This is Not an Orange

This morning an extraterrestial landed near your office. It walked past the security desk and drifted to you. In your lunch, you had packed an orange. The being is transfixed by it. To your astonishment, this extraterrestial can speak English, and it asks you, “What is that thing?”

Now, here, you have a few choices. You can tell the extraterrestial it is an orange. That would tell it “what” the orange is. And that description is the most precise to describe what is understood by observing the outside of the orange.

But, since we are not from Earth, we know there is so much more to the orange than what is visible from its exterior. It has a richness. It has an ancient generational history with our species. It is part of a family of citrus fruits. And the inside of the orange are bright flavors, textures and colors. A freshly picked orange can offer a bouquet of tastes before you even peel it or eat it.

So if we want to be honest with the being from outerspace (and not just precise), we would say something like, “This fruit delivers a bright sustenance to my afternoons, and it’s rich in vitamins and natural energy. We call it an orange. Do you want to try it?”

While that could use some wordsmithing, maybe that would help the being to understand better the thing — in its context. From its inside and from its outside.

Branding ought to offer the deepest, most visceral connection to the thing it is describing.

So often, when we are asked to describe ourselves, our ideas or our organizations, we fall into the trap of being precise. We answer “what” very directly. What are you? I am an architect. What is your company? We design homes (insert features and benefits statements or marketing buzzwords).

At some point in the mechanization of marketing, we stopped communicating in a human-to-human manner. We have instead co-opted MBA platforms to describe something. And those platforms have favored precision over honesty. They sound like, “We do x for y.” They are true, but they are not the whole truth.

Branding ought to offer the deepest, most visceral connection to the thing it is describing. It ought to carry the weight of making that connection felt and understood in a way that is profound. And the place where that weight is the heaviest is in the establishment of a new relationship. It is what marketers and sales folks refer to as the elevator pitch.

By now, you have likely encountered Sinek’s work (or at least his quotes on Powerpoint slides) that encourages leaders to “start with why.” Consider this four-question framework as the how-to manual for doing so.

The people who you meet for the first time are aliens to you and your brand. They are in need of a way in which they can establish trust with you. The best way in which to exhibit that trust is through a kind of honesty that redounds to why you exist, how you behave and what impact you want to have on the world. Those elements allow other humans to connect in a way that is more profound and leads to possibility.

Answering these four simple questions reveals the deepest insights about your brand and creates a basis for building trust.

  • Purpose / Why Question: At a gut level, why does our company exist?
  • Position / How Question: What makes us unique in how we express our purpose?
  • Mission / What Question: How do we hope we are perceived by our audiences?
  • Vision / When Question: In decades from now, what will be different about the marketplace because we were successful in living out our vision?

At first, you can just start with a series of bullet points or ideas within these four questions. It is likely you will have a few thoughts or notions that may not seem connected. It is better to err on the side of idea generation for some time before editing. So don’t worry about being too clever or right. Just be honest and thoughtful in your appraisal.

After you dump out the ideas, you can return to the four areas and formulate a set of phrases. These should be as free from marketing and industry jargon as possible. These four phrases then become the basis of your elevator pitch. In taking the architect example from above:

“I create spaces where people fulfill their biggest aspirations <Phrase One>. I do this by applying deep knowledge of user-centered design principles to the built environment <Phrase Two>. So that people can have transformative experiences at work <Phrase Three>. With the hope that, one day, the built environment will be seen as foundational to organizational transformation <Phrase Four>.”

The four statements together offer audiences the connections for building trust.

Here is the thing no one tells you about brand work: It is never done.

The story you reveal with this kind of approach to the role of brand in establishing trust is an evergreen job.

While that may seem a daunting prospect, it is a great thing. Here’s why: You can always do this work, and it will always matter. Economies, Presidential elections, robots taking over human jobs and calamities can and will occur. And this work will always matter.