Communicating the change we want to make in the world.

Do the Opposite

Tim Ferriss shares a story about a sales job he had early in his career. After months of struggling, he decided to spend 48 hours doing the opposite. Rather than calling from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., he only made calls from 7 to 8:30 a.m. and 6 to 7:30 p.m.

It worked. Rather than reaching the typical gatekeepers during business hours, he discovered that he was able to talk directly to the CEOs and other decision makers he was trying to reach.

Ferriss decided to take the approach further and started to question other parts of his strategy as well:

What if I only asked questions instead of pitching? What if I studied technical material, so I sounded like an engineer instead of a sales guy? What if I ended my emails with “I totally understand if you’re too busy to reply, and thank you for reading this far,” instead of the usual “I look forward to your reply and speaking soon” presumptive BS? The experiments paid off. My last quarter in that job, I outsold the entire L.A. office of our biggest competitor, EMC.

Popular wisdom is often correct. But if you only ever do what everyone else is doing, you'll find yourself on a crowded playing field.

It might be easier to do the opposite instead.

Growth for the Sake of Growth

Starbucks makes it easy to load money into its app to use at a future date. So easy, in fact, that it's holding about $1.6 billion of its customers' money, interest free.

This makes Starbucks look kinda like a bank that sells coffee – and a pretty lucrative one at that.

McDonalds owns most of its buildings. And since ~85% of its locations are franchises, it gets much of its income from leasing its property to franchisees.

This makes McDonalds look a little bit like a real estate company that happens to sell burgers and fries.

And airlines? Their loyalty programs often have valuations that are higher than the value of the actual companies that run them. This means that airlines actually have a negative valuation, at least if you analyze them in an overly reductive way.

They make their money selling miles to credit card companies, not from flights.

As organizations grow, they have a tendency to find ways of sustaining themselves on activities that are adjacent to or otherwise removed from the value they originally offered.

This isn't inherently bad. But if you get distracted by growing for the sake of it, you can start to lose sight of your mission. As environmentalist Edward Abbey pointed out, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

So stay true to your north star – whether that's bringing something innovative to market, delighting others with your art, or opening doors so that others can enjoy the same level of success as you.

You might even discover you grow faster that way.

Gnome Trumpets

Reframing and marketing go hand in hand.

Marketers often reframe products by presenting them for more specific use cases to increase their perceived value. And research shows that presenting a larger number before the price makes those products seem more affordable.

A Belgian supermarket took this a step further by rebranding their vegetables with the help of kids' imaginations. Carrots became "orange rockets," and leeks were advertised as "witches' brooms."

The result? A whopping 151% increase in sales.

Even as an adult, I think mushrooms would be way more fun to eat if we all called them gnome trumpets.

Diamond Shreddies

In 2008, Kraft Foods tasked an advertising firm with helping them boost sales of Shreddies, a popular breakfast cereal first introduced in 1939.

During a brainstorming session, an intern quipped that if you rotated the whole grain squares 45°, they became diamond-shaped.

The idea took off, and thus, Diamond Shreddies were born:

Packaging for Diamond Shreddies

The resulting tongue-in-cheek, award-winning campaign led to an 18% increase in market share, all thanks to a joke. And to stretch it as far as they could, the company even offered combo packages of both squares and diamonds!

The Shreddies story provides a wealth of insight:

  1. Changing people's perspective can be really powerful.
    Turning what you make at an angle might make all the difference.
  2. Good ideas can come from anywhere.
    Successful companies listen to everyone – even interns – since you never know where the next brilliant suggestion might come from.
  3. Play is important in the creative process.
    Without an atmosphere that allowed for joking around, Shreddies would have been forever square-shaped.

Effective Marketing

When your attempts to share your ideas with the world aren't reaching enough people, it's tempting to simply yell louder.

But it's a noisy world, and turning up the volume doesn't necessarily make people want to listen to you more. Nobody likes being hustled.

If you've got something really great to share – something that solves a rational problem, appeals to people emotionally, or both – it's much easier to start by finding the kind of people it's for.

Ask them if you can share how they might be able to improve their life.

Then, once you have their attention, tell them the story about what you have to offer. If you focus on what already motivates them, you'll start to establish trust, because they'll feel empathized with and understood.

And once people lean in to what you have to say, there's no need to yell anymore.

Unobtrusive Bits of Whimsy

I recently finished a new website for my employer, a circus school. At the bottom, I included a little circus tent emoji to provide a visual coda to the footer, as well as a hidden Easter egg.

When you click on the tent, it sends confetti flying:

Repeated clicks on a circus tent emoji with confetti popping out of tent

Few people will discover this effect on their own (though it does appear elsewhere on the site when you take actions like subscribing to the mailing list).

But for those who do happen to stumble across it and click on the emoji, they'll be rewarded for their curiosity and engagement.

In a culture that places so much value on efficiency and cheapness, unobtrusive bits of whimsy like this are a way to show your audience that you did more than just the bare minimum.

They're a way of thanking people for their attention by showing them that you put care into your craft and are proud to sign your work.

See also: Igniting Wonder


People Like Us

Marketer and author Seth Godin has a beautifully simple definition of culture:

"People like us do things like this."

So much of our world is shaped by our powerful drive to organize into groups and align our behavior with one another.

Sometimes when I'm talking to a new customer at the non-profit I work for just outside of Chicago, I ask them how they heard about us. My favorite answer?

"Oh, I live in Evanston."

I love this response, because it suggests that everyone in my employer's city has heard of us. It means that among certain social circles, people assume that you know about this organization.

People like us do things like this.

As a marketer, my job is to grow the number of people who see the work that we do as intrinsic to their community. To continue nudging the culture towards a world where "I live here" is synonymous with engaging with the work that we do.

Selling Pickaxes

Initial success doesn't guarantee future results.

Online mattress retailer Casper announced this week that it's being acquired by a private equity firm. The startup popularized direct-to-consumer mattresses in a box, went public at a $1.1 billion valuation, and then plummeted to around $575 million after its IPO.

Selling mattresses online is pretty easy (as of 2019 Casper had 175 competitors). But making a profit doing so is hard. In the third quarter this year, Casper lost a staggering $25.3 million, putting it in the majority of online mattress companies that have yet to make a profit.

Where's the money in the industry going? A big chunk of it is going to the online mattress reviewers, who receive free mattresses from companies to test. These sites typically receive around $50 for every referral they make that results in a purchase (and sometimes as much as $250).

Derek Hales, the creator of one of the most successful mattress review sites, Sleepopolis, apparently made $100,000 from just a single mattress company in 2016 through his referrals. He is more profitable than most of the mattress startups he's promoting.

In a crowded market, sometimes selling pickaxes to gold miners is a better strategy than actually mining for gold.

Emotional Appeals

Motivating people based on their existing wants (e.g. focusing on quarter-inch holes vs. quarter-inch drills) is effective not just on the individual level – it works at the societal level too.

In the first half of the 20th century, women smoking went from being seen as an improper activity to accepted and commonplace. What happened? Cigarette companies tied smoking to the feminist movement by presenting it as an act of independence (as well as a slimming alternative to candy).

This was, unfortunately, devastatingly effective: By the 1960s, one in three women smoked.

As the health risks became clearer, smoking declined just as quickly: It was no longer the cool thing to do in most social circles.

Appealing to people’s emotional side in this way is the most effective way to change our culture. In contrast, presenting only the rational benefits is an uphill battle.

For proof, look no further than the environmental movement’s failure to get individuals to adopt the sweeping lifestyle changes necessary to sustainably use fossil fuels for energy. We rationally understand that our actions have consequences, but it’s hard to use that to motivate people because each of us has such a small impact.

But what happens when environmentally friendlier options become status symbols? Consider how Tesla has made electric cars a fashionable alternative to traditional automobiles. By starting off in the luxury market, Tesla has established itself as a desirable brand. And as more and more people purchase its vehicles, it’s able to release increasingly affordable models thanks to the economy of scale.

In the not-too-distant future, battery-operated cars will be the standard. Not because most people have chosen them due to environmental concerns, but because they'll be the most socially desirable option.

Here’s to a more sustainable future.

Quarter-Inch Holes

Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt famously said, "People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!"

It's tempting to talk about the features of a product when marketing something, but concentrating on the change it will make in someone’s life is much more impactful.

The luggage startup Away, for example, sells suitcases in multiple different sizes. However, their comparison tool presents the differences between them in terms of the number of outfits you can carry with them, rather than their dimensions.

I don't want a suitcase, I want to get seven outfits to my destination.

Not everyone is a marketer, but everyone can add a more human touch to how they communicate the change they want others to make. Whether it's asking your boss to change a policy, or encouraging the city council to revise your community's zoning laws, focus on what already motivates them.

The impact it can have might surprise you.

Hat tip to Emily Heyward for the Away example, from her book Obsessed: Building a Brand People Love from Day One.


Weekly thoughts on creating systems to sustainably grow your impact on the world.
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