a box-ticking exercise or a lick of paint. It’s the one chance that you’re going to get to have a meaningful say on everything that comes after, an opportunity to inspire behaviour, a defining moment in your leadership. The choices you make now will have implications long into the future, whether you like it or not.
Implications like how much energy you can summon from your people, how focused minds are, who you win over. Implications like how it feels for them to come into work, how people treat each other, how decisions are made. Like how your entire external audience is disposed towards you. Take the chance to lead.
It is too important to flunk. How on earth do you sell, recruit, brief, write, design, innovate and inspire effectively when your blueprint is a dud?
Do what is great while it is small.
Writing is strategy
Being able to turn a phrase does not make you a writer. Sounding good is no guarantee of getting results. In the commercial world you have seconds, just a handful of words, in which to win or lose someone. Then you have to keep them. Then you have to change something in them. In a hurricane of noise, there is zero margin for error. Writing is a sniper’s art.
You want to change the world? Every syllable must serve that aim. To do that, any writer worth their salt knows that their craft is as much meticulous planning as it is choosing words. It’s your responsibility to identify exactly what must change. It’s your responsibility to know who has the power to make that change come about for you… and how. It’s your responsibility to understand what it will take to create a shift in those individuals. Nothing here is unconsidered. Nothing is left to chance.
What’s in it for them? What makes them care? What do they really need and what do they really want to feel? In what circumstances will they engage with you? It goes on and on, and often the really valuable insight lies in the second or third line of questions, if you’re interviewing people. Why did you choose that word? What made you hesitate there? Why is what you’re saying different from what she is saying? These are the killer questions.
They’re killer questions because they get you close to what really matters here, the emotion that will drive a different behaviour. The fact that emotion drives change is beyond dispute; studies have been done into the neurology of choice. First you feel, then you decide, then you post-rationalise your decision.
There is no short cut. It takes deep thought, understanding and imagination to give rise to sentences that actually mean something to people. It takes time and effort as well as skill. Yet we live in an age where so many organisations and individuals seem to think that the answer to being seen is to make more noise, more quickly, in more media. They like to claim that people don’t have time for them.
Often, it’s the other way around. Often, it’s they who haven’t taken the time to think enough about the other people. The world moves on, but the art of motivation and establishing interest is timeless. You can always make people have time for you.
Actually, that’s the whole point.
Strategy is writing
Genuine apologies to brand strategists doing amazing things, there must be many. But so often in my career as a writer I found that when guidance was most crucial, in other words the information required to actually go away and write something effective, the strategist had almost always fallen short. And should you ever want to nail them down on their so-called ‘findings’, they could not be seen for dust, replaced by a 40-100 page e-mail attachment that was unable to answer questions. There were many questions. These are not strategists, they are snake oil salesmen.
Their document had pie charts. It had stacked pyramid diagrams and concentric circles. It had Venn diagrams. What it didn’t ever seem to have was emotional intelligence. Or real insight. Or a genuinely drawn target or a credible way forward. Every time I was granted interviews to ask the questions the writer needs answered in order to succeed, the replies bore no resemblance to the 40-100 pager we were all supposed to revere as the blueprint for success. (Venn concentric pyramid-lovers, you may leave.)
My view is that the authors of these documents don’t have enough genuine content to tell it like it is. If you have quality, you don’t need volume. They struggle to get at what matters, because they don’t really understand what has to happen after they leave. They don’t have to deliver anything later, so they can afford to promise all things to all people and they do (their clients love that, of course, but it’s a recipe for disaster). They don’t get as far as real insight, so they pump up the jargon; they don’t make the all-important emotional connection, so in go the clichés; they don’t have the words, so they give you diagrams, all of this fattening up their document like a low-grade turkey. People in meetings like diagrams, they look like value for money, but I have yet to see brand strategy diagram that has altered my perception of a project or change the direction of things. Diagrams, clichés and jargon change nothing in the real world.
In a competitive landscape where winning is so much about differentiation, their 40-100 pagers are all exactly the same.
When you get out of the boardroom and back into the real world, you’re still dealing with individual human beings. Real days, real lives, real problems. You either get these people, or you don’t. When you approach them, your bandwidth is narrowed down to those first few seconds of interaction and how the story unfolds from there. What do you actually want to happen? Brands are commonly described as the emotional point of connection between an organisation and its audience. But emotion to what end? The premise with a brand is the same as with writing: if you put something out into the world, you have the opportunity to create change with it. And every tiny detail contributes. If your font, imagery, writing, colours, design and photography are aligned behind an idea, and that idea helps create the feeling that helps drive different behaviour that supports your business strategy, then you have a chance. Anything that doesn’t have that is a paint job, a car with no engine under the bonnet.
Everything that will be important to us here takes place in about a third of a second. A small rush of adrenaline, a burst of activity through a certain set of neurons, and that’s it, it’s done, something has been felt, a decision has been made. Understand what goes on in that third of a second, understand how to create it… this is branding. To make someone think about choosing your brand is one thing; to make them choose your brand without thinking is quite another.
Strategy is writing and writing is strategy. Think about this the next time you’re about to sign off on that five-figure budget.
Jonathan Davis gave me my break in branding, swiftly followed by David Stuart of The Partners. David used an analogy with clients that I have gone on and used many times myself since, because it is the closest thing I’ve found to the heart of powerful branding… and writing. It’s this. I have a ball. I hand it to you, I put it in your lap, I do all the work for you. This is a brand telling you what to think. Great, you get the ball. You feel nothing. I throw it to you from a metre away. You catch it. A frisson of something. But if I hurl it 30 feet in the air and you dive headlong and catch it one-handed… immense! Between us we have created a connection we did not have before, and raw emotion is generated.
You can do things with that emotion. A similar leap takes with the punchline of a joke, where the reward is laughter. Giving people the opportunity to make the catch, without making it so difficult that they drop it, that’s the art of the best branding and writing. It’s showing over telling; “Just do it” as a strapline over “Great sports shoes”; “Great minds like a think” over “You’re smart if you read the Economist”. Someone who owns what they feel is a hundred times more valuable. Later, these people will become your strongest advocates.
And for me, that’s what this beautiful piece of punctuation is, in miniature: David Stuart’s ball… hanging there thirty feet in the air as we scurry beneath it. A connection between two ideas… but not any old connection. A connection loaded with energy, a perfectly weighted pause that signals the turning point: meaningful change is coming. Something to make you feel. Semi-colons. They are effective and they are rare. Kurt Vonnegut said you shouldn’t use them; he was wrong.