Trust: Earned and Unearned

trust-fall1The brilliant Seth Godin (how many times have I typed that phrase?) explored the issue of trust in one of his blog posts about a year ago, and he raised a fascinating point.

All the ways that we think we — individuals or companies — need to act in order to build trust might be wrong.

They’re not wrong in the sense of creating mistrust. But they might not be very effective compared to the shorthand heuristics we actually use as consumers, voters or friends to decide whom to trust.

Why do we trust brands like Apple or Google or Evernote? Have they been so transparent, so altruistic, so consistent, so authentic that we should hand over our most sensitive data to them? Do we know enough about them in order to truly trust them? And would we even be willing to take the time to find out?

No, probably not. Our lives are just too complex, too fast-moving, and there’s too much information to evaluate. Instead we trust online reviews, Consumer Reports, MSNBC or Fox (your call), or even Seth Godin himself, to tell us the truth and help us make decisions. The world is so large and we are so small and fallible, there’s no way we can know the future or predict the kind of complex behavior of which humans and their companies are capable. So we jump off the cliff in good faith, using our best guess, and hoping we’re right.

What are the clues we use? For people, it’s body language, choice of words, a look in the eyes, a sense of the familiar. For brands, it’s product design, packaging, graphics, warranties, a voice, a website. And for both it’s referrals. Other people’s experiences are the biggest touchstones. Making sure their experiences are good ones— keeping your promises, correcting your missteps, treating people with respect — all are indicators that trust is a safe choice.

Unfortunately, charlatans know how to play us. We trust our gut instincts and sometimes those instincts are wrong. But mostly, I think humans have evolved to have pretty good bullshit detection systems. We can be suckered to a point. But if we trust our antennae, we usually head down the right path. Eventually.

Want to read more? Check out Seth’s blog.

 

Giant Sealy stretches —and wakes up the industry

For the past year, we’ve been working on a complicated, many-faceted brand refresh for Sealy — part of the world’s largest mattress manufacturer, Tempur Sealy International.

It involved a major rethinking and overhaul of the entire structure of their product line, brand architecture and marketing presentation.

On January 20, at the enormous Las Vegas Market trade show, the company announced the update and revealed the new line to stellar industry reaction. The brand was re-energized — and so were Sealy’s own sales staff and their national retail customers. The excited response was universally positive. We’re relieved (whew!) and delighted!

FreeAssociates was involved from the earliest stages, meeting with the brand experience team and brand managers, sales execs, product designers, ad agency and strategists to help define the brand, clarify its position, and craft its messaging.

Dozens of concepts were floated and vetted, tested and refined, through a grueling but thorough process that left no stone unturned. Over many months the design vocabulary was established and tweaked, until a powerful, unified evolution of the brand emerged.

Under the watchful eyes and thoughtful leadership of Director of Brand Experience Karl Myers and his Senior Manager Jonah Nelson, we crafted a comprehensive new branding system.

FreeAssociates has developed a refined version of the logo, color palette, the master brand style guide, point of sale displays and materials, product labeling, a feature icon system, sales guide, product guide, trade show campaign graphics and all the displays and information graphics for Sealy’s 14,000 s.f. permanent showroom at Las Vegas Market (interior designed by Jhipo Hong).

We’re truly grateful to be working with this talented Sealy team and to have an opportunity to help affect the course of their venerable 130-year-old brand.

For the full story, take a look at this article in Furniture World.

FreeAssociates wins Silver from Graphis Design Annual

designannual2017s

Graphis magazine is one of the most prestigious publications in our industry. And being accepted into their 2017 Design Annual is truly an honor.

Our re-branding of the COPi Companies as Legistics recently won a Silver award in the very competitive Branding category. We’re proud of the award, but prouder still of the work we did. We’ve helped Legistics move into a new mode, leaving behind their 1980’s copy-centric identity and creating a brand that speaks to the broader, deeper collaborative relationships these Professionals at Practice Support bring to their large law firm customers.

rainy-porsche Our work included renaming the company, developing the logo, and redesigning everything from a new website (which has won awards itself) to forms, signage, document boxes (their most visible form of “advertising”), uniforms, delivery trucks and even the race car that won the IMSA Continental Tire Championship this season.

Take a look at some of the program elements on the Graphis website. Many, many thanks to CEO Phil Frengs and Legistics for giving us the opportunity to create such a bold, exciting design solution.

Rooting for laundry: the most compelling brands around

I know, I know. I can’t seem to shut up about the brilliant podcast 99% Invisible from the very talented Roman Mars and friends. This week’s edition is about, of all things, baseball uniforms. And while the show (produced this time by the also-very-talented Jesse Thorn) is hilarious, insightful and entertaining, it contains a fascinating observation about brands.

Dog_in_shirt_NY_Mets-600px

Photo by JoeInQueens (Wikimedia Commons)

Paul Lukas is the founder of a website called Uni-watch that obsesses over sports aesthetics. He observes that even if we have strong brand loyalty to, say, Cheerios, we expect a certain quality level. If they change the taste or ship stale Cheerios regularly, we’ll switch. Maybe not the first time, but if it’s consistently bad, we’re outta there.

But if I am a Mets fan, regardless of whether they win, lose, change their roster, have an off season, blow a pennant race, whatever, I am consistently going to be loyal to the Mets. If suddenly 25 guys who were wearing Yankees uniforms last week show up in Mets uniforms this week, guess who I’m gonna root for?

This is nuts.

But it’s real.

There is no brand as strong as a sports team’s brand. Nothing inspires passionate support, unwavering loyalty, unconditional love, like a team uniform. Ultimately, as Jerry Seinfeld so eloquently states to David Letterman, it’s all about the clothes. We’re rooting for laundry.

How does a brand compel that kind of intense attachment? What is it about us that makes us so strongly identify with a logo and an outfit? And how can other brands hope to come close?

Perhaps the answer (as Seth Godin would no doubt agree) is in our need to belong to a tribe. We all hunger to be part of some sort of group where we share a common view of the world. Whether that group is Mets fans or skeptics, rednecks, philosophers, design aficionados or sports uniform geeks. We seek to identify with something larger than ourselves that other people like us find value in, agree with, and will put their asses on the line for in some way or another.

So what?

So creating an opportunity for “fans” of any brand to identify each other through a common visual signifier is a great way to build groups and cement a level of loyalty. That signifier could be a logo, sure, but it could also be the design of a product. In fact, much of what design does is convey those kinds of messages, and serve as an anchor for our association with them. Though being beautiful or elegant can help to differentiate a brand, it’s less about being pretty, and more about being different and identifiable.

Look at how Prius created a weird-looking car that instantly told eco-conscious consumers that there were others around who felt like they did. Suddenly Prius owners became a tribe — and the car took over the market. A Macbook Air is a silent rallying cry that says to other fanboys “I give a damn about design and cool technology” or “I’m creative”. The “Don’t Tread on Me” flag says to other Tea Partiers, “I think government sucks — just like you do”.

Giving people a focal point around which they can unite — something unique that calls up your brand’s “Why” — is the whole idea. Like a uniform, your name, your logo and your product come to embody something much larger than they do inherently. That larger thing is your brand. And that’s a force not to be taken lightly. Ask any Mets fan.

My favorite books on branding (so far)

My friend and leadership group buddy Cheryl asked a bunch of us for our favorite books on branding. I sent her these, and thought I’d post them here for all of you, too.  I’d love it if you shared your favorites in the comments.

Brand is Four Letter Word:
Positioning and the Real Art of Marketing
by Austin McGhie
This is a smart, opinionated overview from the president of Sterling Brands’ Strategy Group with deep experience on the both the client side and the agency side of things. There’s a good interview with him on the Design Matters podcast that will give you a taste of the book. He hates the word “branding”. He contends that a brand is simply a relationship, and that you can’t “brand” anything, you can only position it.

World Famous:
How to Give Your Business a Kick-Ass Brand Identity
by David Tyreman
This is a workbook on defining your brand. I’ve used it as a rough guide in leading two companies through a deep evaluation and redefinition of their brand strategy and found it very helpful. Tyreman worked with Polo Ralph Lauren, Nike, Banana Republic and many other companies and has a kind of enthusiastic upbeat approach that works. I find him a little relentlessly self-promotional, but the core stuff is great.

Start With Why:
How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
by Simon Sinek
Probably my favorite thinker about clarifying who you are and what your purpose is, and letting that drive what you create — as a company and as a person. First got turned onto him by a friend at an agency who was using his concepts in everything they were doing for their clients and themselves. I have drunk the kool-aid.

The Brand Gap:
How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design
by Marty Neumeier
Practical and highly visual, Neumeier presents his ideas in an entertaining and very valuable way. Easy to read. Fun to look it. Awesome cover design. “Fresh” and “relevant” to quote some of the blurbs. Many clear and simple ideas, but not “light” ones. The guy has thought through his subject and distilled it well.

Purple Cow — or practically any of his other books
by Seth Godin
This guy is the big thinker about positioning and marketing businesses. Huge influence, unafraid and committed to getting people out of the fear-driven culture and finding their art as business people. Purple Cow is about being different and remarkable — the essence of a good brand. I have to admit I didn’t like it at first; it seemed a little contrived and precious. But as I’ve delved deeper into Godin’s world through blog posts, interviews and other books, the principles just make more and more sense.

Your turn.

Inspiring leadership starts with Why

Start With Why bookWhy is it that a company can write glowingly about its specs and features and even its benefits and elicit not much more that a yawn? Why do we meet the promises of our politicians with such apathy? Why are we so focused on convincing and manipulating people instead of inspiring them?

We think we make important decisions rationally, but we almost never do. Instead, we are driven by, and respond to, signals that are difficult to articulate, but powerful when we receive them. And to be effective and meaningful, those signals always start with “WHY”.

That’s the premise of Simon Sinek’s fascinating study of leadership called “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” (Portfolio/Penguin).

You may know Sinek from his TED Talk, which I’ve blogged about previously. His book expands and details those concepts with many examples that go far beyond the few in his video. If you buy his basic premise, that the WHY is the hook that connects us to the brands and ideas we care about most deeply, then his book will flesh out your understanding and give you lots of fodder for your thinking.

I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of Sinek’s writing style. I find him too pedantic and repetitive. But that may also be because this is the kind of book many won’t read cover-to-cover, and he had to include repeated references and reminders to anchor his points. I’ll give him a break on that score because his fundamental idea is so important.

That idea is well worth incorporating into our communications — not just our marketing efforts but our broader role as leaders (and we’re almost all leaders in some sense, but that’s another conversation). We want to start with the WHY. The belief. The purpose. That’s what will enlist followers in our vision. As Sinek points out, Martin Luther King didn’t say, “I have a plan.” He said, “I have a dream.” And millions of people who shared that dream of fairness and equality, who also imagined a world where people were treated like people, thought, “Hey, this guy thinks like I do… he wants what I want.”

Notice that they didn’t say, “Hmmm, that’s an interesting idea.” as if they had never imagined a world like that themselves. King tapped into something that was already there. He attracted the people who already believed what he believed, and then galvanized them to action. They became a movement because of the WHY.

Sinek explains that brands work the same way. People love or hate Apple. But the reason the company has so many rabid fanboys is because they stand for something and are willing to start their communications with that central value. If you identify with their rebellious creativity and obsession with design detail, with their core belief in challenging the status quo and thinking differently (their WHY), you’re on board. And you’ll pay more for it, because it reflects who you are, and meshes with your personal values.

That WHY pulls a company, a leader, a brand, out of the swamp of commoditized, transaction-based competitors. It means you no longer need to offer a lower price than everyone else. It means you don’t need to drive volume with coupons and discounts and sales in a never-ending downward spiral of slimmer and slimmer margins. It means you create products or companies you love and care about, and your customers are people who feel the same way.

That’s why Sinek’s message means so much to me in my own business, and to my clients’ businesses as well, whether or not they’ve read the book. Creating work I care about for people who feel the same way? That’s my dream job. And I bet it’s yours, too.

Grab a copy of Start With Why. And start letting people know what you really value.