Raison d'etre

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all rights reserved, olivier blanchard 2005

Kathy Sierra rocks. She does. If you don't read her blog regularly, you're missing out on some seriously good stuff about passion. Passion in business. Passion in design. Passion in your customers. Passion in the world.

Today's post is definitely worth a read. If there is one thing I have learned in my years of having worked in what some like to call "the marketing" world, it's this: You can't fake it. The best advertising agency can't save you if your product isn't great. And by great, I mean REALLY great.

How do you make a product great? Is it by being passionate about it? Of course, but more specifically, it is by being passionate about that product's place in the world. Its purpose. The way people interract with it.

You have to be obsessed with a simple thought: "Will the people I am making this for really, really love it?"

Will they love using it? Will it make their lives easier? Will it make their lives better? Will it make them happy?

(Questions like will they love it so much that they'll tell all of their friends about it?, those come a little bit later.)

Remember the story about the homemade cheescakes from Alabama ending up in one of New Orleans' best restaurants? This is the same thing.

A little old lady in Alabama made cheesecakes. At first, it was probably for her family. For her closest friends. Probably two or three times per year, she made this cheesecake. Thanksgiving. Christmas. A birthday. It was probably a big event in her immediate cirle. Something special. Something to be anticipated. The rest of the year, she probably heard a lot of "so... when are you going to make that cheesecake for us again?"

I would guess that this little old lady started making that cheesecake a bit more often because more and more people got to taste it... and so more and more people started asking for more.

And then more and more people who had never tasted it, hearing so many stories about it, started asking for it too.

"Come on, can you please make one for us? Pleeeeease?"

The little old lady probably started expanding her clientelle by baking one for a sick neighbor. Baking a half dozen for a church fund raiser. Baking a few more for a local diner, just to make ends meet here and there, when the farm didn't quite pay off on its own this month or that.

I doubt that this little old lady started off by pacing back and forth in her kitchen wondering: "How do I make the best cheesecake the world has ever known?"

"How do I start making tons of cash with this recipe?"

"How should I sell this to restaurants all over the country? Advertising or word-of-mouth?"

Nope. This little old lady simply baked cheesecakes because it made people happy. If she made some money out of the deal, great. If not, well, at least her work would put smiles on people's faces, and that was reward enough for her.

That's how her cheesecakes ended up on the dessert menu of one of the best restaurants in the country.

Her approach to baking cheesecakes isn't all that removed from what makes some designs better than others.

When my Passat effortlessly accelerates past a truck struggling to get up a mountain road, I am happy. When I nail a photo with my old Pentax K-1000 or my new Canon, I am happy. When I clip into my Look pedals and hear that comforting slap of the spring against my cleat, I am happy. When I take my first sip of Orangina after months of not having been able to get my hands on a bottle, I am happy. When I read the first few lines of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, yeah, I am happy.

You can bet that behind every single one of these experiences is the unapologetic application of at least one person's passion for driving, photography, cycling, drinking seriously good carbonated orange juice, or reading... um... well, reading.
Note that I am talking about experiences here. Experiences. That's what all of this is about.

If your work is a labor of love, if at the basis of your design, or your idea is the question: "will they love this?" then you're on the right track. It can be a movie. A screwdriver. A remote control. An mp3 player. A hotdog. A computer game. A lawnmower. It can be anything.

If instead, the driving questions in your product development meetings are more along the lines of "if we make it less ergonomic, can we shave another 7% off the cost?" you may not be headed in the best of directions.

"If we use cheaper materials..."

"If we take away some of the utility..."

"If we only offer it in gray..."

The death of good design happens one unanswered question at a time. One bad assumption at a time. One little sliver of fear at a time. Meeting after meeting after meeting, people who have no understanding of what your customers want or love or wish for take you further and further away from the point. It happens because all too often, the customers - the users - aren't part of the discussion, and the entire concept of experience is shoved aside and forgotten.

And we wonder why it doesn't usually take long for the discussion to turn into a monologue.

If your product isn't designed with your customers in mind, if it doesn't take into account their experience of it, no amount of advertising, PR or clever marketing will make up for its shortcomings. You have to start with the product itself. You have to start with the product's raison d'etre. You have to start with a certain measure of passion. Other than recruiting and nurturing incredible talent, that is any business' singlemost important priority.

If passion isn't in your vocabulary, then focus on putting something in your customers' hands that makes them want more of what you have to offer.

I am not talking about keychains with your logo on it.

Design starts with passion for the world, for the way things are used and for making people happy.

When I say people, I mean users.

When I say passion, I mean curiosity.

That's why when I saw that Kathy's top suggestion in her latest post was to favor hiring "a creative, user-focused product designer" over a "creative, award-winning advertising designer," the heavens parted and I heard angels sing. (I did.)

Now, I don't completely agree with Kathy on every single suggestion she makes. Ad agencies can be VERY valuable. This is especially true of agencies/firms that work with their clients as true strategic partners. (Tom Peters calls them "PSF": Professional Services Firms, and has a fantastic - and free - little downloadable e-book on the subject right here.) But I do agree with the thought behind her suggestions: Ad agencies and PR firms need to do more than just "sell" to stay relevant.

That means that if you own a company that develops products, you need to invite your strategic partner to the table BEFORE the products are designed. Not afterwards.

Sure, a great ad agency can inspire people to buy your products. A great agency can make a trip to a fast food restaurant look like a Disneyworld vacation. They can make you feel that buying a particular car will make driving an adventure. But... none of this really means anything if you can't really deliver on their promises.

The burger joint isn't an amusement park. Most people's morning commute isn't the great arctic tundra.

Once the commercials are off the air and your customers realize that your burger wasn't really all that great, that the service sucked, that your car seat is kind of uncomfortable and that the windshield wipers are too noisy, what kind of relationship do you expect to have with them?

Why should they ever buy anything from you again?

Why should they ever recommend you to their friends?
No matter how cool and well crafted, without something rock solid to back it up, your message is nothing but hot air.

You can't keep doing this. You can't. Those days are over.

The solution: Call your marketing firm right now and ask them to come help you design your next product. Ask them to come study your customer service department. Ask them to help you find ways to spend more time with your customers. Your users. Your fans.

Treat them like a PSF and ask them to come help you become the company you know can be. Could be. Should be.

The cool thing is that they can still make ads for you. They can still spread the word and give you the exposure you crave, but just think about how much more effective they will be at doing this once they are truly a part of what it is you do.

Think about how much more successful your company will be once you have shifted your focus away from selling, and back to making your customers happy with you?

Marketing firms are a lot more effective at doing this than you realize. And if yours can't do this for you, find one that will. They're out there. I know a few.

Kathy's original table is a lot clearer than this one.

If you're an ad agency or a marketing/PR firm and business is slow, maybe it's time to start thinking about evolving into something more than what you are. Start looking for ways to help your clients evolve rather than just being relegated to creative job shop and media bullhorn status. (You're better than that, and you know it.) Find ways to coach your clients through the sometimes difficult process of becoming what Fast Company would call a... well... a "fast company". You owe it to yourself.

Perhaps more importantly, you owe it to them.

(Or hey, if business is great, don't change a thing.) :)

As for Kathy's very cool 200 dairy cow idea, don't kill your advertising budget just yet. You can have your cake and eat it too.

Consider this: It only costs $500 to buy a dairy cow for a village or a needy family through Heifer international. But... Why a cow? Here's why:

"One healthy cow can produce four gallons of milk per day. The protein in milk can transform sick, malnourished children into healthy boys and girls. The sale of surplus milk earns money for school fees, medicine, clothing and home improvements. And because a healthy cow can have a calf every year, your gift of a heifer could eventually help an entire community move from poverty to self-reliance. And that's a present that's impossible to top! "

There you go.

So while a gift of 200 cows sounds pretty damn cool, one cow woud be a good start... and then two... and twenty... and fifty. (Sometimes, starting small and letting something grow is a lot more rewarding for everyone involved than just throwing a big chunk of money at it.) Getting employees and customers involved might be a great way to keep your advertising... er... PSF budget and still raise enough money to fund a whole lot of cows. Maybe even a whole lot more than 200 by the time you're done.

Incidentally, if you want to do something now but a cow isn't in your budget yet, a water buffalo is only $250 (they're vital to subsistance farmers in Asia). A pig is $120. A goat is $120. Check out the site for all of the options. It's pretty cool.

Anyway. Back to the point: Passion. Professional Services Firms. Inspired product development. Happy users/customers. Triggering cultural shifts. Dairy cows for 3rd world farmers. Get the idea?

Okay. Since you're still here, I have a treat for you.

A Haiku:

Ripples in a pond

reach every shore.

Your heart is the pebble.

Kathy, you rock.

One last thing: Check out the Sarah McLachlan video that inspired Kathy's post here. Even if you aren't a fan, what she's done with it is pretty awe-inspiring.

1 Responses to “Raison d'etre”

  1. Anonymous Anonymous 

    Great post. I picked it up over here: http://www.acleareye.com/sandbox_wisdom/2005/10/olivier_blancha.html

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