Behind the Curtain: #1 Branding

Written on October 4, 2010

The other day, a business acquaintance asked my business partner and me to come by for lunch to discuss a potentially mutually beneficial business arrangement. So, we bit. Why not? Business doesn’t fall out of trees these days. You must work for it – often in ways you never thought of before. Perhaps this would lead some place new and exciting, given that this individual was in a line of work different from but parallel to what we do.

Sandwiches and chips later, we learned that the short version is that, in the course of offering his company’s services, he was being asked to help his clients develop their brands. What he wanted Cayenne to do was act as consultants with his team and “teach” them how to develop brands. He was very complimentary of the work we do – wanted to be “partnered” only with the best. We offered, of course, to team with his company and work the brand side for his clients while his company handled the technical offerings for which they are known.

We’ve not heard back. Don’t really expect to.

Basically, he wanted us, in a quick easy lesson, to teach his company to compete with ours.

The more I thought about this, the more it fired me up. The notion that, with a few short lessons we could or would teach his team to develop a brand is as ludicrous as thinking that a couple of hours of Rosetta Stone will render you fluent in Arabic, or that an attorney could teach you in three easy lessons how to represent yourself. I’ve been in this business about 15 years. Compared with some of the greats in my business, I’m a pup. Over the course of those 15 years I’ve earned a toolkit for developing brands. In fact, here at Cayenne, we’ve developed an entire workshop including brand discovery exercises, ways of interpreting competitive brands, ways of identifying stakeholders, targets, etc. We then take all of what we learn in our workshop, debriefings and competitive surveys and spend as much as a month – something on the order of 500 creative hours – unearthing brand solutions that are interruptive, insightful, and ideally suited to the clients who’ve hired us. Then we work to see how the newly hatched identity expresses across a complete spectrum of corporate communications – from letterhead to lobby. Our team is made up of respected veterans of the industry – people with decades of experience.

I log about 1600 to 2000 billable hours a year. That means I’ve been doing this for close to 25,000 hours or so – give or take 5,000. Malcolm Gladwell postulates that you have to spend about 10,000 hours at something to get good at it. I think that’s probably pretty close. Here at Cayenne, there are three of us with that kind of time invested or more. Chops. Time on the field. Time in the trenches. And definitely learning things we neither can nor will try to teach somebody on a Monday afternoon so they can try and compete with us.

I’ve been wondering why this bothered me so much. This guy, after all, was simply trying to develop some “added value.”  I’ve come to the conclusion that this is what bothers me: our culture is rapidly becoming paper thin. Shallow. We don’t value hard work. We value the quick buck. We are willing to try to buy somebody else’s hard-earned experience and sell it as our own – without fully understanding it or even caring if we fully understand it. I’m reminded of a conversation the Jeff Goldblum character, Ian Malcolm, has in Jurassic Park:

Dr. Ian Malcolm: I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here: it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility… for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now

[pounds table with fists]

Dr. Ian Malcolm: you’re selling it,

[pounds table again]

Dr. Ian Malcolm: you want to sell it!

In the end, I think what bothered me most about this entire exchange with the unnamed business acquaintance is this: if we don’t value the work it takes to be good, I’m quite convinced we as a species will end up like the dinosaurs Jeff Goldblum is railing about in Jurassic Park. And rightfully so.

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