Wisdom of the Breakdancers 

"Breakdancing is about messing up and turning it into something new...never stop!" Jared Hughes, breakdance instructor

That piece of wisdom comes from my son's breakdance teacher. He shared it after a class and it seemed to me really important.

So much of the communications I see out in the world, whether branding, email marketing or something else, is too safe. It's limited by fear of making a mistake, instead of boldly inspired by passion.

Being risk averse may be the safe thing to do but it doesn't move things forward.

Though he may not be a breakdancer (but I wouldn't put it past him) Mark Zuckerberg does seem to have his finger on the pulse of people communicating with one another. His thoughts on taking risks?

"The biggest risk is not taking any risk at all. In a world that's changing really quickly, the only strategy that's guaranteed to fail is not taking a risk." Mark Zuckerberg, Founder & CEO Facebook

The calculation is pretty simple, when you are faced with a strategic or creative decision, choosing the safe road will likely keep attention off of you. Bosses and colleagues will be content and the outcome will most likely be adequate.

In some situations, that may be the rational thing to do. It's why most of us don't bet our life savings on a horse or a hand of cards. It's why a company's marketing professionals are less likely to push for communications that shake things up. They want job security.

If your brand's strategic goal is to communicate stability and little more, then this might be a useful strategy. But if you're looking to change or revitalize people's perceptions and associations of your brand, you are guaranteed to fail.

We were working with Giant Bicycle some year's ago. They were trying to bridge the deep chasm between being a price driven commodity and being a heart-throbbing brand. One way we helped was by giving meaning to their logo. 

This logo, the one that appears on all of their products and every branded communication, was disparagingly referred to at Giant USA as “The hamburger.” There was no story attached to the logo, or at least none communicated, so it was a meaningless mark at best. At worst, it perpetuated Giant’s heritage market position as a low-priced commodity. They were investing heavily in evolving their business into a quality brand and this so-called hamburger was counter to the effort.

The risk we faced was putting attention on the brand, specifically the logo, sharing an "emotional" story, and it somehow being received as inauthentic or a gimmick.

I interviewed a member of the founding family and heard a story that no one in the building seemed to know. The logo was a kind of yin-yang symbol. It showed the earth and sky and the pathways created by cycling that lay in-between. Balance and harmony were the product of cycling, an important philosophy for the entire brand community to hear, especially from a company wanting to be more than just manufacturers.

The story was first introduced in an internal brand guide titled, Smells Like Giant, and became part of the mythology of the brand. And the discussion evolved from solely the rational (feature-benefits and price) to the emotional…Giant was a brand with a soul after all.

The next thing we did was craft a consumer focused campaign based on a manifesto. It was a little edgy for the time and not what the dealer network was expecting. We wanted them to distribute the booklets and display posters that used the same messaging.

This was a big leap for a brand that was positioned in the industry as safe and solid. We quickly were made aware of the reality of the risk we were facing. The day retailers received a little package from Giant filled with manifestos and posters, the president received several scathing emails and phone calls from irate dealers who found the campaign offensive. Two spreads in particular were mentioned, one for the turn of phrase and the other for the image (we were assured that no animal was harmed during photography).

Keep in mind that the cycling industry is passionate and hierarchical. Mavens, like those who work in bike shops and lead group rides, tend to take other riders under their wings and educate them. We had to get mavens to see Giant as heart throbbing, fist pumping riders to get them to recommend our bikes.

Despite the few people who were offended, most loved the campaign and kept the posters up for years. It was the start of a transformation that Giant Bicycle is still benefiting from years later.

Remember Jared the breakdance instructor? "Breakdancing is about messing up and turning it into something new...never stop!" Leave it to a breakdancer to break it down for us all.


Talk is cheap...and really valuable

How often does your team meet and talk? Really talk? Not email, text, tweet or instant message. Not crank through a meeting agenda. I mean actually hang out and talk. One of the keys to great communication is understanding the people you are conversing with. Getting to know their fears, their dreams, what they had for dinner. All of this dialog creates a bond. Teams need to work as…well…teams. Great teams do not have a herd of individuals forced together in a pen. Great teams have chemistry. It’s true in sports and it’s true in business. Teammates don’t have to be best friends, though they may be. But teammates do need to have a rapport and care about each other and share a clear understanding of the journey they are on together. The solution is easy. Give your teams a chance to hang out together in an environment that encourages them to be present…not answering phone calls and incoming messages. But really together. It’s human. It’s refreshing. Ultimately, it’s really productive. 


Stop me if you’ve heard this one

We all need to do a better job of telling our stories.

Not just for entertainment…but that’s not a bad reason.

Not just because it’s the best way for people to get you and remember you.

Not just because it makes our daily lives more human.

Not just to rise to be heard above the flood of data and branded fireworks.

We need to be better storytellers for all of these things.

And to truly build relationships.

To be our greatest selves.

It’s not complicated.

Think about it.

What do you want to share?

Why is it interesting to those you want to share it with?

What’s the lead or theme?

What’s the journey, with its dramatic conflicts and resolutions along the way?

For business, what problem does it solve?

Who are the heroes and the villains?

What’s the moral of the story?

Go ahead…thrill people.

Do it for you.

Do it for your team.

Do it for the idea you all just hatched.

Do it to build your community, whether business, social, cause-related, or all of the above.

Tell the story.

Tell it well.

Then listen to others tell their stories.

You’ll have a really good day.


Riding The Trojan Horse

For those of you who don’t know the story, the Trojan Horse is a tale from Virgil’s Aeneid, a retelling of how the Greeks ended a 10-year siege of the city-state of Troy…a conflict which had become mired in stalemate. The Greeks built a massive horse and filled it with a select group of soldiers. The Greeks then pretended to sail away, abandoning their wooden horse. The people of Troy opened the gates to the city and pulled the massive horse in as a trophy of war. That night, the men in the belly of the wooden beast climbed out and opened the gates to the waiting Greek army who overwhelmed the city.

The modern men and women of Troy live on a strange island floating off the southwest edge of downtown LA. I had the privilege recently of being a guest lecturer at a postgraduate marketing class at USC. My friend and colleague, Freddy Nager, asked me to talk to his students about story-driven marketing. Something I’m always happy to do.

After regaling them for some time with my amassed wisdom I realized I was breaking one of my golden rules of communication: listen, don’t just talk. So I adjusted. We focused on an exercise I encourage all organizations to do: Answer the question…what are you fighting for? The students did this work applying it either to the business plan they were working on or their personal life-career. The idea was to give their business a purpose or their resume a passion and drive.

Stories were told, exercises were undertaken, and I left feeling there were some budding entrepreneurs who might just put a little more attention on story when they went forth to help our species evolve.

So what does that all have to do with the Trojan Horse?

What I failed to mention is that I arrived at the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism on the night of the first presidential debate. You’d expect this to be a non-event given the endless reports of the apathetic youth of today. Instead, what I saw was a large room bursting at the seams with enthusiastic students effervescently engaged. There were students spilling out all over the place.  

I looked down from an upper floor staircase in awe. This was the belly of the beast. And all those older generations shaking their heads with bitter expressions about the youth of today are about to get stormed by these exuberant youth who are likely to embarrass the “Greatest Generation” with a new way of making the world a far better place. We’ll never know what hit us.

It may be blind optimism in the future, but I wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth…after all, it’s the belly you should be worrying about.


Half with the head, half with the heart

That’s what my grandmother used to always say. Gramma B would hold court with my brother, our friends, and me as she sat regally on a strappy plastic chair on the patio of her Palm Springs condo…drinking hot coffee on a 100+ degree-day. Often, the lecture would turn to love, something she knew a fair amount about having spent her entire adult life married to my grandfather. “Half with the head, half with the heart.” As a teenager awash in hormones I took it to mean: marry someone who really gets you going but will also be a good friend for life. I took that advice.

Now to brands. I’ve spent a good portion of my professional career looking at how brands tell their story. One of the glaringly obvious things I see is whether their story is out of balance. Whether it is too much about passion or too much about fact.

Like a good partner for life, a great brand shares the facts of their offering in equal measure to an emotional connection to their brand. If it’s too descriptive about their product or service offering they come across as cold, mechanical, distant and uncaring. If it’s all about high energy, explosive ideas, throbbing vision, it comes across as lacking substance, being over-hyped and insincere.

I recently delved into the brand story of a global powerhouse in recruitment and human resource tools. Their communications were so precise and analytical but devoid of passion. Think too much Mr. Spock and not enough Captain Kirk. The problem is that this company is in the business of connecting people with epic corporate journeys, yet there is not enough of their own vision to add a human touch. It’s true that they are already highly successful, but have they reached their potential? That’s a question they pose to others…perhaps they should ask themselves that too.

So how about your brand. When you take a look at the sea of communications you put out into the world and within the cloistered walls of your organization, is it balanced? Ask yourself: is it half with the head and half with the heart?  

Though she died some 20 years ago, I still ask myself that question when I put together the story of an organization or a brand. Perhaps you should too.

Go ahead…make Gramma B proud!