The danger of boring yourself

The thing about churning out one of these essays every week, is that it forces me to constantly be focusing on the “next” thing: the next idea, the next theory, the next technique, the next talking point.

In general this is no bad thing, as it helps me to continuously deepen my knowledge, and hopefully is reasonably entertaining for the reader too.  However it does have a distinct downside:

The pathological focus on the new at the expense of the old.

To show you what I mean, I’ll give you a specific example.  The other day somebody was going through my little email course, and they dropped me a note to say that they liked the following point:

“To find new market space you normally have to surrender existing market space.  That means essentially giving up on the portion of the market your competitors are fighting over.”

This idea is obviously at the heart of my whole “anti-competitive” schtick, and a central characteristic of my work.  But you know what?  I’d not written about it, spoken about it, or even thought about it in ages.

You see to me, this concept is “old news”.  Although it’s baked into my process automatically, it’s no longer something I bring up in my writing or in discussions with prospective clients.  I’ve moved on.

I’m sure you can see the error here.

Whilst this idea may be old for me, it’s new for 99.9999% of the people I’m ever likely to encounter.  It isn’t a spent force.  On the contrary, it’s still got as much juice as it did the first day I put it out there.  An yet, in spite of this, I ignore it completely.  I’m leaving that potential value withering on the vine, for no better reason, if I’m honest, than that I’m bored of it.  My focus is now on more recent, but not necessarily more effective ideas.

In business we see this all the time.  Companies – or moreover the executives within them – get bored of their own fodder long before their customers do.  This stands to reason right?  After all they’re hearing the same old stuff day after day – so of course they’d want to freshen it up now and then.

But what they miss – what we all miss really – is that the public’s perspective is totally different.  They aren’t intimately entwined with this organisation.  On the contrary they basically never think it about it at all.  Even the most loyal of customers are probably only paying an hour or two’s attention to it a year.  And that’s before we take into account the huge portion of the market who have never even heard of it at all.

For these people, even the oldest and most stale of offering / brand / product variant / message is still fresh and effective.  And thus premature abandonment of these things can really hurt the organisation.

For an obvious illustration we can think about the way most companies treat branding.  As I’m sure many of you have experienced, it’s totally standard for many organisations to “update” their brand platform every 3 or 4 years.

In my lifetime I can recall Coca-Cola using the following straplines at various points:

  • Always Coca-Cola
  • Always the real thing
  • Enjoy
  • Life tastes good
  • Make it real
  • The Coke side of life
  • Open happiness
  • Taste the feeling
  • Together tastes better
  • Real magic

Now perhaps they have some sophisticated rationale for this, but a more likely cause to me is simply that it’s quite boring to work for Coke.  The thing basically runs itself – I mean it’s not like supermarkets are about to de-list you right?  So you’ve got to find something to amuse yourself, and new creative like this is as good a thing as any.  It won’t do much good, but it won’t do much harm either.  It’s just somewhere to chuck your profits, and have a bit of a laugh.

Factor in a few new marketing directors who want to “make their mark”, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for constant pointless change.

Contrast this with Nike or Red Bull, say, and you’ll see the folly.  Nobody would call them marketing slouches, but they’ve never changed their core platform.  Nobody ever says it’s time to freshen up “Just Do It”, or find something more relevant than “Gives You Wings”.  And that’s because from the outside perspective, these things never get old.  People don’t pay enough attention for them to become boring.  At worst they become simply familiar – which is hardly a crime in the field of branding now is it?

And seriously, don’t get me started on all the brands out there who are most famous for ad campaigns, jingles, and tag lines that they abandoned 20, 30 years ago.  Honestly, I think that many big brands would be well served to dig out whatever their most iconic piece of advertising was, and simply re-run it.  You can almost guarantee it would make more of an impact than rolling the dice on a new piece of work, which even if successful wouldn’t have the hard-won memory structures to fall back on.

I understand we have this idea of customers being attracted to “newness”, but I think this is only true in limited circumstances.  The more powerful force – as any “How Brands Grow” advocate would tell you – is the old mental availability chestnut; in some senses the opposite of “new”.

Anyway, I’m using brand and advertising to make my point here since they are the most noticeable aspects of a business’ public image – but make no mistake, the pathology is not limited to these fields.

Ultimately the greatest brands are at their heart exercises in relentless repetition.  Doing the same thing over and over again, letting it age like fine wine, and resisting the ego-driven urge to change.

Clearly this doesn’t mean one should ignore the new either.  Certainly for my part I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, and putting new ideas out there.  The trick is simply to do this whilst also protecting, respecting, and not becoming bored by the ideas that came before.

It’s a tricky line to walk, but costly if you fall off either side.

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