Sorry Ray, branding isn’t about dreams.
Over the last few days, the Big Differ met three people building on big dreams — an underground railroad, a new coffee shop, and a political campaign. All have big obstacles to overcome, but they all have determination, skill, and a decent shot at success. Here are five lessons they should totally ignore from the 1989 film Field of Dreams.
The problem with “Dreams”
For those sleeping in a cornfield through the 80’s, you can read a summary here, but basically, Field of Dreams is a fantasy about an Iowa corn farmer named Ray (Kevin Costner) who hears voices that inspire him to build a baseball park in his corn field, which attracts a team of ghostly baseball players, and it all ends in a magical success. Hooray.
I actually liked the film a lot, and I have a soft spot for baseball, magic realism, and Kevin Costner films (or at least ones that don’t involve British accents or water).
But it’s a bad guidebook for entrepreneurs trying to build a solid brand.
Bad lesson 1: the “field” isn’t important.
In the beginning, Ray’s a startup corn farmer – which is a sensible thing to be in Iowa. I’ve got relatives there, and it’s easily the highest-fructose place on the planet. Corn is his “field” of entrepreneurship. Ray also has a literal “field” – all those acres of rich topsoil, which, as a conscientious farmer, he should be tending, planting, and harvesting.
But he ignores both. Rather than figure out the techniques and habits that will make him successful in the corn field, Ray suddenly decides one day to get into the field of baseball instead. So he plows under his corn, builds a ball diamond, and then sits back and waits for magical success. In Iowa. The middle of Iowa.
The true lesson: don’t treat your field like dirt or it will do the same to you.
Bad lesson 2: ignore the rules of the field.
Every day, thousands of entrepreneurs worldwide do the same thing Ray did – they take a big risk and leave their established “fields” and strike out in a totally new direction. This is brave and inspiring. And yes, some happy few even succeed!
But you can’t just show up in a new industry and expect a standing ovation right away. Ray tried to build his new field using corn field rules: he planted a baseball diamond in the spring and sat around waiting for a pennant harvest in the fall. You need to understand how to succeed and which rules need to be broken to stand out intelligently (that is, to not look stupid).
The truth: learn, respect, and adapt to the rules of whatever field you’re in.
Bad lesson 3: don’t tell anybody what you’re up to.
After Ray builds his diamond, he doesn’t bother to communicate – to market or position his product to anyone. He doesn’t even name his team or tell people about the single game that is supposed to miraculously save his farm.
In fact, he takes a pretty standoffish and arrogant approach to his target audience. Where is the scene where he buys a newspaper ad or where we see him sitting up at 3:00 a.m. sending out one more letter to another prospective fan?
The truth: communication is job one for all startups
Bad lesson 4: dreams are everything.
Sorry kids. Don’t mean to squash your Jiminy Cricket here, but dreams are actually a dime a dozen – we have more than that every night. And most of them are wisely forgotten, ignored, or just recognized as really really dumb (like building a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield).
The truth: It’s hard work, commitment, and integrity (not dreams) that make success in any field.
Bad lesson 5: if you build it, they will come.
I can’t count the times I’ve heard this line repeated by startups or government clients. And it’s a seductive thought: if only we can build this perfect widget, the whole planet will see how amazing it is and come rushing to our door throwing money at us.
But it never works that way. It only seems to work that way, if you don’t know any better. The fact is, dreams are great. And stubbornly pursuing a dream is admirable. And everybody loves to believe in magic. But sadly, the “Field of Dreams” approach is a recipe for failure and disappointment.
Better to either a) stick to the corn, or b) if you must switch to baseball, sell your corn field and build your baseball diamond in a place, in a way, and with a team that give you a fighting chance. If your business plan includes ghosts, magic, and / or impossible amounts of luck to succeed, it’s not a plan. It’s not even a dream. It’s just a weird rustling noise in the corn.