How to win: 6 lessons for entrepreneurs

Ancient storytelling secret: characters are more interesting

Beg to Differ was reminded by this cartoon from the wise and funny Tom Fishbourne, health that all great stories are driven by compelling characters – and that’s as true in the branding world as it was around the ancestral campfire. So is your brand a hero, medications a helper, or a Jack of all Trades?

Read Tom’s blog on the cartoon here.

Quick plug: if you’re interested in branding at all, subscribe to Tom’s blog. He not only packs amazing insights into the cartoons, but then blogs about the topic with wit and clarity. You will never be disappointed.

A few thoughts on storytelling and metaphor in branding:

Archetypes – they’re not just for English class anymore

The idea of building your brand around one of the strong, powerful figures that recur throughout world literature might seem like a stretch, but as Tom points out, the greatest brands can be clearly identified with those figures – like Nike as the hero brand / Harley Davidson as the Outlaw / Patagonia as the Adventurer, etc.

And I don’t just say that to justify my outrageously expensive English degree (but it helps). When you translate these into brand elements and a tone of voice, they SOUND more natural. So the heroic statement “Just Do It” is intuitively more compelling than “Maximize your Performance” – even though both mean much the same on the surface.

Going deep into the human psyche can feel dangerous. But that's why it's so powerful.

Better the wrong character than no character at all:

In counseling companies on new directions for their brands, I always have to present tangible metaphors to help them “get” the direction I’m suggesting. And these almost always take the form of a character – or occasionally a creature. I’ve used a veteran soldier, a wise sage, a master craftsman, a banker / money changer, and a dangerous deep sea monster (see graphic at right), among others.

Those will also happen to sound familiar to anyone who reads any kind of literature, since you’ll find the same figures in everything from Homer to the Bible to James Joyce.

Be the leviathan: it feels dangerous, but it works:

When designer John Kaldeway presented the cartoon graphic of the monstrous angler-fish above to our client as the symbol for their data recovery company – which I had named “DeepSpar” – we were all a bit shocked.  In the board room it seemed just a bit… too much.

But the image, and more importantly the attitude it embodied (ruthless, driven, even a bit predatory) turned out to be exactly the right approach to differentiate DeepSpar in a very small market dominated by very technical, geeky products and customers who were men (and gamers) that saw the symbol as a bad-ass reinterpretation of their own struggles.

Suddenly, our client was both much more memorable and consistent, and they were also coolest vendor at the trade show. Hard to give away a hat with XRP-7000 on it.

Branding is not about “messages”; it’s about character.

This point is driven home in this great blog post from 2008 by Olivier Blanchard (@TheBrandBuilder) – which Tom also links to.  Olivier argues for using archetypes as a way of breaking out of the usual heady, analytical way of thinking about branding – which is most obvious in the “messaging” process – and instead using powerful metaphors to touch the customer in a deeper way

I’ll finish with a quote from him:

If the brand you create is powerful enough – inside and out – then messaging is barely frosting on the cake. Heck, it’s little more than the colored sprinkles on the edges. The messaging is nice and it dresses things up a little, but… Using archetypes in your brand development process can help you tap into the raw nature and identity of a brand better than any brand pyramid, onion, pie chart or whatever cookie-cutter technique you are currently using.

I’d love to hear your stories – maybe examples of brands using strong metaphors, or archetypes that pop to mind when you think of certain brands. Comment away.

Inspired by the 2010 Mitsubishi City Chase

You’ve heard entrepreneurship compared to a race – likely a running or a horse race, unhealthy
where one highly specialized skill always wins. But in real life, ampoule
business and brand-building is actually much more like CityChase – an urban adventure race that happens in dozens of cities worldwide. Last weekend, the Big Differ was in just such a race, and offers you some insights.

Shawn De Raaf (left) and the Differ Dennis Van Staalduinen (right) after crossing the finish line.

Um. We didn’t win

Let’s get this straight: I’m going to talk about how to win from the position of a non-winner. As you’ll see from these results, my teammate Shawn and I came in sixth place in the Ottawa race this year.

Before the start. Some of the 800 people that raced.

Not bad with 400 other teams in the race, and certainly better than my previous results of 22nd, 11th, and 12th (see last year’s blog post), but not top of the field.

However, we were close enough to the top that I delude myself into thinking we could have won, which means I desperately want to figure out how the actual winners win, and maybe, someday, we can.

So, these are my 6 steps to winning – told from the position of an almost winner who is thinking about how to win. And brand-builders, how many of us aren’t in that same position in that other race: business?

The six steps to victory

Lesson 1) Take a moment to think about strategy – but just a moment.

In the CityChase, you’re given a clue sheet at the beginning of the race with 30 “ChasePoint” challenges spread out over the city, of which you have to complete ten. So at the beginning, you have to take a few moments to scan the clues, get a general feeling for where things are, and figure out where you’re going to go. Kind of like those business strategy meetings I host for clients.

Information is critical to victory, as is strategic planning, so only a fool strikes out blindly in the absence of any information.

But the trick here is the same as with corporate strategy: if you take enough time to get all the information, it’s already too late to win. Read that again. And one more time.

Bottom line: the race doesn’t go to the one who has the most information; it goes to those who can act most quickly on the information at hand.

Lesson 2) Keep moving.

In the CityChase, you can get around to your ChasePoints in two ways: by foot, or public transit. But guess what? The winners almost never wait for a bus. The top teams keep moving at all times, taking buses when they offer tactical advantage, but just as often, running to stay ahead of the buses. This means you have to have a certain level of fitness to be among the top teams. But more importantly, you have to be willing to keep going for the several hours of the race.

Bottom line: don’t forget plain old hard work.

3) Play with the team.

This is teamwork. Really.

In the CityChase, you run as a team of two. Both members do all the challenges together, and you have to cross the finish line together, so a lone superstar doesn’t win if they don’t have a solid teammate.

You also need to be able to face a variety of challenges. This year for us, these included breakdancing, military bootcamp, whitewater yak-rafting, changing a bicycle tire, and lots of mental puzzles. This meant both Shawn and I had our chances to shine – he’s a far better athlete; I brought the race experience – but neither of us would have done as well without the other.

Bottom line: find teammates who both complement and challenge you to be better.

4) Share information relentlessly… with everyone.

I learned early on to “open source” my race. There are many secrets, surprises, and puzzles as the 800 people / 400 teams run around town doing the Chase, and every team is trying to figure out at the same information at the same time. So by swapping tips and clue details as much as possible when I get the chance, I’ve managed to save myself a lot of wrong turns over the years.

There are many teams that seem afraid to talk to other teams – lest they give someone else an advantage. There are others that lie to misdirect opponents. I get that. It’s a game after all. It’s just that as a strategy, it doesn’t seem to work.

Bottom line:, hoarding information just slows you down. Learn how to share.

5) Avoid the bottlenecks.

Hard work: Soaking wet after the whitewater challenge - we had to carry our boat back uphill.

The biggest time wasters in the Chase are the line-ups that form around many of the Chase Points, especially in the mid-race. So the winning teams figure out quickly where these are likely to be, and if the Chasepoint is mandatory, they get there early – before the other teams get there. If it’s not, and they encounter a line or a slow-moving challenge, they move on to a different Checkpoint.

In business, the bottlenecks are the business tactics, product features, and branding habits that form in a given market – where a “crowd” of competitors are all trying to do the same thing at the same time.

Bottom line: if it’s important, get there first; if it’s not and everyone else is already there, find another way to accomplish the same goal.

6) Have fun. It’s your biggest competitive advantage.

The picture of me that appeared in Sunday's paper. Photo: Jana Chytilova, The Ottawa Citizen

In the CityChase, I like to be competitive, and I like to go hard. And in a lot of ways I take it more “seriously” than a lot of people do (I’m writing this aren’t I?) But as someone I love once said about soccer, it’s just a game. And if it ever loses its lustre as a fun activity, there are plenty of other games.

In business, if you aren’t creating an enjoyable environment where people can be themselves – creative, funny, and human – maybe you should think about trying something else.

Bottom line: life’s too short to not enjoy what you do.

7 thoughts on “How to win: 6 lessons for entrepreneurs”

  1. Sounds like you had a pile of fun and what a great description of how winning in business is really not that different than winning a game!

    1. The “winning at business is like winning at sports” analogy isn’t new – it’s actually a massive cliche as a matter of fact. But the CityChase really is a different kind of “sport” and the parallels are just too close to ignore. My only regret is that more of my Ottawa marketing / tech / social media peers don’t participate. You for example. ;c{)}

  2. The City Chase sounds like it was really fun. Great Job comparing your race with strategies all entrepreneurs should know. These strategies are not only great for entrepreneurs, but anybody involved in running a business or in *strategy consulting* (link removed). Thanks for the great post!

  3. Dennis,

    As one of the organizers, I have read literally thousands of posts and blogs about the City Chase experience over the past seven years, but yours is very unique, and incredibly insightful – a very enjoyable read.

    Thank you for continuing to support the City Chase Series, and for your passion for adventure – you’re absolutely right in saying that life is too short to not enjoy every day!

    I can’t wait to see what you are able to accomplish in the 2011 edition of the Mitsubishi City Chase.

    Enjoy the rest of your summer!


    1. David, thanks for stopping by and for your flattering comments. Your race series has been inspiring, thought-provoking, and yes, a heck of a lot of fun for the last four years I’ve been involved. It is also a powerful, memorable brand that you’ve built and reinforced over the years. Not exactly a household name yet (I still have to explain for inlaws, etc.) but starting to get there.

      And since I’ve got your attention all public-like, any chance we’ll see the CityChase as a reality series on Canadian TV again – without a writer’s strike this time? That was a lot of fun two seasons ago.

      1. I am always engaged in conversations to try and make it happen.
        We have enjoyed a tremendous partnership with National Geographic Adventure Channel internationally – broadcasting the World Championships to over 200 Million houses … but unfortunately we haven’t yet found the winning formula here in Canada. Stay tuned.

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