Elephants in the room: where Vision statements go wrong

Ancient wisdom on Vision – from blind men

Part 2 on Vision Statements. In examining the many ways that our clients’ Vision statements have gone wrong in the past (and some spectacularly wrong), buy Beg to Differ can almost always sum up the biggest problem in one word: proximity. But don’t take our word for it; take it from an ancient tale of six men who tried to establish a common vision. And failed….


Six blind men write a Vision statement

The story I’m referring to is the Blind Men and the Elephant. Variations are found in cultures across Asia, but poet John Godfrey Saxe introduced it to Europe:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind…
Six blind monks – from a Japanese watercolor illustrating the same story

It’s a long poem (whole text here), but to sum up the action: six blind men approach an elephant and come away with six different impressions. One thinks an elephant is like a tree, one like a rope, one like a snake, etc. And while each of their descriptions is sincerely argued, and accurately reflects their observations, the poet laments that “each was partly in the right / And all were in the wrong.”

Now imagine pulling those six blind men into a room and trying to write a Vision statement.

Describing the elephant: where vision statements go wrong

In the story, here are the mistakes the blind men made – and I’m going to suggest that we make the same ones ourselves.

1) They are all blind (and so are we): When it comes to our own businesses and products, each of us is blind to the big picture – the whole animal. This is equally true of me and my company (note to self: update corporate Web site soon), you and yours, and blind elephant-feelers everywhere: we are all victims of habit, corporate silos, and unconscious vested interests.

There’s nothing wrong with blindness of course. But bringing in a “sighted” outsider can certainly speed things up.

2) They didn’t share their “visions” to create “Vision”: Notice that each blind man worked in isolation before comparing notes with colleagues. Imagine if they all had been talking to each other during the research phase. “What do you mean rope? This seems more wall-ish. Seriously, come over here and check this out… etc.” Wouldn’t they be more successful – and fight less?

435px-Blind_men_and_elephant43) Lack of common reference points: Saxe says that the men “Rail on in utter ignorance / Of what each other mean.” Because of the blinkers mentioned above, we need to check, double check, then write down our common understandings of corporate jargon, nomonyms, and other key language.

4) They ignored the elephant. These blind men SAID they wanted to learn about the elephant, for each to “satisfy his mind”, but they seem more interested in having talking points for the argument to come. Shame none of them examined the elephant’s navel. But then they’d have to take their heads out of their own.

5) Who was the exercise for? Perhaps they would have had more luck if they had a clearer goal in mind of who the customer for this information would be. Then they could test their theories against the only metric that matters: how much does their work help someone else understand the elephant?

6) Description is not Vision: even if all the blind men had been able to articulate a more accurate idea of the elephant, they still couldn’t get the elephant to do anything. For that, they’d need to study behaviour, capabilities, knowledge of how other elephants are being used and trained. And finally they’d need to correct one last mistake…

7) Vision needs direction: The blind men lacked clear goals and an audience. But they also lacked a destination or at least a clear sense of the direction they should be heading  – which is the “north star” that should guide any effective Vision exercise.

But then doesn’t that make this a Mission rather than a Vision? The next post in this series will take on that thorny issue. But in the meantime, we’re still looking for your help: vision stories; examples; thoughts?

Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Are the Muppets back to stay?

Has Disney finally figured out how to deal with the Muppets?

Yesterday, medicine Beg to Differ introduced you to the brilliant new Bohemian Rhapsody parody from the Muppets – but with no brand focused commentary at all. Since then, try we’ve realized that the big story here isn’t the video itself (or the others we’ve included below). The big branding story is the Muppet brand itself and its current caretaker: Disney.


Keeping your Beakers and Bunsens apart

A Disneyland attraction that people liked, but didn't recognize the characters.

When I showed the Bohemian Rhapsody video to my kids – aged 3 and almost 5 – they laughed and laughed and laughed, just as my wife and I had done. Of course, they totally missed the parody, but it was heartening to me that they seemed to love the characters and hooted along with that trademark goofy, over-the-top vaudeville campiness.

But when I asked my 3-year old what he’d liked about it, he said: “Those Wild Things were funny.”

Anaheim, we have a problem.

It’s not like we haven;t done our parental duty by exposing him to the Muppets. This is a kid who has an Animal doll, 50 Sesame Street books, and has sat and watched the Muppets on YouTube, as well as the season 1&2 DVDs with the family. But even he couldn’t identify the “Muppet” brand, and couldn’t recall any names except Kermit and Miss Piggy.

Turns out my son is the market in microcosm (I’m so proud). Kids don’t get the Muppets. And I blame Disney.

Disney’s problem with Muppets

Since acquiring the Muppet brand in 2004 Disney has been widely criticized by fans for under-utilizing the Muppets characters and failing to re-invigorate the brand for a younger generation. For an exhaustive insider background, see Jim Hill’s blog post from 2007.

But in brief, I think this verbiage from the February 2004 press release captures the problem in humourless, corporatese:

The transaction includes all Muppet assets, including the Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and Animal characters, the Muppet film and television library, and all associated copyrights and trademarks…

Now read that again in your best Rizzo the Rat voice to hear how ugly, inhuman and unintentionally funny it becomes. These are cartoon puppet critters people!

Roadkill? Kermit wondering what the heck he's doing in front of an SUV.
Roadkill? Kermit wondering what the heck he’s doing in front of an SUV.

It’s not easy being green (but it’s worth a try).

And it went downhill from there. Disney efforts have included an aborted attempt to make Kermit more “edgy” for his 5oth birthday in 2005, and a tone-deaf attempt to exploit the lead characters as commercial shills. The Ford Explorer ad shown here is a great example.

Demographic fact: Muppets are loved by nostalgic 30-40 somethings. Frog-leap of logic: Hey! Kermit can sell SUVs!

But through it all, the big problems that were festering under the surface were 1) a failure to generate any significant new Muppets content (or that the new content was bad), 2) erosion of the brand equity of secondary characters, and 3) lack of respect for the real brand qualities that made the Muppets so charming and relevant, and sustain them to this day in the hearts of 4) the brand’s real owners: who are you, me, and hopefully, our kids.

The Muppets of the mind

So that’s why it was so nice to see yesterday’s Bohemian Rhapsody video get hundreds of thousands of hits and quickly become a trending topic on Twitter. It’s also nice to learn that more videos are coming (watch for “Dust in the Wind”, “American Woman”, “Popcorn”, “Carol of the Bells” and “Stand By Me”) and that a new Muppet movie is in the works – among other interesting projects.

But most heartening of all, there’s the tone of the new content – which finally shows signs that Disney actually gets the Muppets. The new stuff is funny, and the characters seem like themselves again. And that’s why I felt like I had to share that video immediately.

To us, the real owners of the brand, the Muppets are about creating a warm space where comedy, pop-culture, kid-culture, and pure unadulterated silliness can come together. The real Muppets in our heads never take themselves too seriously (see the “assets” quote above), and they are also never mean-spirited or even “edgy” (they’re refreshingly nerdy actually – kind of like Queen music).

Oh, and take note: the Muppets in our heads would never sell an SUV, so they won’t help us buy one either.

Welcome back Muppets

But lest we be accused of getting too serious ourselves (we beg to differ!), below are a few more recent YouTube videos featuring some great second-string Muppets.

Bohemian Rhapsody – in case you missed it

Beaker does Ode to Joy:

The Swedish Chef carves a pumpkin:

Sam the Eagle gets patriotic:

Favourite blog posts of 2009: October & November

Part 3 of our series on our favourite posts of 2009″

October and November held a few more pleasant surprises for us here at Beg to Differ – from our Chicken Sandwich series to our first Slideshare cross-over hit, cure to  a Seussian Twitter phenomena, viagra we continue to be surprised by the enthuisiastic response of our readers – but almosrt never in ways we expect.


What if restaurants charged like creative agencies? The other side

October 9, 2009

The branding business: we haven’t have a lot of posts about this topic area… yet. But we felt we needed to respond to a viral video which lampooned clients for not “getting” the value of the work creative agencies do. After all, it takes two to tango – or quibble over a giant invoice.

More on the biz: when branding, look outside;

Big Fresh

How to name a chicken sandwich: thoughts for branders

October 19, 2009

Brand naming: When KFC launched a new chicken sandwich with a name developed by Brandvelope, we took the opportunity to toot our own horn a bit and talk about the process of naming a brand. And the results: our biggest single day tally of visitors as branders came by for a taste of what we do.

More on names:Sorry Shakespeare: names matter;  brandscape – a chicken or egg?

Fail Plane

American Airlines meets Mr. X – a tragic tale of brand failure

November 9, 2009

“Whole brand” thinking: This short post on the failure of a giant corporation to understand  effective customer engagement in the social media era marked the first time a SlideShare deck  of ours reached 2000 hits – and climbing (in response to a tip from  Alison Gresik).

More on this:Toronto Web site fail; Human in five steps; the perils of too much choice; one immutable law

goat2[1]Green eggs & spam: a Twitter poem

November 19th, 2009

Social media: Funny to talk about this one as a greatest hit – because we wrote it in the middle of the current “faves” series – and it’s really still going with more than 100 RTs to date. Basically, we wondered a) what @SamEyeEm would be like on Twitter, and b) what Dr. Seuss might think about the new “ReTweet” feature on Twitter.

More on this topic: Twiterloo; branding explained in Twitterese; “Social Media” needs a new name.

More in this series:

Oh, and another reminder: please sign up for e-mail updates (on the right) or our RSS feed, so you keep track of our future posts.

Brand builders: how to be human in five easy steps

Humans beat dinosaurs every time.

Yesterday, rx our post about how American Airlines fired Mr. X – an employee who had the gall to (gasp) engage with a customer – generated a fair bit of engagement of its own. We were also shocked and pleased that our accompanying PowerPoint deck was chosen as one of the features on the SlideShare home page, cure with more than 950 views and climbing. “Wow, for sale ” we thought: “People are actually paying attention! Crap!”

How not to do it: the American Airlines approach to humanzing communications (image from www.dinosaurlive.com)

Why I said “Crap”

Because even though I’d spent an hour and a half yesterday morning putting the deck together, there were a few things I left off at the end – some important stuff about the difference between a) treating people and social media like a lumbering corporate dinosaur (American Airlines, that’s you), or b) like human beings (the un-American Airlines approach).

So we added a few thoughts to the deck, along with 5 simple steps you can follow to make your brand more friendly to humans. Please read on.

Surprised when corporations don’t act human? Don’t be!

Sadly, rumours of mass extinction have been greatly exaggerated: American Airlines isn’t the last dinosaur.

Thousands of others are lurking out there, hiding in hierarchical “Lost Valleys” around the corporate landscape. They’re scary, and they still have big teeth if you get close to them. And they roar, stomp, intimidate, and generally pretend with their pea-sized brains that they can throttle and control communications the same way they did (or thought they could) in the Jurassic era.

But the world has changed.

The new boss has arrived (and it’s us).

And the new masters of the planet have opposable thumbs. And emotions. And big brains. They talk to each other; they form families and tribes.

And they don’t even try to control the message.

Instead, they listen, and build the conversation in ways that are real, helpful, and yes human. Want evidence? You’re reading this aren’t you?

How to humanize your brand in five easy steps:

1) Don’t pretend to be perfect.

You’re lying. We know, because we’re human too. So don’t even bother faking it.

2) Listen (critically) to critics.

They usually see you better than you do. Then conscript the helpful critics as team-mates, or call them out if they’re just snipers.

3) Speak Human.

Because here’s a secret: nobody ever understood “Corporate-ese” in the first place. Just use normal people-friendly words, a helpful tone, and don’t brag about your big accomplishments / hard drives / pointy teeth. If it’s true, other people will say it. If it’s not, you’re just a roaring fossil.

4) Encourage your people to speak Human

But remember that many of your employees think that roaring and stomping is the only way to behave. Gently work with them to show a better way. Give them access to the right tools to speak to customers, and teach them to find the opportunities and boundaries for themselves (oh, and share that learning with everyone).

5) To clobber your competitors, be more human

And this is the great part: all this touchy-feely human stuff is the best way to win in the battle of the brands! So go on big guy: listen harder; be more lethally generous (thanks again Shel Israel); earn some Whuffie (thanks Tara Hunt) and build real human relationships with your customers, influencers, staff, and yes, even the competition.

And if you’re an airline but you’re not American Airlines, congratulations: you’re already ahead!

Click here to see the whole PowerPoint deck on SlideShare