By Matt Steel
04 June 2021
Every idea in the history of human ideas is stolen property. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun,” declared the writer of Ecclesiastes more than two millennia before the world’s first copyright laws. As mortals who have yet to crack the origin code and make something from nothing, we need source material. We have to work with what we’ve got. And to make the most of any base material, we need to understand its composition and properties.
The best ideas emerge from unlikely combinations and minds that wonder what might happen if we look at something sideways or put peanut butter, banana and bacon in the same sandwich (thanks, Elvis). Novel ideas are like chemical compounds: two or more substances meet in an environment with optimum pressure and heat, a reaction happens and something different emerges. Gas plus gas equals liquid. African rhythm plus Creole melody times New Orleans heat equals jazz.
T.S. Eliot said that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” What’s good for the poet is good for the brand strategist and the client who hires them. So how can a business take what already exists and turn it into a differentiating factor?
In 1962, car rental brand Avis had been a losing proposition for 15 years. They were stuck in second place behind Hertz and asked Bill Bernbach at the Madison Avenue agency ddb to give their brand a shot in the arm.
According to Lester Blumenthal, account executive at ddb, “All of our research and theirs showed that the one thing really unique about Avis was that it was No. 2 in its field.” Variants on a single thought kept coming up again and again: “We try harder because we have to.”
Bernbach’s team ran with the campaign, even though “We Try Harder” scored terribly in testing. According to ddb, half the test participants disliked it. “‘But half the people did,” Bernbach said, “and that’s the half we want. Let’s go with it.’”
Bolstered by brilliantly self-deprecating copy – “Avis can’t afford dirty ashtrays. … We’re only No. 2” – the campaign was an instant hit.
“Almost overnight, Avis raced into the black. The ads transformed Avis into a popular underdog, with everyone rooting for them to succeed.
“‘We try harder’ entered the vernacular and even turned up on lapel buttons. [Sixty] years later, iterations and echoes of this campaign can still be found all over the world.” – ddb
It’s worth mentioning that Paula Green, a rare female copywriter at ddb and an inspiration for the character Peggy Olson in Mad Men, devised the now-famous “No. 2” construction. Could an ad man have written such a humble hit in the early 60s? I can only speculate, but in Green’s own words, “It went against the notion that you had to brag,” and “‘We Try Harder’ is somewhat the story of my life.’”
We can draw four lessons from this example.
As a starting point for brand development, thorough investigation is indispensable. It’s tempting to accept tentative answers and skip ahead to the fun parts of writing and designing. It’s very tempting to overvalue your own anecdotal experience, e.g., I’ve worked in this field for decades, I talk to customers all the time and research can’t teach me anything new. It’s certainly possible that research might only confirm what you already know. But that’s a far more palatable outcome than accidentally solving the wrong problem or staring down the barrel of a trademark lawsuit.
Brand research should help you answer four questions about your company.
These answers provide fuel for the second step in the branding process: your brand strategy and narrative. These are the words and ideas your brand will use to compete.
In my last essay, I showed how a competitive audit helped me and Jon answer the first question for Steel Brothers. Let’s look at what we learned about how people see us and our industry, warts and all.
I’ve used interviews and written surveys, sometimes for the same project but with different subjects and aims. For example, we might conduct in-depth interviews with company leaders and clients and send surveys with fewer questions to employees and prospects whose experience and knowledge may be more limited.
I’m usually interviewing people on behalf of my clients, and my role as an outside consultant means people are more likely to speak candidly. It’s trickier, of course, when you’re both the researcher and the client. Many people feel compelled to maximize their positive assessments and minimize the bad. But this is the time to uncover blind spots. Save the high fives for brand launch.
Surveys lack the spontaneity and body language that come with interviews, but they feel more anonymous to recipients. People send answers from afar, which can yield more honest and thoughtful responses. And surveys are asynchronous. Participants can respond in their own time, allowing you to jam on other projects while you wait.
We were new, busy with client work and conservative with the modest cash we had on hand. Hiring a research consultant wasn’t a viable option, so we chose the leaner route.
I prepared a twelve-question survey and sent it to 24 clients, peers and former employees. Responses came back from people in all three categories.
Here’s a handful of the topics we covered, along with some of the more insightful responses in italics. I’ve edited some for clarity.
What we do:
Steel Brothers are a “words-first” branding agency that creates visual work driven by strong ideas and verbal concepts. They use the Enneagram and other collaborative processes to fully include the client in the project and ultimately hand over a co-authored piece of work that the client understands how to use.
They get down to the soul of an organization, then clearly articulate its purpose and give it a visual and verbal identity.
Steel Brothers are the life coach your company didn’t know it needed. They will dress it, teach it to speak, train it to eat at any table where it sits, and even impart a few dance moves to impress others. They will take your company and make it a brand.
Strengths and impact:
If you want a brand that lasts and an ethos that isn’t a trend, hire Steel Brothers.
Matt has a way with words that brings clarity and power to every written statement.
Clients get a visual and verbal position that differentiates them and is impossible for competitors to clone. A position that they can keep possibly for the lifetime of their brand, even if the visuals change. If you work with Steel Brothers, they’ll do a lot of fundamental branding work that will almost never have to be revisited, barring a significant change in your industry or leadership.
Steel Brothers will come to understand your company’s offering better than you do – and they’ll distill that knowledge into a palatable but robust brand system with applications that will educate your customers and unify your employees.
Their work elevated our brand and made us more relevant in the marketplace. When folks visit our website, potential team members want to join us and potential clients want to hire us.
Knowing when and how to ruthlessly edit. I know some people might think you are too wordy, poetic and philosophical. I’d also say that those same people aren’t your ideal clients.
Beware of your esoteric tendencies. I’d hate for you to lose a good prospect due to obscure literary references or seemingly inside jokes.
Right now, you don’t have any truly outrageous work in your portfolio. It can be helpful to show that you can create off-the-wall solutions (bonkers typography, bold color, wild ideas that should be too silly to work but somehow do). By contrast, this helps clients value the more sensible, measured and clean solutions you have in spades. It shows them you can do both.
The depth of your work is both a strength and a curse. Some clients would definitely not want it, and yet I can also think of clients who have been searching high and low for it and will feel like you’ve taken a snapshot of their soul – and I think that’s what you do best, so I wouldn’t dilute it. Just stay aware of it.
Potential Pitfalls & Threats:
You could pigeonhole your clients by presenting your faith as relevant to the job at hand. How can you make it clear that people won’t necessarily get a Christian brand but rather a Christian who happens to be working on their brand?
Not niching down enough. Your talent for both writing and design could lead clients to see you as a generalist option.
Design studios blend in when they hide behind their work. Most simply present their work online and don’t present strong opinions or a clear stance. They’ll assume clients can see the difference between good and bad work (they often can’t), and that a good portfolio is enough to stand out from the crowd (it isn’t).
Steel Brothers uses experience, faith, intuition, and the Enneagram to gain a much deeper understanding of a client’s true identity and challenges, breaking the surface crust of aesthetics and mining far deeper into their essence and purpose. The process begins with conversation, reflection and ideas. They then lead clients through a process of self-discovery – parting the clouds – until they both reach the same realization, often at the same time.
They look at the many pieces and parts of who you’ve been, who you are and who you want to become. They then take a 50,000-foot view to locate the kernel of truth in it all and use that kernel as the basis for your brand.
Matt connects with people on a deeper level. He has a unique way of seeing what goes on in a client’s mind, heart and soul, then captures it using words and images.
Love. It’s clear that you care about every project and watch the work, not the clock. You are deeply engaged with clients and, from their point of view, I imagine they really trust that you will deliver your best.
Playfulness. I often see this coming out in your humor or side interests (our conversation will suddenly fall down a rabbit hole etc.). I’ve also seen this in workshops and meetings where you’ll put clients at ease and make their job more enjoyable by being fun to work with. Also, of course, there’s a sense of play in your output.
Authenticity, honesty, simplicity, kindness, discipline, thoughtfulness. A German word that means “questing for the story.”
Our products (the work):
Expressive. You’re not afraid to use color and type that has personality.
Intelligent. For close observers, there’s a great deal of thought behind design decisions and some have hidden gems.
Personal. I think your work is very, very personal to the recipient.
Concept-driven. It always seems there is a driving force behind your design work rather than pure aesthetics or a concern with being on-trend.
Thorough. You’re very good at thinking several moves ahead, and I can imagine you saving clients more than a few headaches by anticipating future needs or changes. Your work feels like a complete movement rather than a solo piece of design.
Bold and uncluttered, crisp and meaningful, original and adaptable, modern yet timeless and uncompromisingly precise.
How we’re different:
I genuinely think your faith colors your work and improves the quality. You’re respectfully vocal about this, and I think it’s a point of difference compared with other agencies.
You acknowledge the full humanity of clients and their teams. Not only that, but you use what’s often subconsciously hidden as the main point of difference for a brand. You somehow make that thing beautiful and exciting. Also, your ability to think, write and design at the level you do is very unusual and frankly hard for clients to get – they either have to stitch together freelancers or go to a bigger agency that is only as strong as their weakest skill set.
Your proposition is unusual because of the blend between visual and language. In that respect, I’d argue you have fewer competitors than you might think.
On purpose and motivation:
Matt is driven by a compulsion to unearth what is uniquely human in a person’s story. He loves to observe how people interact with each other, what makes those interactions unique, and then turn the scene on its end and tell it in a new way. He has a remarkable knack for distillation and reinvention.
Making and highlighting beauty where it may otherwise be absent or hidden.
The elusive ideal. I’ve always sensed you’re driving for a standard that is (and always should be) unobtainable.
No one likes to be force-fed from a water hose. Some people smother with affection or intimidation. I (accidentally) smother people with storytelling. I’ll use two metaphors when a concise description would be more effective. The same is sometimes true of my design work. Why settle for one brand color when you can have five?
I’ve known for years about my tendency to over-complicate things, and this survey confirms that other people see it, too. I need to be mindful of the audience and whether I’m designing or writing for their benefit or because my ego demands to be seen.
Want depth? No problem. As one interviewee said, “If we’re rating the depth of your work, I give it a 10. I can’t think of how you’d deepen the work further without diluting the commercial value.”
The emphasis above is mine, and I think it’s a crucial caveat.
Most of us are imbalanced when it comes to communication. We either make things too shallow and simplistic or too complex. The question I need to tattoo inside my eyelids: what can I remove for this idea to shine brightest?
That said, most of our ideal clients are not the kinds of people who Cliff’s-Notes their way through life. The people we want to work with are curious and questing. They subscribe to Harvard Business Review or Wired. They’re leaders like Warren Buffett, who spends a staggering 80 percent of each day reading, or Elon Musk, who learned how to build rockets by reading.
The other constructive feedback I took to heart is the remark about our portfolio’s lack of “outrageous” design work. Off-kilter solutions are only appropriate for off-kilter clients, of course. But as I’ve advanced in my craft, I’ve become bolder and better at discerning when weirder is wiser. I’ve also embraced two facts: I’m a weird dude, and fitting in is overrated. Steel Brothers’ soon-to-be-revealed visual identity is a decisive step into the wild.
On the positive side, two themes came up again and again. The first is authorship.
I’m a graphic designer by training and trade. I discovered writing along the way, and my best work combines both disciplines. I’m able to offer holistic authorship from one head and one pair of hands. I love that my vocation revolves around the intersection of word, image and typography. For me, writing and design are one. Story is the soul, design is the body.
Apparently, this is an unusual combination of skills. It usually takes two or more people to write and design a brand. And it’s extremely uncommon to find one person who is skilled at both. While I can only show a fraction of my best work due to non-competes, we can immediately differentiate Steel Brothers through interwoven verbal and visual storytelling.
The second theme we saw is belief. Almost nobody in our industry leads with faith of any kind, so this is indeed an opportunity to stand out. I also know that no matter how kind or tactful we are, any mention of our faith in Jesus will turn some people away. And that’s okay. But we are not okay with sending the wrong impression.
When clients hire us, they don’t get a Christian brand per sé. They get a brand tailored to their identity and context. Like Madeline L’Engle and Makoto Fujimura, we are Christians who make art.
I love what songwriter and author Andrew Peterson has to say about the distinction between Christian artists and art-making Christians in Adorning the Dark. “There is nothing wrong with being a Christian artist. … Bach was a Christian artist. Rich Mullins was a Christian artist. Michelangelo, in some measure, was a Christian artist. Their calling was to make art specifically for or about the church, explicitly, at times, about the person of Jesus Christ. That … is different from, say, the Christian called to write pop songs or love songs, or mystery writers … like P.D. James or Dorothy Sayers, who were masters of the craft but would never have described themselves as Christian mystery writers. Theirs was a subtler calling, making them able to influence culture with truths.”
Different and equal – amen to that. For Steel Brothers, it’s clear where our hearts are drawn.
Here’s to the subtle calling.