A Trend Is Always a Trap: a Famous Ad Man on Mediocrity

by Patrick Woods on


“No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” as the saying goes.

IBM here is a metaphor for the safe choice. For jumping on the corporate bandwagon. For following the trends of business.

Trend following might be safe for corporate types, but for startup founders, “safe” is a four-letter word.

Just ask legendary ad man George Lois:

Because advertising and marketing is an art, the solution to each new problem or challenge should begin with a blank canvas and an open mind, not with nervous borrowings of other people’s mediocrities. That’s precisely what “trends” are—a search for something “safe”—and why a reliance on them leads to oblivion.

Despite the risks of trend following, startups are notoriously bad about doing so (see my post Why Does Your Startup Sound Like a Startup? for more). Startup trends appear in homepage layouts, messaging, user acquisition plans, and even approaches to company culture.

But your runway’s shrinking and everything’s on fire and how are you going to make payroll?

This is no time for the safety of other people’s mediocrities.

Lois, again:

In any creative industry, the fact that others are moving in a certain direction is always proof positive, at least to me, that a new direction is the only direction.

Sounds a lot like the startup worldview. So it’s weird that, when, it comes to branding and messaging, so many startups fall into the trend trap of mediocrity and then oblivion.

Disruptive technology, you say? Too bad you look and sound like every other player in your space.

What if your messaging and marketing were as disruptive as your technology? What if your team put in the effort to tell a truly compelling and meaningful brand story that did justice to your product?

Leave the trends to the bloggers and journalists; they need something to write about come January.

By the way, when asked for insight into the coming year’s trends, Lois says:

My answer is always identical to what I said the previous year: “Beats the shit out of me. I’ll know it when I do it.”

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One Question that Reveals the Truth About Your Brand

by Patrick Woods on


Imagine one of your employees at a party enjoying assorted cheeses and crackers.

The banter is in full swing. The standard cocktail conversations occurring around the room.

Where are you from? What part of town do you live in?

What do you do?

They’d explain they work at Your Startup, and something about what they do there.

But then, someone asks something more piercing:

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3 Simple Questions to Uncover your Startup’s Personality

by Patrick Woods on

Duke Cannon Soap

My team does a lot of brand development, both for startups and for Fortune 500 clients. In the process, we’ve developed lots of tools and frameworks and processes for creating good work.

You’ve probably heard terms like brand essence, brand platform, positioning statements and the like. Those traditional processes, coupled with our own, are really helpful in jump-starting and guiding a brand project.

But as it turns out, almost all are completely irrelevant for early-stage startups. That’s because before you’ve arrived at product-market fit, your name and brand design matter little, if it all.

As you’re approaching product-market fit, brand does begin to matter. But the tools brand professionals often feel too ambiguous early on.

So what’ a founder to do?

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Always and Not Yet: When Brand Matters for Startups

by Patrick Woods on

As someone who has worked with many startups to develop meaningful names and brands, I’m often asked by founders, “When should I worry about my startup’s brand.”

As a brand guy, you might imagine I’d say it matters from the very beginning. And it does.

But it also doesn’t.

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The Myth of the Product that Sells Itself

by Patrick Woods on

The conversation often goes like this:

Me: My ad agency works with startups to get their name, brand messaging, and marketing strategies right.

Person: That’s interesting, but don’t the really great products just sell themselves? They don’t really need marketing.

Ah, the Bigfoot of the Valley. The Self-Selling Product. An invention so brilliant, so perfect, it can survive and grow without marketing of any kind.

Everyone’s heard the stories. We’ve all seen the blurry photos and watched the shaky 8mm footage. A lucky few even claim they’ve encountered this evolutionary marvel in the wild. So with all this evidence, how is it no one’s ever managed to capture this elusive creature for study?

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