A comedian on latenight television did a funny bit about a guy who hoisted his lawn mower up to trim his shrubs. After the blade hit a hidden branch in the hedge and flipped over, the lawn mower chopped off one of his arms. That wasn’t the funny part. Once the one-armed homeowner recovered, he found a lawyer to sue the lawn mower manufacturer. Why? Because the box did not include a warning that the product should not be used as a hedge trimmer. Believe it or not, the homeowner won the suit. That wasn’t the funny part, either.
The funny part was that the lawn mower did come with a warning not to pick it up and use it as a hedge trimmer. Where was the warning? It was the words “Lawn mower” printed on the side of the box.
Last month I was at a conference in Indianapolis and went to grab breakfast. I lowered half a bagel into the toaster and looked for something to spread on it. Here’s what I found:
The peanut butter label pointed out that the peanut butter had peanuts in it. Funny, I thought the word “peanut” made that pretty clear. And the cream cheese label said that it contained dairy. Really? I was pretty sure that both the words “cream” and “cheese” suggested that there would be some dairy involved.
I have a friend whose son has a potentially fatal peanut allergy so I understand it’s critical to know when peanuts are present. And my daughter is a committed vegan, so I also understand the importance of knowing when there’s dairy in a dish. And finally, the lawn mower story reminds us all of legal liability. But c’mon, what’s more obvious than peanuts in peanut butter or dairy in cream cheese?
In the effort to communicate clearly, we sometimes become masters of the obvious and tell people what they already know — that our law firm handles legal cases, our accounting company files taxes or our motivational speech is about motivation. And in the effort to communicate we sometimes tell people what they don’t care about at all —how many computers we own, how many locations we have or how many years we’ve been in business.
But while we’re busy saying all this, what we don’t say is how what we do will make our prospects’ lives better. Why our law firmprovides peace of mind. Why our accounting firm helps assure their family’s future. How our motivational speech will help our audiences achieve their goals.
Now I already know what you’re thinking, “Sure Bruce, that’s great for everyone else but I’m — big sigh — different. I have to explain EXACTLY what I do because you see — even bigger sigh — my business is unique.”
Really? Your business is too special to narrow down? Ok, then let’s talk about Volvo instead.
Volvo is in a lot of businesses. They’re in transportation, manufacturing, research and development, metallurgy, engineering, upholstery, design, import/export, logistics, just to name a few. Plus, they operate retail stores for both new and used products, sales and service, and accessories. Volvo operates under the governmental regulations of the hundreds of countries, states, and municipalities they operate in. They work in multiple languages, with multiple consumers, multiple currencies, and in multiple industries. And don’t forget that they don’t just make consumer automobiles. Volvo also builds busses and trucks and provides engines and engineering for other companies. Yet despite this incredible amount of complexity, they still describe themselves with one word safety.
Volvo knows they don’t have to sell transportation or even getting from point A to point B because that’s not what people are buying. Sure that’s what Volvo’s cars do. But there’s that pesky master of the obvious stuff again. Even though Volvo’s business is as complicated as it can be, they don’t sell what they do, they sell what they do for you.
You’re a better parent, a better spouse, and a better human being because you buy and use Volvo’s products. By buying their cars, you’re telling the world that you care about the people you love and people you’ve never even met before. Pretty good messaging for a company that makes cars, eh?
Cream cheese says “dairy.” Peanut butter says “peanuts.” Volvo says “safety.” And lawn mower says “cutting grass.” What does your brand say?