Connect the dots

In my continuing journey to define my unique selling proposition, here is another personal infographic. This one describes the kind of thinking that makes me happiest: The challenge of taking a disconnected or even seemingly impossible set of conditions and making sense of it.

It starts with making sure all the known points are on the map. Then, explode the system out into a Rube Goldberg contraption of craziness — discover the unknown points, explore the context, and swim in the data until patterns emerge. Once the systems and opportunities are revealed the really hard part begins, isolating the key points and wrangling them into a deceptively simple system. That last part usually takes a few iterations.

This is a typical design thinking approach, certainly not unique to me, and it was fun to go through the process to make the graphic about the process. I’m hoping all this will lead me to more clearly articulating my own key points and system.

Five-finger discount

Cognac is crazy popular in my neighborhood judging by how quickly the shelves are cleared out during a sale. And to keep those shelves from emptying themselves, cognac is always locked up.

What’s a brand to do when it becomes known for being shoplifted? If you’re Hennessey, you create a branded, locked case.

It can be presented as a theft-protection freebie for small stores, but the resulting in-store brand advertising is the gift that keeps on giving. There’s also a subtle message about the product being so coveted and valuable, it has to be locked up. Well played.

The opposite of inspiration

A client’s main office has a thoroughly depressing interior despite the building’s landmark architecture. The drabness is made all the more noticeable in contrast to their recent brand refresh, which uses great colors and smart messaging.

Every time I visit I think about what a disconnect this is — the employee experience doesn’t match the bright, friendly customer experience they are trying so hard to create. They’ve overlooked the physical environment and employee experience as part of brand alignment, a common mistake.

I thought the endless clusters of beige cubes were the worst of it until I had a meeting in this conference room, which is apparently where teal chairs from the 80s go to die.

A sign-off screen that brings customers back

turbotax_messageIt’s supremely frustrating to see customers walk away without knowing why. Because if you don’t know why, you can’t fix it.

After signing out of TurboTax last night, I received the message shown. It’s friendly and smartly user-centric, no doubt the result of research into why people abandon the software. They want to make sure I return, because they don’t get paid until I finish and submit my tax forms through their service.

Displaying empathy and helpfulness, the sign-off screen prompts me to set a reminder to return so I don’t procrastinate too long or find help if I’m quitting out of frustration. Above all, it turns my walking away into an opportunity to improve the customer journey and close the sales loop. It’s a nice example of insights, UX, and messaging coming together simply and effectively. Nice job, Intuit!

 

 

 

Small Giants

smallgiantsThe book Small Giants resonated with me in a way few business books ever have. Author Bo Burlingham defines small giants as “companies that choose to be great instead of big”, an idea near and dear to my heart.

As a young designer in Chicago, my employers and clients were small companies. At the time I wasn’t aware how special those early experiences and relationships were. The work seemed, frankly, boring and limiting. I was antsy to move on to bigger agencies and brands.

After relocating and landing in a Silicon Valley agency, I found myself deeply conflicted. My heart wasn’t in working for mainstream, consumer brands. I missed the thoughtfulness and intimacy of the work I had done before. I missed the sense of purpose gained from helping good people realize their dream of owning a thriving business. Words of wisdom from a long-forgotten designer echoed in my head:  “There are no good projects, only good clients.”

After the agency collapsed, I struck out on my own. Eager to get back to “good clients”, I thought about what my favorites had in common. Here’s what I knew: They sold something of tangible value, and they did it honestly. They were fair to suppliers and partners. They were small and closely held, often family-owned. They treated employees with respect and generosity. They were local businesses — what defined that wasn’t clear, but I knew it when I saw it — and they supported community service and philanthropy. In short, the world was better with than without them.

This led me to a loose concept of social responsibility: doing business with integrity, giving back to the community, and treating people well. It also seemed being privately held was the key to being able to control everything else. Those became my four criteria for choosing clients ten years ago.

Finding Small Giants was inspiring and validating. Finally, a cogent description of what I’d intuitively understood but been unable to define! An entire book about the business unicorns I love! I now have a clearer sense of who the right clients for me are, and new insights into what to look for.

One idea that hadn’t previously gelled as part of my definition was limited growth — choosing to grow only when it serves strategic goals and doesn’t sacrifice culture or ideals. Growth has become such an unquestioned requirement of business that not growing is surprisingly radical.

Another insight was that “small” isn’t necessarily what makes my clients a good fit for me. It’s having a family culture, engaged leadership, and sense of purpose where I thrive. While it’s certainly easier to maintain those in a small company, there may be mid-sized companies that also fit this bill.

I also love the inclusion of soul, or mojo, that Burlingham cites as a secret ingredient. Running counter to management playbooks and belief in predictive data, it acknowledges there is a special magic that allows a company to be intimately, deeply great. That I couldn’t concretely define what I loved about my clients makes sense — there is simply a quality. They either have it or they don’t, and no logic model can predict it.

Finding small giants is no easy feat. But with renewed inspiration and clarity, I look forward to seeking more of them as clients and also to doing my part to help aspiring small giants find their mojo.

Packaging for Dummies

I laughed when I saw this. Part of me wants to be offended by packaging that assumes our incompetence, but considering how many times I’ve overlooked or mangled a resealable strip I have to admit it’s spot-on.

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Mine

I love this feature in my newest Boden catalog – sticky tabs to flag items you like instead of having to turn down page corners. Arriving days before Valentine’s Day, its messages of “Mine” and “Love” also subtly (cleverly?) call to mind candy conversation hearts.

Putting on my marketer hat, I’d add a tab labeled Gift. Even if the shopper doesn’t end up purchasing any gifts, the prompt nudges them to think about friends while browsing and share Boden items they might like. And, on a personal note, I’d feel less frivolous about shopping if I could convince myself I was also shopping for my friends!

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The perfect sentence

Yesterday I experienced one of those rare moments when everything clicks into place and you realize you’ve created something perfect. One simple sentence capturing the essence of brand vision — it has personality and heart without being cutesy, and clarity without being tactical. It is, dare I say it, pithy!

We’ve been exploring brand strategy and key messaging for months, but until now we didn’t have the expression quite right. Considering I’m wrapping up the project this week, my perfect sentence is a timely capstone on a wonderful project!

Living economies

Friday I attended a talk by Hunter Lovins at California College of the Arts. She briefly touched on a point of view about globalization that struck me: You can’t have a living economy without a local economy — otherwise, you have an economy that is either killing or dying.

Think about that for a minute. In a global economy, your economy is either killing others or being killed. In order to thrive without destroying, you must have a robust local economy.

That’s not to say business shouldn’t benefit from global markets. But the foundation of economies should be rooted in creating sustainable value and resilience locally.

Taproot Foundation

Since 2004 I’ve been a volunteer for the fantastic Taproot Foundation, which supports non-profits by providing them with pro bono teams of consultants they couldn’t otherwise afford. Originally their service grants covered basics like logo design and website development, but have expanded to cover everything from databases to board training. I’m ready for a new challenge and have put myself back on the active list.

For my last project I was the strategy lead on a brand strategy and messaging grant for Building Futures with Women and Children. The heart and soul of Building Futures is supporting underserved women and their children who are facing homelessness due to domestic violence. Their mission had been challenged by continuing shifts in funding and they requested help finding a flexible, purposeful path through uncertainty. More urgently, they wanted messaging that would better reflect their remarkable success and how their services have changed over 25 years. During the 6 month project we delivered a comprehensive package of stakeholder insights from interviews, position options to help them explore their future, brand identity and strategy guidance, and messaging options to serve everything from press release footers to fundraising mailers. They were a joy to work with, and I hope our work helps them move forward confidently.

The work is incredibly rewarding, and I look forward to taking on a new project soon!