Want to Build a Better Brand? Start With a Chainsaw
Chase Koeneke | Associate Creative Director

“If you want to carve an elephant from a block of wood, you don’t start the process with fine-grit sandpaper.”

New York Times columnist Carl Richards made use of this aphorism in his “Sketch Guy” column just over a year ago, and while Richards is a financial wiz, the metaphor has strong implications when it comes to branding. Your brand is your sculpture, and if you want to carve a masterpiece, you’ll need to start with blunt instruments and broad strokes. Unfortunately, we don’t have to look far to see the branding equivalent of carving with sandpaper:

  • Obsessing over the minutiae of color palettes and fonts when people have no idea what the brand stands for.
  • Starting a #Hashtag! when the brand has no followers.
  • “Optimizing” content for SEO when that content sucks to begin with.
  • Sending “news” releases when the brand hasn’t done anything worth talking about.
  • Buying a Snapchat filter for an event that nobody knows about.

Brands often fall victim to Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS) and are tempted to tinker with the sexy facets of marketing while the difficult and important questions are left unattended. And who can blame them? Read the headlines in the top marketing and branding publications and count how many sensationalized, hyper-specific, sandpaper strategies you can find.

Ironically, though, popular isn’t usually productive.

“You know what trying to sand an elephant out of a block of wood actually is? It’s daunting,” says Richards. “And what daunting means is that you’re probably going to quit before you even start. Maybe you’ll take a few passes, and perhaps you’ll get as far as shaping a leg or a trunk. But eventually you’re going to give up. The process is just too slow.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

The funny thing about the alternative — the chainsaw approach — is that once you start hacking away, you realize your brand can evolve into something much different (and better) than what was originally intended. Take Instagram for example. It started out as Burbn: an app that let users check in to particular locations, make plans for future check-ins, earn points for hanging out with friends and post pictures of their meet-ups. This was too complicated, though. Burbn had too many features. But the developers noticed something interesting: the one feature people actually used on the app was photo-sharing.

So, what did Burbn do? Share a bunch of platitudes on social media about friendship? Change the interface of the app to make it more appealing? Chase influencers and reporters? Wrong, wrong and wrong. They zeroed in on the photo-sharing feature and scrapped everything else. The result is the billion-user Instagram we know today.

It’s only after making those initial violent chops that sandpaper can be effective.

Now grab your proverbial chainsaw and go wild.

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