freak flag

flashback friday: playing it safe is too risky

[Flashback Friday: this was originally posted on June 29, 2012. Enjoy!]

Beige sells. Average sells. Vanilla sells. The comfort of conformity sells. Meeting most of the needs of most people builds big businesses.

All the marketing books tell us we need to differentiate our products and stand out. Build that brand image. And then 95% of businesses try to stand out by fitting in. The word “innovation” is thrown around these days as the holy grail of business success, yet from the customers’ point of view it often just means:we’re as leading edge as all our competitors.

Similarly, there’s a lot of talk of authenticity lately. We’re told we need to be authentic leaders keepin’ it real while we bring out the authentic best in our teams so we can sell authentic products to our authentic customers. A nice thought, but a hard sell. There are very real social and business costs to being authentic. The biggest is that some people will not like you, some people will reject you. So we try to be “authentic” in a way that everyone likes. (hint: that doesn’t work)

Being all things to all people is the fastest, most direct route to mediocrity. Vanilla products sell because they fit the needs of the most people, but no one is passionate about vanilla. It becomes a commodity. They buy your vanilla product today, but there’s nothing to keep them from replacing it with a competitor’s vanilla product. When you have a commodity you are only competing on price.

Being all things to all people creates a bigger customer pool. But we forget that it also attracts more competitors. I recall an interview with an actress years ago. She had some acting success as a teenager, but her appearance was non-Hollywood so she was only considered for a few parts. Wanting more parts, she had plastic surgery done, bleached her hair, and voilà  she now looked just like every other wannabe actress. She blended in and faded away.

Here’s my test for authenticity: Are you willing to turn down business because what’s being asked is not what you’re best at? Are you willing to turn down 1,000 potential customers who are kind of interested in your product or service so that you can focus on the 100 customers that are deeply interested?

As an individual are you willing to turn down or leave a job that doesn’t fit who you are and how you want to affect the world? Are you willing to be known for your uniqueness? Are you willing to be known for who you are? Are you willing to define yourself and bring every ounce of greatness, passion, and soul to your work?

You don’t have to, you know. And I don’t fault anyone who doesn’t. Authentic has risks. Different has risks. Standing out has risks.

But so does blending in. So does being average, beige, mediocre. No person or business will ever attain greatness by being one of a million. It’s only done by being one in a million.

 

destined for greatness?

The tattoo sweeping along the convenience store clerk’s neckline above her shirt collar caught my eye. In a pretty cursive script it stated, “Destined for Greatness”.

The store was in a barren part of the Southwest in the kind of town where people leave from but no one moves to. It would be easy to snigger and make cynical jokes about her destiny not kicking in yet. It would be simple to sell her short based on her surroundings. That was my initial reaction. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that I don’t know her story. I don’t know if she was a part-time clerk, a manager, or the owner. I don’t know if the business was struggling or if she had built it up from nothing. I don’t know if her role was a landing point or a stepping stone. I don’t know her backstory, situation, or dreams. I don’t know how she defines “greatness”.

All I do know is that it is so easy to sell our selves short. To pretend settling for mediocrity is being humble and modest. It is so easy to look down from the stars, stare at our shoes, and choose life goals that are “realistic”. To set the bar so low we have to be careful not to trip over it. To give up before we’ve even gotten started. And to taunt and derail anyone who thinks there’s more and wants to seek their own path.

And it’s so rare to find someone willing to take a stand for who they are and who they want to be. To announce it to the universe, regardless of what the universe thinks.

Is she destined for greatness? Absolutely. Why shouldn’t she be? We all are – if we choose it.

committed? are you sure?

How committed are you? To your job? To your personal mission? To the things you must accomplish in this life? How committed are you really?

We’re told we should choose a career that we love so much we’d do it even if we didn’t get paid. That’s a pretty high level of commitment and passion right there. We all want to do something we love, something that has meaning for us. But what if what you loved required you to risk incarceration? Death? That necessitated carrying firearms just to get to the job? That still paid almost nothing, if anything at all? That was so outside the norm that you were the only one in the entire country doing it and you were blazing the trail with almost every action?

That’s pretty rough. Let’s up it a little: would you go into exile for your passion? Would you leave friends, family, and everything you knew behind to go be a second-class citizen in another country just so you could “follow your bliss”?

This weekend I watched the 2007 documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad about Iraq’s first (only?) metal band Acrassicauda and saw a glimpse into what relentless obsession looks like. The movie is a fascinating look at Baghdad in 2005/06. It’s not about soldiers, politicians, ideologies, right, or wrong. It’s not even really about heavy metal. It’s about the struggle of a group of 20-somethings just trying to have a band and make some music against the backdrop of daily life in Baghdad. What would be a normal – mundane, even – activity for college-aged youth in the US becomes a hero’s quest where hopes and dreams wrestle against the hopelessness of daily violence and chaos.

They suffer more for their dreams than I could ever go through here. I highly recommend the DVD to see the level of commitment they demonstrate.

After watching, I came away wondering how I could up my passion to that level. How can I tap into the human need that’s fueling them to carry on? How can I bring the noise like they do? How can I play that big with the things that are important in my life? How much would I, could I, truly risk?

do robot overlords have more fun?

Why is FUN at work so taboo? What is so bad about enjoying our time and our days. I’m a big fan of the “Fun is Good” approach by Mike Veeck. Mike has managed to create a unique and successful business with the philosophy that when employees have fun they are more engaged, work harder, and provide superior customer service. When employees have fun, customers have fun. When customers have fun they tell people and come back.

A cornerstone to his approach is the idea that, although they don’t take themselves very seriously, they take their business very seriously. How unique, different, and refreshing is that? I’m a big fan of businesses (and people) willing to be different and authentically stand apart. I’ve previously written on: playing it safe is too risky, vanilla passion, and fear of a human business (the freak flag advantage) so I won’t spend too much time on it here.

This weekend, while playing around on ebay I came across a business willing to have fun and stand apart, yet be laser focused on the business. I know nothing about the business other than what they posted in their auction, I have no idea if they back it up or not, but I REALLY respect their approach.

Lotus of Portland is selling a 2011 Lotus Elise in “chrome orange”. I don’t know how long the auction will be up, but you can see it here. The ad reads (in part):

This is our very last NEW Elise. Lotus is no longer making these!

You know what this 2011 Lotus Elise SC in Chrome Orange doesn’t have? Navigation. Sure you could add one. But ask yourself this: don’t cars do too much for us already? Cushy heated 74-way adjustable powered seats with memory for eight people and lower lumbar support, 34-speaker Bose Kardon theater surround sound with 3D center screen technology, more than one cup holder… they all isolate the driver, you, from the experience and thrill of driving.

You know what this Elise SC does have? The Touring Pack, Lifestyle Paint, hard top, and Star Shield. Also available as standard equipment is an absolute zero-likelihood that this will turn against you in the inevitable global robot uprising. Sure, we’ve been enslaving our robot companions for almost a century, and it’s a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ before our iPods™, Roombas®, and Swiffer WetJets force us to do their insidious mechanical bidding. But rest assured that your Lotus will still obey your every command during the Robocalypse.

And when that day comes we, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

 

It finishes with:

Lotus of Portland is Oregon’s only official Lotus dealership and service center. We have one goal: Simply to be the best Lotus dealership in America.

Focusing on the guiding principles of Lotus, we keep everything as uncomplicated as possible for the greatest in speed and performance. You will deal with only one person from start to finish and you will receive the best car buying experience of your life. Anything less is unacceptable. Resistance is futile

This is a $60k sports car and they’re trying to sell it by going on about robot overlords? Hilarious. They’ve taken the possible negative of a bare bones sports car with no luxury (and few standard) features a and a radioactive paint color and turned it into a funny and eye catching positive. Would this work in a luxury car ad? Nope. But anyone excited about dropping that much money into an impractical car that SCREAMS “LOOK AT ME, ME, ME!” probably has a sense of humor about things. (Yes, I want one and I want to buy it from them. Unfortunately, I’m a few bucks short this week…)

Then they draw a big line in the sand about with a bold claim about how seriously they take their customer’s business. They tell us that anything less than the best car buying experience of our lives is unacceptable. Average, vanilla dealership for the masses? Um, no. And thank goodness.

Again, I have NO experience with them and don’t know how well they back up their claims, but I love their stance. It makes me realize just how much bigger I need to be playing in my own job. Bring on the fun!

 

playing it safe is too risky

Beige sells. Average sells. Vanilla sells. The comfort of conformity sells. Meeting most of the needs of most people builds big businesses.

All the marketing books tell us we need to differentiate our products and stand out. Build that brand image. And then 95% of businesses try to stand out by fitting in. The word “innovation” is thrown around these days as the holy grail of business success, yet from the customers’ point of view it often just means: we’re as leading edge as all our competitors.

Similarly, there’s a lot of talk of authenticity lately. We’re told we need to be authentic leaders keepin’ it real while we bring out the authentic best in our teams so we can sell authentic products to our authentic customers. A nice thought, but a hard sell. There are very real social and business costs to being authentic. The biggest is that some people will not like you, some people will reject you. So we try to be “authentic” in a way that everyone likes. (hint: that doesn’t work)

Being all things to all people is the fastest, most direct route to mediocrity. Vanilla products sell because they fit the needs of the most people, but no one is passionate about vanilla. It becomes a commodity. They buy your vanilla product today, but there’s nothing to keep them from replacing it with a competitor’s vanilla product. When you have a commodity you are only competing on price.

Being all things to all people creates a bigger customer pool. But we forget that it also attracts more competitors. I recall an interview with an actress years ago. She had had some acting success as a teenager, but her appearance was non-Hollywood so she was only considered for a few parts. Wanting more parts, she had plastic surgery done, bleached her hair, and voila! She now looked just like every other wannabe actress. She blended in and faded away.

Here’s my test for authenticity: Are you willing to turn down business because what’s being asked is not what you’re best at? Are you willing to turn down 1,000 potential customers who are kind of interested in your product or service so that you can focus on the 100 customers that are deeply interested?

As an individual are you willing to turn down or leave a job that doesn’t fit who you are and how you want to affect the world? Are you willing to be known for your uniqueness? Are you willing to be known for who you are? Are you willing to define yourself and bring every ounce of greatness, passion, and soul to your work?

You don’t have to, you know. And I don’t fault anyone who doesn’t. Authentic has risks. Different has risks. Standing out has risks.

But so does blending in. So does being average, beige, mediocre. No person or business will ever attain greatness by being one of a million. It’s only done by being one in a million.

vanilla passion

I’ve long heard that vanilla is the best-selling ice cream, yet I’ve met very few people that say vanilla is their favorite. So what’s going on? How can a flavor that few love be a best seller? It wins because it is less offensive to more people. Few love it, but few really hate it. Vanilla is a safe choice.

That seems to be the strategy of a lot of businesses: play it safe and offend fewer people than your competition. The opposite approach is to be very clear about what you are and what you aren’t and focus on the customers who truly appreciate what you’re about. Rather than being some things to all customers, the focus is on being everything to some customers.

Likewise, many (most?) people approach their careers and lives that way. It’s pretty obvious from the sameness of LinkedIn photos and bios that the goal is to fit in, be like others, don’t stand out. Don’t veer too far away from the tribe norms. And, on some levels, there’s nothing wrong with that after all vanilla sells more as a whole.

The problem is, it gets passed over more, too. Vanilla sells more, but no one is passionate about it. I gravitate toward ice cream flavors with names like “Chocolate Armageddon” but you might hate that. You might prefer straight up mint chip. Others go for rocky road. We push the vanilla aside to get to what we really want.

When we look at products, businesses, or even people that folks get really excited and passionate about and want to go out of their way to champion, support, and tell others about, it’s never a plain vanilla product, business, or person. The things we get passionate about, the companies we are loyal to, the people we really want to help succeed always stand out in some way.

If we choose to stand out, there will be naysayers, critics, and people who don’t like us. But there will also be the raving fans. If we choose to play it safe there will be few naysayers, critics, or people who don’t like us. But there will also be few cheering us on.

Being different doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, it often impedes it. First impressions do count, the image we present to the world does matter; people judge us based on the information we give them. I can’t control my height, gender, race, age, etc. but I can control how I dress, how I’m groomed, what I say, how I say it, etc.

Being different doesn’t guarantee success, BUT successful people are often different. They think different. They operate different. They have a different message for the world. And they get different results.

So often it seems that the giants don’t norm off of everyone else. They aren’t looking to see what others are doing before deciding what to do. Instead, they go their way and let other choose to follow or not. It’s ironic that so many of our icons are also iconoclasts.

The guys over at Talent Anarchy (twitter: @talentanarchy) refer to our individual uniqueness as our freak flag (a term I love). It’s not about piercings, tattoos, and blue hair. It’s about owning who we are as individuals and being comfortable and honest enough to be really authentic. That is really, really hard to do. And, done right, there is scary, incredible power there.

It’s a tough choice. But remember: sometimes the choices that look the safest are actually the most dangerous. After all, when was the last time you bought vanilla ice cream as a treat for yourself?

 

fear of a human business (the freak flag advantage)

Business is run by humans for humans so why is the business world so, so scared of showing their humanness?

With rare exception, corporate social media policies shout: “We’re terrified our customers will find out that actual people work at this company!” The policies are very clear that you should never, ever associate yourself with the company. Don’t reveal that you have opinions, actual thoughts, passions, dreams, hobbies, families. Don’t give customers the opportunity to appreciate each individual’s uniqueness, good and bad. Assume customers are so easily offended that they will boycott the company because of what an employee posted on a social media site. Give no one the benefit of the doubt.

It’s so sad, it’s funny. There’s so much good that comes from recognizing humanity and individuality. It makes companies and their products real and relevant. Companies (marketers anyway) want us to have a relationship with the brand, yet don’t realize that no one develops attachment to faceless, soulless, neutered, beige vanilla sameness.

One of the easiest ways to differentiate your company is to let your humanness shine. But few get that. They miss that the root of differentiation is being different. And that celebrating your authentic differences and actually standing out is daring and wonderful.

Yesterday, though, I came across a magazine advertisement for the Jaguar XF that blew me away. The company not only got it but made it the absolute core of the entire ad campaign!

At risk of plugging products I know nothing about, let me describe the ad. Maybe you’ve seen it: two page spread with three electric guitars and amps taking up almost the entire space, in the lower left is a small picture of a sports sedan, in the lower right is a small and understated  Jaguar company logo. The headline is: “Some of the other machines our designers play with.” It goes on to brag that the lead design of the new car is the “spike –haired, head-banging lead guitarist of his own band, Scattering Ashes…” and describes how he brought that amped up rock passion to designing this car.

Wow! An ad that gets attention, an admission (no, a celebration!) that they have passionate-not-quite-mainstream employees, and a darn good looking car. A great, eye-catching ad that takes a risk and shows commitment to shattering old images and shaking up the status quo. Then it gets even better. There is a QR tag to hear the music. Whip out your smart phone and you’re taken to a youtube video with a tongue-in-cheek opening warning and a Scattering Ashes song playing while three Jags make lurid slides around the tarmac.

Wanna see?

Some of the commenters on youtube mention that the song isn’t all that good and it seems out of sync with the Jag image. Yeah, it’s not the greatest song ever. And, yeah, it runs counter to an image of   traditional, stodgy, understated, quiet class. Cleary, Jag is looking to aggressively redefine their image. It’s an electric scream against the what you think they are and an overdriven invitation to join them where they want to be.

But wait! This isn’t a neon colored hatchback with extreme graphics being sold to the fast & furious crowd. This is a luxury sports sedan being marketed to people that can drop $50 – 70k+ on a car – you know, uptight, conservative folks in suits and ties. Shouldn’t you be telling them how much status the car will bring them, or focusing on safety, or winking at how sporty you’d like them to think it is?

Sure, you could. But then you’d be just like everyone else. Or you could celebrate the glorious passion and humanness of your employees, crank your company culture up to 11, and actually differentiate yourself by actually being, well, different.

Don’t know if the car’s any good or if the campaign will be successful, but I love the bold stance. Anyone could have done it, but only one did. Unfurl the freak flag and rock on!