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Essentialism for Brands
Essentialism for Brands
Your brand can’t have it all. And that’s okay.

Feel like your brand isn’t accomplishing enough? Maybe you should try doing less with it. Or put another way: Maybe you should say “no” to some marketing tactics so you can say “yes” to the right ones.

In his New York Times bestseller Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown describes a modern epidemic of overcommitment. We’re all spreading ourselves too thin. We say “yes” to every meeting and try to become experts in every specialty of our field. Predictably, many of us fail to excel at any one thing.

McKeown paints a grim, but all-too-familiar, picture of the problem as he describes a young tech executive he once mentored:

“Eager to build on his success, [this tech executive] continued to read as much as he could and pursue all he could with gusto and enthusiasm. … He seemed to find a new obsession every day, sometimes every hour. And in the process, he lost the ability to discern the vital few from the trivial many. Everything was important. As a result, he was stretched thinner and thinner. He was making a millimeter of progress in a million directions.”

The book’s lessons apply to brands, too. Just as people try to live up to others’ expectations, many companies try to be everything to everyone. It’s an impossible task. Their brand images get watered down in the process, and their brand managers risk serious burnout.

If you’ve ever been in a company where this is part of the culture, you know exactly what McKeown is talking about. There’s a new obsession every moment. One week, having a large following on social media is the top priority. The next, it’s all about wowing your peers at a professional conference. But it could be that neither of those actually helps you win more customers or keep the ones you’ve already got.

So what’s the remedy? McKeown says you have to eliminate everything nonessential. Set one top priority and force every other goal to fall in line. When you start a new project, ask, “Is this the very most important thing my brand should be doing with its time and resources right now?” If you make this a consistent habit, the way you spend time and resources will start to shift. Some goals will become secondary and tertiary, while others you may forgo completely.

Your brand can only have one most important thing, not five or 10 priorities of equal value. In fact, McKeown says the plural version of “priority” is a contradiction in terms:

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality.”

At Pivot, we see this tension play out in naming. When we help a client find a company or product name, we start by asking what the name needs to accomplish. We work with the client to create a list of criteria—usually five to seven items like “must be kid-friendly,” “must convey a high-end feeling,” or “must appeal to corporate donors.”

We find we always have to rank that list from most important to least important. It’s impossible to accomplish every marketing goal with a single name—usually just one to three words. We have to decide what matters most and evaluate every option with that in mind.

Similarly, when we create logos, we have to choose what aspects of a company are most essential to convey. If we tried to create a single image that encapsulated the entire brand, we’d wind up with a wall-sized mural and still miss important details.

In life and in branding, success requires narrowing your focus, then sticking to your guns. You can’t follow every trend. You can’t appeal to every audience. If you try, you’ll drive yourself crazy. Only when you clearly articulate your top priority and evaluate every decision in light of it will you make significant progress toward your goal.

Perhaps the great philosopher Ron Swanson put it best:

Not sure how to narrow your focus? A great place to start is a brand manifesto.