uncovering the obvious (and claiming it as differentiating)
“Dandelions are just friendly little weeds who only want to be loved like flowers.”
One of the craziest discussions you have in business is often about what a business wants to tell everyone about themselves as important <some call this “differentiating“>.
Here is a marketing truth <that marketing people always fear to tell businesses>:
Businesses want to state something obvious. But they want to claim it is superiority. And, ultimately, it ends up simply being hyperbole.
Trust me. This conversation happens everyday.
And it isn’t just advertising & communications … it is everyone and everywhere in a business. Sales, marketing, advertising, internal communications, PR and it even creeps into vision and mission direction/statements <where it can actually create harm>.
“Obvious” disguised with hyperbole is the bane of the communications industry.
This came to mind during a discussion I had on “nothing really good is ever easy” and I laughed and said “nothing really bad is ever easy.”
I didn’t say this just to be a smart ass <although I do enjoy being one>. I said it because it reflects the oldest advertising trick in the book. Huh? Reverse a ‘claim’ and see if it is something that anyone would ever do … or say.
It sounds silly <kind of like my smart as response> but you can eliminate a lot of silly, if simply obvious, ideas by doing this.
I learned this one really on in my career from the advertising’s infamous David Bell when I was working at an advertising agency called Bozell in NYC. While David and I may have had our differences he was a wizard with clients and business leaders. He taught me this one as we sat in a room filled with a non-stop testosterone driven group of a dozen client ‘marketing experts’ who bludgeoned us with ‘here is what we need to say about our company’ ideas. David staved them off one by one by reversing them to suggest ‘why would we say this? because the alternative isn’t really an alternative is it? … and, if you agree, then what you want to say, well, doesn’t say a lot about us, does it?.’
Let me give some examples.
“We care about people.” <or> “We are in the people business.” <usually stated with an exclamation point or two>.
“We don’t care about people.” <or> “We are in the non-people business.”
Who the fuck would ever say that? No one. Well. Unless maybe you are a zoo <non-people>.
Flipping the claim points out your claim isn’t really different, or certainly not distinct, from anyone else.
“service matters.” <or> “service exceeding expectations.” Heck. even … “exceeding expectations.”
“Service doesn’t matter.” <or> “Service not exceeding expectations.” And the infamous “meeting expectations.” <a nice low bar to meet>
Is there any business out there who offers the second, flipped, version? Of course not.
So that means what you are staking a claim to sound good and makes you puff your chest out a little <a lot> … but it is meaningless in terms of differentiation, distinctness and drumming up business. As I said … this conversation is one of the nuttiest discussions in business. It gets even more convoluted because developing a tagline for a company is difficult. Yes. That I admit <and have the scars to prove how difficult>.
Therefore many businesses take their sales or organizational rallying cries <“go beyond the expected!”> and suggest you make it their tagline.
Uh oh <I typically started looking around for the M&M’s and the bar about that point>.
I am absolutely an alignment guy. I believe in aligning an organization around a vision and a functional delivery focus. But using words as an alignment tool is very tricky. It can be done … but it is tricky … and has to be very well thought out. And sometimes it just cannot be done <especially if you simply use a sales rallying cry>.
Once you uncover the obvious you should avoid using it to differentiate. Oh. My favorite to this day remains … “our people are our difference.”
When are the people not the difference between companies? <unless we go to Star Wars Episode III: Attack of the Clones and believe organizations are hiring clones … hmmmmmmmmm … which could explain unemployment … well … anyway … different post>
I call this exercise “uncovering the obvious.” And, yes, sometimes telling people the obvious in marketing & communications is important.
And, yes, I have often encouraged businesses to state the obvious <particularly when research has suggested that people need to be reminded about the obvious>.
But, no, I have never suggested stating the obvious as a superiority claim.
Because it is silly.
And, ultimately, the only people who do not believe it is silly are your own sales people <or most employees> because everyone on the outside will simply give you a quizzical look and say something along the lines of … “uhm, I kind of expected that.”
I tried to think about when it is appropriate to state the obvious and actually another blogger <Kog’s qualms> addressed this for me already:
I can’t quite figure out why people state the obvious and, why they do it so often. Whatever the reason, I definitely have a qualm. But I’ll allow for exceptions. Obvious statements are okay in two cases:
1) when you’re excited and having a fantastic time and you want everyone to know: “I’m having so much fun! This is so exciting”; and
2) when you’re talking about the weather: “It’s so sunny!” or “ugghhh rain AGAIN!”. The first type of statements are functional and life affirming and the second are the cornerstone of small talk and just about the only thing everyone in the world can talk about and agree on.
Unless a business is having extraordinary fun <and wants to tell everyone> or wants to talk about the weather … steer them away from stating the obvious.
All that said.
I am ashamed to say that I have lost too many of these types of battles in my career. So many, in fact, that I consider the few wins to be extraordinary moments in my career. And sadly I believe my experience represents the majority.
In the end?
I am fairly relentless in teaching aspiring professionals to discern the obvious from the distinct differentiator. I do so not only because it is the right thing to do but with the hope that they will be better at winning these battles than I.
Feel free and state the obvious <because, honestly, sometimes the obvious is not always so obvious> but please, lease, please don’t try and use the obvious to ‘differentiate.’