The other day I got a call from a potential client representing a major law firm based in Louisville. After qualifying each other, we arranged a meeting at their corporate office. As I creeped through the downtown traffic and entered a parking garage, I had a bit of a deja vu: I’d done this before. Not in another life or in a dream, but the exact situation. After all, aren’t major law firms ALWAYS downtown? I paid for parking (beta trap #1).
I entered the elevator and selected their floor number, and upon exciting I made my way to their lobby, and there on their double doors, just as I expected, was their big ol’ law firm logo mark and the name of their firm (also typical, the firm name followed the typical use of surname, surname & surname). Entering, I immediately spied another expected and oversized logo, this one partially obscured by their female receptionist, also expected. Then to my astonishment, I was asked to sign in (beta trap #2).
I signed my name “Harry Potter” and looked to see how comfy the chairs looked, and right on cue was instructed to have a seat, which I did, in a very waiting-area-like waiting area (beta trap #3). They even had magazines! I was two sentences into an outdated Bennifer article when my contact appeared. He was attired in grey suit, blue tie, white shirt. He led me to a conference room lined with law books. I think the date on the spine was 1982. Or 1882. He offered me coffee or water.
Beta traps, receptionists, law books, scales, justice statues, corporate art, mahogany desks, suits and ties — with tie tacks. Yep, even their accessories had accessories.
This, my friends, is the law firm paradigm.
Call it whatever you like: prototype, model, template, system, pattern. I call it cliched, vanilla, stereotypical and boring.
Not to pick on law firms. I work with companies in hundreds of verticals, and I see lots of instances in which they've innately adopt the cliche model, and have come to us to break out of that mold.
Not all paradigms are bad: There are literally dozens of transactional paradigms we encounter every day, from the coffee shop to the restaurant to the gas station to the bank. Think about it: No matter which coffee shop you walk into, you know the gist of the transaction is gonna go down like this: Wait in line, order a coffee-based drink and maybe a scone, pay, wait for your drink (probably staring down at your phone while doing so) and either sit down and whip out the Macbook and jump on the free wi-fi or skedaddle because you have more important places to be.
And don’t get me wrong, paradigms are a necessity for everyday activity, like traffic patterns; knowing red means stop, green means go, and yellow means “floor it.” We know we drive on the right side of the road, we know to yield, we know to look both ways at an intersection. We use our turn signals to indicate a turn or lane change (well, the civilized among us do). In this case, the paradigm is absolutely necessary.
In branding strategy and customer experience, however, not so much.
That’s not to say one’s brand shouldn’t appeal to certain expectations. A brand often must appeal to expectations on some level. After all, when a potential customer seeks you out as a possible solution to their need, they don’t jump on Google and search for what you’re not. But it’s my theory that the vast majority of organizational brands don’t adhere to the paradigm in order to appeal directly to their client base. They do so because they modeled their business after others in their field, who previously modeled their business after others in their field prior to them because they were successful. And so on and so forth. Kinda like Darwinism, but without the actual evolution.
So take a long, loving look in the proverbial mirror. How guilty are you and your company of modeling your brand after others in your vertical, without question, just because it’s always been that way? Have you inherited, of your own accord, something exciting or something stale?
If it’s the former, beat it, you’ve got other problems to solve. If the latter — and odds are that it is — read on. I’ll give you some valuable insight on why you need your brand to evolve, tell you a few ways to do so, and explain how to know which way is the right way for your organization.
Your Brand’s Effect On Your Customer’s Psyche
I’m no scientist, but I can say without question that we’re all chemical creatures. In the decision making process we are often conflicted and we attempt to make a choice logically, weighing the pros and cons. But I postulate that our logical decisions are anything but, and our want often overrides our perceived need. We want what we want and we justify with logic. In the sales process, any leg up on our competition can be the difference between landing the gig and landing on your butt.
I’m offering these following powerful tips with the expectation that you have your customer’s best interest in mind and that you have every intention (and ability) to deliver on your promise:
The opposite of boredom is novelty, and novelty is a powerful tool in your sales arsenal. Diverge from the expected and stimulate your customers’ brains. How it works: When people experience something new and exciting, the SN/VTA (Substantia Nigra/Ventral Segmental Area), or “novelty center,” of the brain is activated. The SN/VTA is closely linked to the amygdala and the hippocampus, both of which play large roles in learning and memory. The amygdala responds to emotional stimuli and strengthens associated long-term memories, while the hippocampus compares stimuli against existing memories.
In a nutshell, novel experiences stimulate the SN/VTA, causing it to produce higher levels of dopamine — that infamous neurotransmitter that gives us feelings of pleasure (that’s why they call it dope).
When people encounter your brand, are you making them high or making them bored?
Four Paths Out of The Paradigm
The path you take out of the boring box depends on what you can get away with in your industry, your specific niche within it, and the personas of your desired clientele. Clearly, a ballsy advertising agency can get away with quite a bit more of envelope pushing than a conservative CPA firm, at least from a sum total perspective. However, there is an opportunity for all brands, even in the most conservative vertical, to push that proverbial envelope an equal percentage. In other words, in a sea of beige, even gray can stand out.
Path 1: Disrupt the Paradigm
The riskiest (and therefore, possibly the most rewarding) brand strategy is to do things completely different than others in your field from the giddy-up. Not for the risk averse, this approach requires that the end product or service is so stellar, so world class, that you can get away with doing things your way. You’ll question every single process and platitude that you were supposed to inherit. Most of the .01 percent of entrepreneurs with the minerals to go this route are either immensely wealthy or complete failures. I’m guessing you don’t have the guts for this one, but I simply had to put it on this list.
Path 2: Mash-Up The Paradigm
This creative approach requires borrowing the processes and experiences from other industries and combining them with your own. Many big-city law firms have borrowed ideas from architecture firms and ad agencies (think replacing the mahogany desks with glass and steel or bauhaus-era industrial design and edgy art in their offices. Or, movie theaters that serve cocktails and gourmet food). The advantage of this path is you’re able to stand out and be familiar at the same time. You get to be novel, but not confusing.
Path 3: Acknowledge, Then Switch The Paradigm
Utilizing this brand strategy takes some finesse. If it looks like a skunk, and smells like a skunk, it must be a skunk, right? Wrong. On the outside, your brand seems like the very pinnacle of an organization in your field. But once they engage a little more, they find that you actually do things a bit differently and better. Once in the door, be sure to pepper your customer experience with unexpected delights (maybe even borrowing ideas from other industries) and they’ll be hooked on your brand and your lame competitors just won’t do.
Path 4: Be The Paradigm
If you’re on the risk averse side and insist on playing by the rules set by your industry, then you better own it outright. That mahogany desk? Make it bigger. Make it even more mahogany-ier than any of your competitors. You wanna be vanilla? Then store bought ice cream will never do, you gotta churn your own. Gotta grow your own vanilla beans, make your own cream. Hell, make it French vanilla! Own that arial font. Be the archetype. Be the epitome. Be the perfect example, the gold standard, the ideal, the exemplar, the model. Be the beige.
As always, hit me or my fellow OOHligans up if you need help determining which path to go down or implementing these strategies. You won’t have to go downtown, pay for parking, or experience any beta traps. We’ll serve the sorbet, and it won’t be vanilla.