Posted by: kwbrand | August 19, 2007

Sing Alone, Sing Along


In their excellent book, Make it Stick, the authors describe psychologist Elizabeth Newton’s research study in which one of two partners was assigned the role of “tapper” and the other the role of “listener.” The tapper was told to tap out the beat of a popular song by rhythmically smacking the table—just like a teenage boy might air drum to their favorite song onto the top of their desk. The listening partner’s job was to guess the song by listening to the taps. Newton conducted the experiment over and over and measured the results. The enlightening outcome of the study involved the tappers’ predictions compared to the actual results. The tappers predicted that the listeners would accurately guess the song 50% of the time based on their tapping performance. In reality, the listening partner was able to accurately name the song only 2.5% of the time. Newton concluded that the discrepancy between the tappers’ predicted odds of success and the listeners’ actual ability to guess the song was due to the fact that the tapper could not remember what it might be like to listen to taps without the melody playing along in their head. The tapper couldn’t hear their taps as their listening partner heard them—as a series of disconnected and discordant smacks on a table top.

I learned the truth of this communication disconnect lesson the hard way.

After being in the brand research and consulting business for a couple of years, I decided to take my own advice and focus my own brand. I spent the better part of a year doing it. I did the research, had the brainstorming sessions, the whole shi-bangy-bang.

After all my research, brainstorming, wordsmithing and discussions with my graphic designer, the first web design was a miss. But I should first tell you that I loved it. It did exactly what I thought it should do. And, loving it as I did, I took it out and proudly presented it to people whom I trusted to give me their honest (and what I assumed would be exuberant) feedback and…And? Their response was flat. They didn’t “get it.”

There I was, tapping the newly minted web expression of my brand concept out on the table and mentally singing along (alone?) in my head and—big surprise—I thought I sounded great. When I heard from trusted resources and potential audience members that they didn’t get what I was doing, I was given the poignant and painful reminder that my audience needs me to provide the background music so that, when they hear the beginning beats, they want to tap, sing and dance along with me.

I was discouraged and frustrated and briefly considered just going with what I had anyway; I was tired of massaging the damn thing and was anxious to just get on with the real work of using my website. But then I thought of the type of advice I would give clients and decided to listen to the painful input.

The irritating process taught me a lot. The first thing I learned was an appreciation for the challenge of building a solid brand and making sure the communication vehicles that deliver the brand are clear and on-message. Sure I’d done it for other organizations, but it was different when it was my baby they were calling ugly. No wonder so few companies get it right. The second thing I learned was the importance of objectivity. I struggled to get objectivity while doing my own website because I was too close. The third and most important thing I learned, however, was just how easy it is to commit the error of singing alone in my head and expecting others to guess the tune…and love it.

The challenge of good brand development and brand communication is to find out which song and dance styles show off your best moves while simultaneously appealing to your target audience so that they cannot help but jump in when they hear the familiar beat.

But therein is the beauty of good brand research.

Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation

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