Article

Say what? How to purge jargon for good

We’ve been overloaded with empty messaging for years, and the backlash has begun. Speak plainly to show you value your audience—and their time.

We’ve been overloaded with empty messaging for years, and the backlash has begun. Speak plainly to show you value your audience—and their time.

All business is human

On the other side of every communication is a human being. A person with a life, family, friends, fears and aspirations.

So why do brands and organizations still flood their channels with corporate speak, complex messaging, acronyms, legalese, jargon and platitudes? Why do the terms B2B and B2C still exist? Do I stop being a consumer of clear information because I work at a technology company? It’s got to stop. We are losing our audiences.

Plain is powerful

Governments and businesses put a lot of effort into understanding their audiences. That research tells communicators how they need to speak to make meaningful connections with the people they want to influence. Many organizations are adopting plain language rules. The Government of Canada, for example, calls for plain language to be used in all internal and external communications. It’s policy.

Unfortunately, plain language lost out in the name department. Plain is intended to mean clear, simple and authentic—not boring and condescending.

Plain language is not easy to achieve. Writing is hard enough. Most organizations struggle to meet baseline measures of clarity and simplicity. And we’re not talking only about marketing and communications teams. Everyone in an organization writes, and everyone should be expected to do it clearly and respectfully.

How deep does it go?

If your organization swears by plain language but it isn’t changing your voice, it’s tokenism. And people hate that. They hate it with the same loathing reserved for, “We’re all in this together.” You want your audience to trust you? Talk to them in a way that shows you give a damn.

Let’s say you’ve put a plain language policy into place and done the training. How can you be sure it’s working? We recommend plain language audits as a way to assess communications and ensure you’re living up to your policy commitment.


One of the evaluation tools we use is a proprietary plain language filter. The aim? Weed out content that is redundant, obvious, and immaterial.

Three things to filter out
graphic expressing a filter which becomes more narrow and clear as it is applied

Prove it

Imagine you’re a business insurance provider, and the following is your copy. It’s not so bad, is it? It’s logical. Reads well. Doesn’t make any outrageous claims. But do you believe anyone but your agency would read it—or believe it?

Let’s apply the plain language filters and make some judgment calls. Purple indicates Redundant content. Green is Obvious. Magenta is Immaterial.


We know there’s nothing small about any business.

Businesspeople are a special breed. They have vision, the passion to embrace entrepreneurship or grow family enterprises, the tireless dedication to make a stand in their market. If you’re in business, we want to be your insurance partner.

Whether your business is big or small, well established or still only an idea, our tailored insurance solutions give you the flexibility and control to protect your business your way. Everything from professional and product liability coverage to business interruption and the latest cyber risk products. Tools to help you stay in business and focussed on landing your next great customer. Because business growth starts with business protection.

We’re Cyan Insurance. Experience, commitment and financial strength that have been trusted by Canadian business for more than a century.

Ready to serve you down the street and across the country.


Added benefit

Notice how the plain language filters also reveal verbosity and overstatement, which helps weed out other longwinded and bombastic content.

Your business is big to us.

Mom-and-pop shop or multinational, your business has distinct insurance needs. Let’s talk about meeting them. Because growing your business starts with protecting it.

Cyan. Down the street and across the country.


Honour your audience

Keep content short to demand less of people’s time. Yes, you may say, but I was told I had room for up to 150 words. Think this way: when you have many key messages, you actually have none. Why not say one or two things clearly and authentically? And be sure to show a little humility. It’s the special sauce these days.

Could we go further with this process? Absolutely. And many of us would re-write differently. Yet we would all end up with something far less likely to trigger the bullshit alarm.

Get filtering. Interested in how to apply the plain language filter to your content? Get in touch.

Article

Remote working: a people-first approach

Almost a year ago, the work-from-home economy of the future became the present. For many employers and employees, this unanticipated situation remains the norm.

Almost a year ago, the work-from-home economy of the future became the present. For many employers and employees, this unanticipated situation remains the norm.

Compounding the uncertainty

No one knows for sure how remote operations will remain once we tread the path to economic (and social) recovery.

One thing is for certain though: any return to normal depends on our people.

How are you feeling?

Despite our individual circumstances and our capacity for resilience, mostly we’re tired, anxious and cynical. And this mood has a huge influence on “office” culture.

We’re trying to juggle work demands with crushing isolation. We’re attempting to give full attention to our careers while simultaneously adopting the role of teachers’ assistants.

At Stiff, we believe that all business is personal—that assessing the health of our colleagues is more important than ever; that employers need flexible work policies that are adaptable for all employees; and that one-size-fits-all methods of engagement are antiquated.


In short, a people-first approach
is the route to take.


Make the time to reach out

So how can organizations follow this path when people are scattered, preoccupied and struggling? How can employers show empathy and understanding, and acknowledgement?

Ask team members about their concerns, their struggles. Put aside the ego and ask for their opinions on improvements to processes and procedures and policies. Find out what support looks like to them and what they would classify as important job benefits. Learn about their thoughts on continued remote working and how that might affect their happiness in their roles in the long run.

And then address their trepidations through actionable planning.

Do not underestimate the importance of active listening. Staff looks to its leaders to set the tone, provide guidance and assuage qualms. In any physically dispersed company, managers need to connect more regularly with their teams. This means taking the time to actively listen and invest in conversations with team members on a one-on-one basis.


Be empathetic
and show vulnerability

Everyone needs to feel a sense of “we’re all in this together.” Get emotional. Share your own experiences. Pay closer attention to the feelings of your colleagues and help them channel their own emotions in constructive ways.

A company’s culture is the sum of its many parts—values, policies, priorities, benefits, perks, environment, accessibility, perspectives, operations and more. The time has come to move towards a values-centric company culture. People want to work for reputable organizations that reflect their politics, perspectives and positions.

Companies have to provide tangible policies that are going to improve an employee’s bottom line. The new perks are less about what a company can give and more about what a company can do to empower its workers—and the world.

When a company’s operations are digital-first, and its labour is scattered, then employees’ attitudes and behaviours and desires shift more towards the personal. Building the workplace culture of the future must be centred on building the talent of the future.


Flexibility, equity and inclusion

The company culture of the future will demand organizational commitment to an equitable and just society.

It’s not enough to write an inclusive mission statement—what must follow is an action plan with concrete objectives and clearly defined efforts.

In the past year, our team has heard more about the adoption of equitable employment and labour policies—culture changes that have positive effects outside the workplace:

  • Flexible hours make it easier for parents to manage the demands of the household.
  • More time off provides employees with the space they need to re-centre and refocus.
  • Increased access to training and credential-building courses helps elevate performance.
  • One-on-one quarterly reviews deliver mentorship and a sense of personal growth.
  • Access to sick days gives peace of mind and an assurance of protection.
  • Providing mental health resources can help destigmatize emotional distress in the workplace.
  • Benefits packages that include wellness services can supply 360-degree employee support.

Employees want to know:

  • How their workplace aligns with their personal values.
  • How a company is actively promoting BIPOC and LGBTQ+ workers.
  • How recruitment practices are changing to reach underrepresented talent.
  • How organizations will decide what partners and clients to work with.
  • How companies will ensure a similar commitment to values among all vendors.
  • How a business is conducting ethical operations with no attachment to bodies that proliferate hate or profit from prejudice.

We do know that offices and workplaces are evolving. We’re finally seeing the wide scale adoption of telecommuting practices originally promised with the internet’s unveiling. And just as employees are refocusing and redefining what’s important to them, so too must businesses refocus and redefine their company cultures for the future.


Article

Building brand loyalty with eco-design

When it feels like the world is barrelling toward disaster, some brands use design to show compassion and responsibility. Done right, an eco-aesthetic earns lasting trust.

When it feels like the world is barrelling toward disaster, some brands use design to show compassion and responsibility. Done right, an eco-aesthetic earns lasting trust.

Gradually, then suddenly

It started with the straw. Seemingly overnight, chain restaurants, bars, fast food joints and cafeterias collectively dropped the ubiquitous plastic straw used for so many decades before.

Corporate bans from the likes of Starbucks and American Airlines were joined by municipal bans. California became the first state to ban plastic straws entirely in 2019.

The tidal shift in regulations was mostly driven by consumers themselves. As a society we want to save sea turtles and other marine life. We reject plastic straws because they’re harmful. Now it’s on brands to design an effective, sustainable alternative.

Thousands of companies jumped at the chance to market a substitute to the plastic straw. Other materials include metal, plastic, bamboo, glass, paper, silicon—and a quick search for any of these materials will yield thousands of results. The alternative straw market is now a competitive space. The challenge? To stand out, these companies must show not only that their products are effective, but also that they are sustainable and the safest for the planet.


Challenge, then opportunity

In some ways, the alternative straw industry is comparable to the emerging face mask industry. Consumers want to purchase masks to participate in our collective well-being. Brands must offer a product that balances efficacy with design, utility with aesthetics. We want to trust what we buy.

Mask design doesn’t carry the same burden of sustainability that the plastic straw does, to be sure. But the similarity is the undercurrent of feeling like our purchasing choices aren’t just our own; they belong to the planet. Our decisions as consumers can save or sabotage the world.


Cost, then savings

Did you know that using an outlined logo instead of a filled logo can reduce ink by 35 percent or more, which can save millions of dollars per year?

Eco-friendly design doesn’t have to be a burden on the company. Some models, which ask consumers to send back their packaging for sterilization and re-use, save on the cost of production. In some cases, an innovative package is more sustainable and still catches the consumer’s eye. Think of Boxed Water, the brand that uses carton-style packaging for spring water. The company’s stark branding stands out—even though the clarity and purity of the water is hidden.

graphic displaying ink use across differing logos and how brand recognition generally does not diminish with less link
Source: MentalFloss

Humility, then trust

At Stiff, we often say that earning trust relies on the right balance of four qualities: conviction, empathy, intelligence and humility. These qualities emerge through writing and speaking, and certain rhetorical devices can increase or decrease the level of each. The key to persuasion? Let these characteristics emerge in perfect measure through subtle choices in language and delivery.

These character traits show in design, too. An unbranded paper shopping bag at your local grocer? Humility. A heavily branded re-usable canvas bag for sale at the till? Conviction. Design choices send messages to consumers about whether they can trust the company, and trust is the most important characteristic you can have to earn customer loyalty.


Here are four ways to show characteristics of influence through eco-friendly design:


Intelligence

  • Follow standards for recyclable material and label packaging as such. This is table stakes.
  • Go digital. Your mailing list and customer correspondence should be email-based as much as possible.
  • Reduce ink. Outlined versus filled logos can save millions of dollars per year.
  • Do your research. Ensure your practices are based on sound science.

Empathy

  • Keep your design accessible no matter what. Follow standards for readability and colour use. Even sustainable products are no good if they aren’t inclusive.
  • Share your company’s rationale for eco-friendly design. Maybe it’s a quick social media post or a longer web page. Explain how your company values drive your design.
  • Make participation simple. If you ask consumers to mail back packaging, include postage. Know that small costs can still be prohibitive for many people.

Conviction

  • Proud of an eco-friendly design initiative? Explain the benefits with a small (recyclable) insert or a page on your website.
  • Certain practices will come in and out of fashion. Hold fast to your strategy until research prompts a change. Otherwise, you risk coming across as insincere.
  • Consider adding testimonials to packaging, such as “What customers are saying.”

Humility

  • Keep the environmental or social objective top of mind, rather than brand optics.
  • Angling for media? Be careful not to come off as self-congratulatory.
  • Keep learning and be prepared to change when standards change (à la the drinking straw).
Article

Beauty and the Brief

Constraint is generally considered a negative word. Not for us. We believe constraint is what makes you thrive.

Constraint is generally considered a negative word. Not for us. We believe constraint is what makes you thrive.

We are liberated by constraints imposed by time, money and accessibility standards. These swiftly clarify the parameters of our work.

Designing in the absence of direction—without limitations—is to be rudderless. It is to lack purpose. And design without purpose? Well, it may be art, but it ain’t likely to solve the client’s problem. Rookie designers are often initially frustrated by the constraints of a client brief. They yearn for total creative freedom. But they learn quickly that the more stringent the brief, the more there is to problem solve, which leads to much better outcomes.

Freedom in a straightjacket

The challenge of visual design is to effectively convey information—to ensure a direct and uncluttered path between your messages and the people you need to reach. And that means being unobtrusive, too. The best designs succeed not by calling attention to themselves—not by traditional aesthetic alone—but by clearly positioning the client, product or service. To us, utility is the ultimate aesthetic. It connects our client with the greatest possible percentage of their target audience.


Just throw strikes

Sidenote

Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you likely know that the pitcher’s job isn’t to toss a ball just anywhere. These professionals are paid to throw their most creative pitches repeatedly through a vertical strike zone approximately half a square metre in size.

What constitutes beauty in this scenario is that the pitcher must respect and work within the constraint of the zone. That’s how they earn victories—and tens of millions of dollars each year. Content designers should be so lucky.


Is your brief answering the right questions?

In the commercial design work we undertake at Stiff, the client brief is the main source of constraint. Each brief answers a variety of questions.

We encourage our clients to include these:
  • What is the purpose of the design?
  • Who is the audience?
  • What are the diversity, inclusion and accessibility considerations?
  • What content will be used?
  • What design products will be in play?
  • What tone is required?
  • What style will best uphold the purpose?
  • What’s the budget?
  • What are the design platforms?
  • What’s the review/approval process?
  • What is the design’s intended shelf-life?
  • How much time do we have?
Is your design excluding potential customers?

Are you sure? Check out the “Just throw strikes” sidenote above. Did you notice that we do not refer to pitchers as males? If you didn’t, you now know just how simple (and transparent) inclusivity can be. We made a conscious content-design decision to be inclusive—to respect the fact that there are people of other gender identities who are also pitchers. Look at this another way: referring only to males would potentially exclude virtually half the audience we are trying to reach with this article. Where is the benefit in that?

Another aspect of constraint: accessibility

For brands targeting a broad consumer audience, design accessibility means being inclusive of the largest possible segment of the market. Some brands don’t realize the value of ensuring their print ads, social media posts and websites are accessible to people living with disabilities. According to Statistics Canada, 22 percent of Canadians identify as having a disability[1]—a number that is expected to increase in the coming decade.


[1] https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-654-x/89-654-x2018002-eng.htm


To ignore people who have disabilities is to carve as many as six million Canadians out of your audience. If that is not your intention, it’s time to think differently about accessibility.


The need for accessible design is everywhere

Next time you’re approaching a major old building—a courthouse, hotel or library, for example—note how front steps were once an architectural mainstay. The notion of climbing to your destination reinforced it as lofty and important.

Today, the entrances to virtually all buildings are either at ground level or at the end of ramps. Why? To ensure they are accessible to as many people as possible. And what is true in architecture is true in graphic design. Don’t expect your user to climb to you.

Good design serves us all

Consider the OXO Swivel potato peeler, part of the company’s Good Grips line. First introduced in 1990, the product was originally designed for people with arthritis who have difficulty gripping simple kitchen tools. Yet the peeler became a market favourite because it’s easy for everyone to use.[2]

It’s useful to remember that the abilities of any one of us can be impaired to varying degrees and durations. For example, the only difference between being hard of hearing, having an ear infection or being in a very loud environment is the intensity and duration of the impairment.

Does focusing too heavily on accessibility alienate some users or degrade brands? Not if it’s done well. In fact, it’s worth noting that people in traditionally marginalized groups often express great loyalty to brands that make a genuine effort to be as inclusive as possible.


[2]Of note, OXO initially included a product endorsement from the American Arthritis Foundation on the packaging. The endorsement was removed when the company learned it stigmatized those with arthritis and made those without the condition think they weren’t a target market.


Move like Jagger

Sidenote

The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger is an artist who has found inspiration in constraint. In one of his signature dance steps, Jagger keeps his elbows close to his sides and emphasizes the movement of his hands and shoulders. The move evolved in part out of necessity.

In the band’s earliest days, the Stones performed in small clubs where Jagger had little room for stage antics. He adapted. And what was utility became a memorable dance style (happily left to Mick).


The takeaway?

Think differently. Find inspiration in constraint. And remember that accessible design is not some misguided symptom of political correctness. It’s good business—and the right thing to do.

A look into five essential considerations for designing inclusive brands.

Check out our PDF on Designing for Accessibility which looks at five essential considerations for designing inclusive brands.

Article

The Genre Crossover

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” –– Walter Lippmann, writer and journalist

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” –– Walter Lippmann, writer and journalist

Genre is one of the most powerful marketing tools available for reaching niche audiences. Yet many people fail to realize that using genre to promote and sell products is not creative. It’s lazy.

Indolent marketers use genre to make assumptions about the success of a product, brand or content, and about the target audience. When marketers rely on genre, they sacrifice creativity; when brands rely on genre, they risk becoming cliché. They unknowingly alienate prospective audiences while pigeonholing existing ones.

Now more than ever, marketers need to pay attention to the genre-less audience of the digital era. The non-conforming. The consumers that refuse to fit in predefined boxes. Genre limits marketers from putting in the effort to keep creativity alive, to generate fresh ideas and to attract new audiences, especially the younger generation. Millennials and Gen Z not only forego genre categories in entertainment, they apply the same approach to other aspects of their lives.

Old-timey brands and marketers must adapt their products and strategies to appeal to a generation of genre-fluid consumers.


Genre limits marketers from putting in the effort to keep creativity alive, generate fresh ideas and attract new audiences.

Market to diverse audiences without relying on genre

Derived from the French word for “class” or “kind,” genre is a system of classification used to categorize works of art, literature, film, music and theatre. People generally rely on certain conventions and tropes to define various genres and sub-genres. In an age where digital reigns supreme, marketers and brands need to embrace unconventional, hard-to-categorize ideas. Companies like Netflix and Spotify are leading the pack already. Their success is partly because streaming services cater to the “mixed-format consumption habits” of audiences, according to Carrie Battan, a staff writer for The New Yorker.

She also explains that many digital platforms “do not consider any sort of formal taxonomies,” so they don’t bother with the genre gatekeeping that we experience with traditional media. This defocus from genre-based content and marketing is not only embraced by streaming services, but it is also evident in how artists like Taylor Swift reinvent themselves. Her transition from country singer to pop star is a perfect example of how blurring the lines of genre can help advance a person’s ambitions and dreams while earning them profit.


Harness the power of reinvention

In June 2006, Swift made her debut with “Tim McGraw,” a single from her eponymous album. In a matter of weeks, the country song went platinum and ranked in the Billboard top 10.

This release also marked the last time Swift released an album that strictly abides to one specific genre. Over the span of five albums, she switched her musical identity from that of the country girl next door to America’s pop sweetheart. Her reinvention did not come easy. In the Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, she points out that beyond changing her musical style, she also needed to shed the “good girl” narrative that she was known for. Breaking her silence on politically charged topics is one way she presented her new, authentic self to the world. Swift was warned by her label and loved ones that all these changes could jeopardize everything she worked so hard for. It was a gamble she was willing to take.

It paid off. Beyond album sales, Swift was able to pave the way for new artists who want to break away from specific genres and experiment with different sounds.

The power of reinvention and the blurring of genres isn’t limited to the entertainment industry. It’s a common trend in politics and culture. Malcolm X is a prime example of how the ability to recreate our own selves can result in a powerful legacy. He wore many hats in his short lifetime––an entertainer, a petty criminal, an intellectual, a minister, a human rights activist––each identity requiring him to transform himself by any means necessary.

During his Detroit Red phase, he played drums at jazz bars under the stage name Jack Carlton. However, to get his political and religious views across, he had to reassess his musician identity. During his incarceration in the 1950s, he spent time working on his transformation. Malcolm’s willingness to pivot his identity is one of the key factors in his designation as one of the most influential figures in history. As Manning Marble writes in his book, The Reinvention of Malcolm X, “Malcolm’s strength was his ability to reinvent himself.”

As a Black man, his message and experiences with poverty and racial injustices resonated with Black people in the U.S. and in Africa. As a Nation of Islam leader, his views on religion connected him with Muslims across the world. Up until his assassination in 1965, Malcolm, later known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, remained a non-conformist who never stopped challenging the status quo.

Swift and Malcolm X are two strikingly different people from different worlds. Yet they share some commonalities. Both of them made deliberate moves to throw off the shackles of genre to become prominent figures in world culture. Even in the face of adversity, they both dared to reinvent themselves by taking risks. In doing so, they were able to reach levels of creativity, passion and authenticity that made them transcend social, cultural and artistic boundaries, further catapulting them to prominence. While there is no special formula for reinvention, creators, brands and marketers can draw inspiration from the way these famous figures challenged the different systems of classification.


Marketers can step out of the confines of genre and the siloed thinking that comes with it if they’re willing to continually adapt, improve and challenge themselves.

Continually adapt, improve and challenge yourself

Breaking from the confines of genre doesn’t necessarily mean one must fully disregard tradition. It just means that one should be willing to break the rules in order to progress, create something novel and be more inclusive.

The topic of ditching genre is more important than ever today. As the world embraces the Black Lives Matter movement, many companies and marketers are shifting away from the archaic structures that have both intentionally and unintentionally sidelined Black creators. Republic Records is an example. The label recently announced it will remove “Urban” from its music categories, because the company no longer wanted to “adhere to the outdated structures of the past.”

Republic Records executives believe that changing the verbiage will open up more opportunities for artists, especially Black musicians, to experiment with different types of sounds like their white counterparts. This change is also expected to give more marketers, promoters and radio stations the freedom to share works by Black artists outside of the R&B and hip-hop realm.

In marketing and communications, genre fluidity can be applied to how we approach strategy, how we design our teams, and how we adopt and exercise tone and style to our writing.

1. Mix up the skills and experiences of teams to break down silos. Encourage collaboration among people with different personalities to generate a blend of approaches and ideas that lead to success. Creating teams of T-shaped people is one solution.

2. Promote a culture of experimentation and challenging tradition. Make it very clear to employees and clients that your teams aren’t afraid to push the limits.

3. Foster an environment of diversity and inclusion. Give women, people of colour, neurodivergent people and people with disabilities a seat at the table and encourage them to contribute ideas. Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be limited to just HR practices and policies; it should be extended to the day-to-day culture of the workplace.

When we reduce our thinking to fit within the boundaries of genre, we’re supressing our ability to generate original ideas and solutions. After all, conformity kills creativity. As marketers, we need to create spaces where we can push the limits of our creativity, even if it’s risky business.

It worked for Swift and Malcolm X. It’s working for Netflix, Spotify and Republic Records. It can work for you, too.

Article

English’s je ne sais quoi

How a cobbled-together mishmash became the world’s mother tongue.

How a cobbled-together mishmash became the world’s mother tongue.

At one time or another, we have all struggled to find the right word. English users may struggle more than most.

When someone wants to write in English about how something can be both ‘just’—in the sense of justice—and ‘right’—in that is it correct—they need to do the work to show that they mean both of these things, not simply one or the other. To do that well, writers must be concise, clear and leave no room for confusion. It is a balancing act that can be both delicate and maddening.

The obvious choice is to turn to diction to find the precise words to express this idea. Or one could focus less on word choice and more on syntax—the order in which words are used—or on logic or rhetoric, to display truth or to persuade. We call these tools, and two others, the Machinery of Language—read more here.

Writers using Italian, however, have the word ‘giusto’ in their arsenal—a word that means both ‘just’ and ‘right.’ They can do in six letters what an English user will struggle to do in six words.

That’s just one example of dozens, if not hundreds, of instances where a language other than English has a concise—even beautiful—way to say something complicated in as little as a single word.

So why has a language that lacks this level of detail or nuance become the de facto language for worldwide affairs?

The rise of the English (Language) empire

Over the past century or two—give or take a couple of colonial expansions—English has emerged as the primary language of commerce and diplomacy around the globe. This development comes despite English’s comparative paucity of true native speakers and cultures. It is the native language of just under five percent of the Earth’s total population, yet it is the default language of the United Nations, and of business and entertainment the world over.

It is almost ironic. English has become the lingua franca for the entire planet, and yet the term lingua franca itself is Italian.

In 2010, the United Nations established a series of celebratory ‘days’ for each of its six official languages—one each for Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, Spanish and English. English’s day is on April 23, the day of the birth and the death of arguably the language’s most famous and important figure: William Shakespeare.

As a company that prides itself on expert use of language—and of English primarily—Stiff notes a day like this with reverence. But we also note it with an eye to explore just how and why English’s dominance has come to pass.


The concept of a lingua franca has existed since the Middle Ages. Historically, lingua franca applied to pidgin languages, or closely-related languages that served as ways to bridge linguistic gaps between neighbouring cities or countries.

Finding common linguistic ground

They were often conglomerations of similar or shared words—such as between French and Italian used when Crusaders were traipsing through the Mediterranean and needed to communicate with locals for supplies. Since French and Italian are both Romance languages, they shared enough commonalities to mix and create an early lingua franca that was widely understood by most people in the area at that time.

Imperialism and colonialism are major influences on the development of a lingua franca. The process for English can be said to have started with the British Empire, on which the sun “never set.” America’s expansion in the 1900s—along with rapid, fundamental changes to human communication through technology and globalization—cemented English’s place as the global language.

This expansion mutated and supercharged the idea of a lingua franca. It was no longer just a shared tongue between neighbour states. English became the way a computer scientist from Shanghai and a business executive from Rio De Janeiro could speak to one another at a conference in Frankfurt. But imperialism can only account for so much of a language’s reach. Many languages are highly unique and require a complete reframing of one’s understanding of grammar or syntax to learn. What about English makes it malleable enough that speakers of Arabic and Portuguese and Mandarin can adopt it with (relative) ease?


Speaking the language

English is a relatively young language and a tremendously flexible one. It’s also an incredible thief.

According to research, between only 20 percent and 33 percent of modern English words derive from Germanic sources—the original root of Old English and Middle English. The rest are attributed to Latin and French—approximately 30 percent apiece—plus Greek, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Indian languages, German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, and more. Another factor is that on a technical level, English is often more simplistic than other languages. For instance, English has largely eliminated grammatical case and gender. It is a language based on analytic constructions—such as word order, and simple subject-verb-object structures—rather than on conjugations or inflections. English also has a streamlined pronoun system compared to others.

For inexperienced speakers, English can even accommodate dropping fundamental elements such as articles and prepositions and still maintain legibility. In other languages, improper conjugation or botched syntax can alter or destroy meaning. In English, a sentence can sound crudely constructed or “wrong,” but a speaker can still be understood. We call English unruly—figuratively and literally. It eschews the kind of rules that constrain flexibility and growth, such as those that govern French. That unruliness likely helps adoption by foreign speakers.

Sharpening your linguistic sword

Just because English can, for some, be simpler to learn, does not mean it is easier to master. We’ve already demonstrated how, despite its potential to break down communication barriers, it sometimes lacks the words to simply and elegantly speak to certain ideas.

This is where the Machinery of Language comes in. Six foundational ideas—diction, grammar, syntax, logic, punctuation and rhetoric—that can be variously applied to analyze, refine or repair every sentence, every idea, that one wishes to communicate.

If an English writer struggles to describe their idea, and is becoming so frustrated that they can’t function or finish what they are doing—fisselig, in German, by the way—they could step back and see which part of the Machinery of Language could help.

Perhaps their logic is unclear. Maybe their rhetoric isn’t strong enough to convince their audience. Applying the Machinery—and improving one’s skill with those tools—is essential in getting the most out of our mischievous mother tongue.

By fine-tuning your skills with the Machinery of Language, you can wield English with the precision and flair of a seasoned expert. You can shine with a nonchalance that hides the degree of difficulty behind your words. You can exude that sort of effortless ease, that … sprezzatura.

Damnit.

Article

Mastering Storytelling

If there’s a prize for eye-rolling moniker du jour in the communications world, brand storyteller should win hands down.

If there’s a prize for eye-rolling moniker du jour in the communications world, brand storyteller should win hands down.

My beef is not that brand storytellers can’t tell stories—I’m sure many of them are very good at what they do.

What concerns me is whether or not brand narratives can achieve the qualities audiences expect from stories, which are, at their most impactful, inherently personal and human.

To me, the idea of story and storytelling is sacred.

I value the intimacy of story and the connection they secure between parent and child, for example. But stories are sacred also because they are a constant—one of our species’ foundational communications tools. In truly civilized cultures, storytellers are revered as the ultimate archivists and keepers of tradition. A heavy burden, for sure.

Imagine a world without stories.

We’d have no beginning, middle and end. No fiction or fable. No history. No narratives whatsoever. Then what is the point of all this? Suddenly the very arc of our species is flattened. See? As soon as you try to abolish story, you realize how rooted it is in our culture.

You may be familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell. He was an ethnographer, philosopher and teacher. Two of his books in particular have been extremely influential in the realm of storytelling: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and The Power of Myth. Famously, Campbell characterized myth as part of what Jung referred to as our collective unconscious. Campbell maintained that the mythic concepts of hero and villain and quest and redemption have been central to various, disparate world cultures since homo erectus decided to do something with his hands besides walk on them.

Hollywood took notice.

In the 1970s, motion picture director George Lucas tapped Campbell’s thinking to craft the mythological foundation for the Star Wars franchise. A bell went off in the heads of studio execs and story editors. Mythology suddenly made sense. What better way to connect with audiences than to tell them the stories they already knew—to use the structures and characterizations that have fired in their synapses since birth.


Brand stories are rarely stories in the book sense.

So what does any of this have to do with brands?

Rather, they unfold as integrated snippets in websites, social media posts, annual reports, advertising, speeches, videos and other collateral. The risk of this integrated approach is that the thread of the story is lost. As remedy, the brand storyteller turns to the not unintentionally named brand bible, although it is unlikely to contain an actual detailed narrative.

Oh, there’ll often be a paragraph or two—the mandatory elevator pitch (and isn’t that romantic)—but nothing truly substantive. In our shop, we find it increasingly helpful to present a more detailed and compelling backstory on which the short snippets of a brand are based. We turned to myth for guidance. Here’s why, and how.


Most brand stories are pretty mundane.

Let’s face it, they’re clinical. They exist solely to prop up a brand rather than breathe life into it.

Most brand stories lack the conflict and drama we associate with our favourite books and movies. This is unfortunate, as many of the brand narratives we encounter behind the scenes are genuinely intriguing. So what can myth teach us to help ensure a brand story is engaging and memorable? Structure is one thing.

Story structure is threaded through our DNA.

Stories have been built virtually the same way for thousands of years. Our lives are stories. We are born, we struggle to survive, we face conflict and emerge battered (older) but victorious, we die and experience heaven’s glory. This existential link is what makes story such a powerful tool. This is why audiences’ expectations must be met. They know story. They couldn’t tell you what the specific building blocks are, but they will let you know when those blocks are missing.

Today’s audiences are infinitely more sophisticated than they were fifty years ago. They are highly literate in the traditional word sense and the contemporary visual sense. They are comfortable with the shortforms of the digital world and eager to know only who the main character is and what the story is about. For them, structure has been reduced to one word.

Stories are about transformation.

A story is a journey—a journey of change. In every good story, the central characters change by the end, for better or worse, undergoing refinement, growth, improvement. Darth Vader finds salvation in his son. Ebenezer Scrooge sees the light. Severus Snape is redeemed.

Transformation is a fundamental—almost primal—story element. From sea creature to land creature, nomad to city-dweller, child to adult, birth to death. The brand at the beginning of its story must be different than the brand at the end. What trials has it endured? How has it turned adversity to advantage? What benefit can it give you that it couldn’t before? If we don’t get a picture of how a brand was different in the beginning, the audience cannot appreciate the value of its transformation.


In her book, Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway notes that logic and reasoning are the main tools used in commercial writing (such as advertising) to persuade us to feel one way rather than another. “Fiction,” she writes, “tries to reproduce the emotional impact of experience…”

As hard as it is, be real.

This is the trend we see in branding—to draw on this aspect of fiction to, as Burroway puts it, “reproduce the emotional impact of experience.” This is where we get into the tricky realm of humanizing brands, imbuing them with, for example, sensitivity and humour. When it works, it’s gold. After all, the more a brand is portrayed

successfully as having human qualities, the more resonance it will have with target audiences. Yet this anthropomorphization is what makes contemporary brand communication so complex and sophisticated—and brand storytelling so difficult. No wonder brand stories often fall flat.


Breathing life into a brand means it has to be authentic.

Here’s another stumbling block. Authenticity. It’s become the Holy Grail of brand identity. The goal is to be genuine. Hmm. Genuine people are comfortable being themselves. Most brands are not.

Clients don’t necessarily expect their brands to be perfect, but most are unwilling to accept enough of the weight of imperfection to be truly authentic. They are understandably afraid of revealing enough about themselves and their troubles to ensure their stories live up to their potential impact. For all the bluster about wanting and needing to be humanized—to be seen as thinking, feeling, acting entities—most brands simply can’t permit themselves the vulnerability that it takes to be genuine. They collapse under the weight of what it means to be human.

Is it really necessary to anthropomorphize a brand? Necessary? No. Powerful? Yes. After all, most brands represent people—those who own, operate, work for or depend on the brand. The brands with the most audience impact are the ones that are willing to show themselves, warts and all. These are the brands that let us in. The brands that are as fallible as their people—prone to mistakes but quick to apologize and make amends, proud yet able to laugh at themselves, somewhat self-centred but smart enough to cheer for others.

The final mythology takeaway relates to the cast of a brand story.

For a brand story to truly resonate as authentic with audiences, it must present the mythic cast we humans recognize and trust. Traditionally, the brand was the hero—the client, their products and services.[1] This notion of brand heroism is nothing new. For years, marketers have presented hero brands on quests to achieve business objectives: increase sales and shareholder value, boost recruitment, solve world peace, etc. At Stiff, we consider the hero to have completed its quest when it has found within itself and finally upholds the four key qualities of character: intelligence, conviction, empathy and humility.

What is often most intriguing for audiences is witnessing the brand’s struggle to develop and balance those seminal character traits. This is the struggle each of us lives, and the true evidence of humanity in a brand. The struggle for humans is to know when it is appropriate to show conviction or be intelligent, empathetic or humble. Similarly, brands endeavour daily to express their character in response to the world they inhabit. Everyone knows it’s not easy. The effort, and even the failure, gives brands human dimensions.


[1] I believe that the trend is to cast customers as the new heroes, the people who rely on brands for help on the journey to face demons, overcome obstacles, reap the rewards and return home successfully. Today’s brand is often the mentor—the Merlins, Obi-Wan Kenobis and Dumbledores who help guide heroes through thick and thin.


Where does the villain lurk?

Branding agencies place great emphasis on the ability to identify the problems that face brands. Perhaps a brand has outgrown itself. Perhaps it has fallen behind the times. Perhaps it has lost its competitive spark or technological edge. Maybe a competitor is blazing a trail ahead of the client’s brand. In myth, these are the shadows to be overcome. In the stories of our childhood, the shadow (or villain) often takes physical form—many still do, and at Stiff we argue it is helpful in the context of brand stories to imagine the shadow as something more than abstract. Agencies do this already when creating audience personas. It’s no great stretch to put a face to the challenge, if only to give you something to throw darts at.

The concept of the ally has crept on its own into Western culture recently. We call on them to get in the face of bullies and stand up for marginalized groups. In the branding world, we have ambassadors—groups and individuals who believe in a brand and promote it: client employees, partners, stakeholders and end customers. Brands cannot achieve their quests without the support of these cast members. As allies, this brand diplomatic core must come through as more than cheerleaders. They must be willing to defend a brand as well, maybe even make sacrifices for it.


Never to lose your sense of humour.

My personal brand-story cast favourites are the tricksters—Puck in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; Rafiki, the mandrill shaman in Lion King; and the inimitable Yoda from Star Wars.

Think of them as the court jesters, yet their roles go way beyond comic effect. They’re disruptive in a positive way, to keep the hero from getting too full of itself. And isn’t that always a danger with brands.

Who plays the trickster in a brand story? Most often, it falls to the conscience of the brand, which is self-policing to a certain extent. But employees, customers and fans are more than just extras in a brand story. They too have a role in steering the brand to its ultimate quest, a responsibility to speak up when the brand misspeaks, point the way when it missteps. In mythic tales and brand stories alike, the tricksters remind us of the ultimate impermanence of all things.

There’s that change we’ve been talking about.

I suppose my discomfort with branding’s appropriation of story has something to do with my own duplicity. I worry about story integrity and yet I exploit it my own company’s brand work. I’m not totally comfortable with corporatization but depend on it. It could be that I fear brand stories are bound to become entangled in the myths of our times. It may be hard to argue they have not succeeded already.

Article

Talking Human

Keeping up with search algorithms is impossible, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. Any company with a website plays the algorithm game, whether they know it or not. And some play it better than others. Others have a lot at stake, hiring organizations whose sole purpose is to help improve Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Keeping up with search algorithms is impossible, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. Any company with a website plays the algorithm game, whether they know it or not. And some play it better than others. Others have a lot at stake, hiring organizations whose sole purpose is to help improve Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Here’s what we think:

Don’t play the algorithm game to the detriment of your end user.

If taken in isolation, no single SEO best practice (used ethically or not) will get you the rankings, traffic or response you desire. But we do believe there’s a foundational element that will not fail you or your target audience. It’s called intelligent content.

But first, some context

In brief, SEO is the collective efforts made by a company to have its website appear in the top results of search engine rankings. There are multiple approaches to SEO. On-site (or on-page) focuses on the content of the web page. Off-site builds credibility for your website through other sites and people. Think of it as someone with authority citing your page.

Some best practices of on-site SEO include thoughtful and well-written copy, the use of relevant keywords, and good user experience. Google says that its systems are designed to “determine which pages demonstrate expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness on a given topic.” The great hope is that the combination of these practices—as well as others not mentioned, including some technical ones—will land a company’s website in the coveted top five results (the spots that aren’t paid for).

That sounds simple enough. But while we can control the quality of our own website, we can’t do anything about the algorithms. Or can we?


In late 2019, Google updated its algorithm with Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.

Introducing BERT

This update, called BERT, is designed to help Google better understand the context and intent behind conversational queries. Think “where is the best food in the city” versus “local + restaurants + high rated.”

BERT uses Natural Language Processing (NLP), a combination of machine learning (a subset of artificial intelligence) and linguistics to understand intent. Google search and translate aren’t the only systems that use NLP. So do Grammarly, Microsoft Word, Alexa and Siri.

Google calls BERT a “core update.” Such updates make “significant, broad changes to our search algorithms and systems.” Google says that BERT will affect 10 percent of search queries, which may not sound substantial until you consider that 10 percent is approximately 350 million searches a day. Even after introducing BERT, Google’s advice remains the same as it’s always been—offer “the best content you can. That’s what our algorithms seek to reward.”


HAL 9000 says…

The best content is intelligent content. Talk human. Stop trying to outthink the machines. Algorithms may be aiding a user’s search, but that user is still a human looking for a human response.

We at Stiff have been defining and refining what intelligent content is for over 30 years. And while the response depends on the client, audience and end product, a few fundamentals never change:

Intelligent content responds to a need. We spend a lot of time getting to know our clients and what they offer. Equally as important, we get to know our clients’ audiences and what they need. A lot of time and research goes into exploring the gap, if there is one, between client and customer expectations. The content we produce in collaboration with our clients bridges the gap and communicates value.

Intelligent content keeps things simple. Don’t overcomplicate the matter. If you want a user to stick around, speak to them in terms they’ll understand. Being the smartest person in the room isn’t a game of who can speak the most jargon, use the biggest words or craft the longest sentences. The smartest person in the room prioritizes the audience.

And remember, you don’t have to explain everything all at once. Your webpages shouldn’t be white papers, research reports or a bucket list of everything you wished your audience knew about you. They should be targeted, tantalizing and provide enough relevant information to keep your user clicking.

Intelligent content is elegant. There is a difference between writing intelligibly and writing elegantly. Elegant writing is free of errors, employs tools of persuasion and incorporates the good habits of writers. It’s invisible to readers who instead only notice the messages, intentions and convictions being conveyed.


A wordsmith wields the conventions of the English language—including persuasion—like a master. To make things simple, we’ve organized these conventions into what we call the Machinery of Language.  


Intelligent writing is for everyone

Here’s an exercise from the Machinery of Language we call concision. It will get you thinking about one of the principles of intelligent content: keeping things simple.

After writing down everything relevant that you believe your audience needs to know, put your words through the redundant, obvious and immaterial filters.

1. Delete the redundant. Get rid of repeated ideas, which can be facts needlessly explored from different angles, restated for emphasis or accidentally duplicated.

2. Delete the obvious. If facts are common knowledge, and if arguments can be easily deduced by the reader, remove them.

3. Delete the immaterial. Even relevant research can be immaterial. Spot tangents in your ideas and unneeded padding in your individual sentences.


It may not be your job to write SEO-driven website copy, but no matter who you are or what you’re writing, you will benefit from the principles of intelligent content.  

Article

The Podcast Renaissance

The fledgling medium slowly gained audiences in the mid- and late-aughts, then skyrocketed in 2014 with the release of Serial. Anyone who was anyone had a podcast. Advertisers, like audiences, took notice.

The fledgling medium slowly gained audiences in the mid- and late-aughts, then skyrocketed in 2014 with the release of Serial. Anyone who was anyone had a podcast. Advertisers, like audiences, took notice.

Humble beginnings are just beginnings

Podcasting, a portmanteau of iPod and broadcast, was hardly a medium of instant success back when it debuted in 2004.

A Google search of the term would return just 2,750 hits by the end of podcasting’s first year. Audio files distributed through RSS feeds was a promising concept, but these were early days. Smart phones were not yet ubiquitous. Content creators—comedians and sports fans among them—produced highly niche material. No one had even imagined turning a profit. Even podcast pioneers David Winer and Adam Curry could hardly have foreseen the gold rush that was to come. 

Apple, just as it has before and since, changed everything.   


Distribution + user experience = profit


In 2005, Apple released an update to iTunes that offered over 1,000 podcasts free of charge. It was a visionary moment for Steve Jobs (again).

That December, “podcast” became Word of the Year in the New Oxford American Dictionary. Now a Google search of the term would return 100,000,000 hits.

Still, by 2006, only 22 percent of Americans had ever heard of a podcast—and only half that many had actually listened to one.

Apple continued its strategy to lead distribution. In 2012, the company released the podcast app for iPhones. Most critically, the app allowed users to “subscribe” to a podcast, meaning the content automatically downloaded to their devices. The algorithm would also recommend similar content based on a user’s interests. The app’s “trending” section, meanwhile, was a perfect feature to hook new listeners that were unfamiliar with the medium.

The user experience was impeccable, and the reach was undeniable. Podcasts were gaining popularity with listeners. Next up: advertisers.


First come audiences, then come advertisers


The flashpoint for podcasts came in 2014 when This American Life producers releasedSerial. The true crime mystery swiftly became the most downloaded podcast of all time—a record it still holds today. Podcasts moved from esoteric niche content to fodder for the office water cooler. And no one benefitted more than MailChimp.

MailChimp, the email marketing platform, took a risk sponsoring Serial in its first season. Podcast advertising was virtually unheard of, and the show was new and unproven with audiences. The gamble paid off, though. Nearly 70 million listeners tuned in to Serial, hearing between segments the now-infamous “MailKimp” line. The ad became such a viral sensation that it even inspired a skit on Saturday Night Live.


Podcast advertising became one of the most bankable markets. It wasn’t just because of reach; podcast listeners were also a highly desirable demographic. They tend to be well educated with a higher-than-average household income.

graph of monthly podcast consumer income data showing an equal distribution across salary range
graph of monthly podcast consumer by education with nearly equal data distrubtion will less for high school users
graph of monthly podcast consumers by age showing very high use by those age 18 to 54 and minimal for those outside that range

The specificity of podcast subject matter also meant that advertisers could use a highly targeted approach. SimpliSafe, a home protection system, advertises on the popular true crime podcast Casefile. The podcast Gravy, which discusses culinary traditions in the American south, is sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance. When podcasts took off, options for advertisers were almost innumerable.

And when the medium had proven its mettle, brands rushed to court the producers.  

Oversaturation bursts the bubble

By 2018, ad revenue from podcasts spiked to $479 million in US markets. The number of active podcasts on iTunes was 550,000. For every advertiser, there was a podcast. And for every podcast, content creators hoped, there would be an advertiser.

There wasn’t.

In late 2018, Audible laid off its entire podcast division. Buzzfeed followed suit, shuttering its in-house podcast unit. Panoply, a podcast network under the Slate brand, moved away from content creation to focus solely on hosting.

The issue, experts say, was that there were simply too many podcasts out there. Audiences were overwhelmed with choice, and advertisers couldn’t rely on the metrics. Number of downloads isn’t synonymous with number of listens. Add to those truths that it’s also difficult to produce a high-quality podcast, and the downturn became an inevitability.


Is the golden age of podcasting over?

Maybe not. While it’s true that audience expectations are higher and competition for sponsors is fiercer, one fundamental part of podcasting remains unchanged: we yearn for good storytelling. It’s true, in fact, for nearly all communications—and why storytelling has become something of a buzzword in content marketing.

When done well, though, it works. Critical to Serial’s success was its flawless, gripping story. A single narrator, week after week, unravels a mystery revolving around a mesmerizing cast of characters. It’s a tried and true structure across nearly every medium we consume. It’s not that we want podcasts because they’re podcasts; we want podcasts because podcasts—the good ones, at least—tell stories.


Can you make podcasts work for your brand?

The intimacy of the audible experience is part of what makes podcasts so powerful. When listeners are riveted, they don’t skip a word—including mid-show ads.

That’s why the advertisements can be so memorable. Smart companies can find popular podcasts that share their target audiences, and then offer partnerships on advertising such as promo codes for listeners. The only risk is relying on the podcast’s continued strong performance.

Producing content as a corporation, on the other hand, is trickier. Producing a podcast just for the sake of it is likely to be a losing endeavour. Research, production, editing, distribution and promotion cost time and money, and a saturated podcast market means building a loyal audience can be a glacial process.

If your company is sure it’s the right choice, just remember there’s no formula for how to monetize a podcast. Stay on brand, know your audience, expand your reach and monitor your performance. Those are table stakes.

But to court advertisers, not to mention audiences? Tell good stories.

Podcasts we love

Under the Influence

The History of English podcast

On Brand

Marketing Over Coffee

Article

Brands That Love

Love is one of the most powerful emotions in business because of its ability to compel action. Smart companies use this to their advantage. Whether they show love by giving back, fulfilling customer needs or saying sorry when something goes wrong, the best brands know that showing love is good for business.

Love is one of the most powerful emotions in business because of its ability to compel action. Smart companies use this to their advantage. Whether they show love by giving back, fulfilling customer needs or saying sorry when something goes wrong, the best brands know that showing love is good for business.


Words are important.

They express our thoughts and feelings. In communications and marketing, we spend a lot of time using words. (Obviously.)

Think about it: names, slogans, catch-phrases and jingles are all just words—perfectly curated and strung together to make a message memorable. While many brands spend copious amounts of time and money on the words they say to their audiences, it’s important to remember what people are saying back. And there’s one word in particular that stands out above the rest. One word that every brand wants to hear:

Love.

Yes, every brand wants to hear that they are loved by consumers. But beyond being loved, showing love is what sells a brand. We’ve seen many companies fail to keep their customers because they’ve tried too much to be a corporation. They want people to buy from them for life, to be loyal and stick with them always. But what’s the message they’re sending out? Buy, buy, buy. It’s a one-sided relationship. Successful brands do more. They can’t just show up. If they want customers to fall in love with them, they have to try. They have to be a loving brand. Here’s how:


Be caring.

There’s a reason why people love IKEA despite its reputation for lacklustre instruction manuals and argument-inducing stores. The Swedish furniture company shows it cares by doing its research. Before entering in a new market or country, IKEA representatives conduct home visits to talk to potential customers about their wants, needs, ways of life and preferred shopping methods. This process explains why you’ll find deeper drawers in their furniture in America than Italy, and why untreated pine wood is often used in India to protect items from the humidity. Making sure its products reflect customer needs shows that IKEA not only values feedback, but also genuinely cares about making their customers’ lives easier.


Be happy.

The world isn’t lacking for bad news, bad moods or bad vibes. Let your brand stand out: be happy. From the start, Coca-Cola positioned itself as a pathway to happiness. Ice-cold Sunshine. The Pause That Refreshes. Things Go Better with Coke. Open Happiness. These are just some of the slogans the soda company has used over the years. Choosing to promote a feeling instead of a product is a subtle yet effective strategy that many overlook. Coke makes consumers believe that the beverage brand has their best interest at heart because it encourages—and associates its product with—happiness. And that builds trust. The strategy has proven successful. A California-based think tank conducted a survey to examine brand relationships among consumers. Coca-Cola did not receive a single negative remark. Everybody loved it.


Be generous.

More than generations past, millennials (born 1981 – 1996) and Gen Z (born 1995 – 2012) are putting pressure on their favourite brands to care about something more than turning a profit. Recent studies show that nine in ten millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause. And 40 percent of Gen Z consumers said they have boycotted a brand that behaved in a way that didn’t align with their values.

Toms has been in business for 13 years and, during that time, has been at the forefront of the philanthropic consumerism movement that is sweeping across North America. The company is famous for its One-for-One business model. For every shoe purchased, Toms donated a pair to someone in need. Since 2006, it has given away more than 95 million pairs of shoes. Now, in a recent shift, Toms is promising to dedicate at least one-third of its net-profit to a giving fund. Toms’ mission of supporting others and its willingness to give to the less fortunate is largely the reason it has remained so popular over the years.


Be genuine.

No one likes a catfish (someone who seems one way online and is completely different in person.) Just ask Away. The millennial luggage company lured in new customers with chic designs, a direct-to-consumer business model and reasonable prices. And in popular fashion, its website makes promises of an affirming and healthy company culture with positive local and national impact. It describes itself as “a great business” that was built to have a positive impact “from the way [it] designs products to the way [it] connects communities.”

But an exposé published by multi-media news website The Verge revealed a toxic company culture perpetuated by founder and CEO Steph Korey. Away sold dreams of a luxury lifestyle but the reality was far from realized in its offices. Away’s image wasn’t genuine, and the company faced huge backlash on social media. In response, Korey stepped down as CEO of her company.


Be loyal.

Brand loyalty is a two-way street. To gain the loyalty of your customers, you must first be loyal to them. Prove to your customers that they are important to you. Show them your brand is evolving every day because they are a part of it. Take Apple for example. Since its inception, the tech company has had a cult-like following of devoted customers. A notoriously sophisticated design may be part of its success, but design is nothing without utility. Apple builds machines that satisfy people’s needs.

The tech company constantly seeks feedback and engages in conversations with customers about new products. People want easy integration with other devices, technology support, speed and security. Apple has become intentional about implementing these features in their products and stores. And since Apple is loyal to its customers needs, customers are loyal in return. They trust that whatever Apple releases will improve their lives in some way, shape or form—whether it’s the way they collaborate, communicate or consume new information. That’s why consumers will continue to line up to buy the latest and greatest product as soon as it hits the market.


Be apologetic.

As your company grows and changes, things will go wrong, it’s bound to happen. While best to avoid mistakes in the first place, it’s equally—arguably more—important to respond properly when things do go wrong.

There are many examples of companies that have failed in the execution of an apology. It’s something of an epidemic in the industry (Pepsi, Facebook, United Airlines). But KFC is one that did it right. Customers were upset enough to call the police when more than half of the restaurant’s British locations ran out of chicken due to delivery issues. KFC’s response? Take out a full-page ad in two major British newspapers in which the brand rearranged its famous three letters to spell FCK. The anagram was accompanied by a short, heart-felt explanation and apology. The customer’s reaction? Overwhelmingly positive. Some were even impressed.


Let love out.

Good brands conduct good business. But smart brands know it takes more than that to be successful. Love has proven itself a powerful driver of action, time and again. Learn how to leverage it to help last the long haul. And if your brand isn’t feeling loved yet, do an internal check. Don’t overlook the importance of doing the small things well. They can make all the difference in becoming the next big brand that everyone loves.

All business is human

On the other side of every communication is a human being. A person with a life, family, friends, fears and aspirations.

So why do brands and organizations still flood their channels with corporate speak, complex messaging, acronyms, legalese, jargon and platitudes? Why do the terms B2B and B2C still exist? Do I stop being a consumer of clear information because I work at a technology company? It’s got to stop. We are losing our audiences.

Plain is powerful

Governments and businesses put a lot of effort into understanding their audiences. That research tells communicators how they need to speak to make meaningful connections with the people they want to influence. Many organizations are adopting plain language rules. The Government of Canada, for example, calls for plain language to be used in all internal and external communications. It’s policy.

Unfortunately, plain language lost out in the name department. Plain is intended to mean clear, simple and authentic—not boring and condescending.

Plain language is not easy to achieve. Writing is hard enough. Most organizations struggle to meet baseline measures of clarity and simplicity. And we’re not talking only about marketing and communications teams. Everyone in an organization writes, and everyone should be expected to do it clearly and respectfully.

How deep does it go?

If your organization swears by plain language but it isn’t changing your voice, it’s tokenism. And people hate that. They hate it with the same loathing reserved for, “We’re all in this together.” You want your audience to trust you? Talk to them in a way that shows you give a damn.

Let’s say you’ve put a plain language policy into place and done the training. How can you be sure it’s working? We recommend plain language audits as a way to assess communications and ensure you’re living up to your policy commitment.


One of the evaluation tools we use is a proprietary plain language filter. The aim? Weed out content that is redundant, obvious, and immaterial.

Three things to filter out
graphic expressing a filter which becomes more narrow and clear as it is applied

Prove it

Imagine you’re a business insurance provider, and the following is your copy. It’s not so bad, is it? It’s logical. Reads well. Doesn’t make any outrageous claims. But do you believe anyone but your agency would read it—or believe it?

Let’s apply the plain language filters and make some judgment calls. Purple indicates Redundant content. Green is Obvious. Magenta is Immaterial.


We know there’s nothing small about any business.

Businesspeople are a special breed. They have vision, the passion to embrace entrepreneurship or grow family enterprises, the tireless dedication to make a stand in their market. If you’re in business, we want to be your insurance partner.

Whether your business is big or small, well established or still only an idea, our tailored insurance solutions give you the flexibility and control to protect your business your way. Everything from professional and product liability coverage to business interruption and the latest cyber risk products. Tools to help you stay in business and focussed on landing your next great customer. Because business growth starts with business protection.

We’re Cyan Insurance. Experience, commitment and financial strength that have been trusted by Canadian business for more than a century.

Ready to serve you down the street and across the country.


Added benefit

Notice how the plain language filters also reveal verbosity and overstatement, which helps weed out other longwinded and bombastic content.

Your business is big to us.

Mom-and-pop shop or multinational, your business has distinct insurance needs. Let’s talk about meeting them. Because growing your business starts with protecting it.

Cyan. Down the street and across the country.


Honour your audience

Keep content short to demand less of people’s time. Yes, you may say, but I was told I had room for up to 150 words. Think this way: when you have many key messages, you actually have none. Why not say one or two things clearly and authentically? And be sure to show a little humility. It’s the special sauce these days.

Could we go further with this process? Absolutely. And many of us would re-write differently. Yet we would all end up with something far less likely to trigger the bullshit alarm.

Get filtering. Interested in how to apply the plain language filter to your content? Get in touch.

Compounding the uncertainty

No one knows for sure how remote operations will remain once we tread the path to economic (and social) recovery.

One thing is for certain though: any return to normal depends on our people.

How are you feeling?

Despite our individual circumstances and our capacity for resilience, mostly we’re tired, anxious and cynical. And this mood has a huge influence on “office” culture.

We’re trying to juggle work demands with crushing isolation. We’re attempting to give full attention to our careers while simultaneously adopting the role of teachers’ assistants.

At Stiff, we believe that all business is personal—that assessing the health of our colleagues is more important than ever; that employers need flexible work policies that are adaptable for all employees; and that one-size-fits-all methods of engagement are antiquated.


In short, a people-first approach
is the route to take.


Make the time to reach out

So how can organizations follow this path when people are scattered, preoccupied and struggling? How can employers show empathy and understanding, and acknowledgement?

Ask team members about their concerns, their struggles. Put aside the ego and ask for their opinions on improvements to processes and procedures and policies. Find out what support looks like to them and what they would classify as important job benefits. Learn about their thoughts on continued remote working and how that might affect their happiness in their roles in the long run.

And then address their trepidations through actionable planning.

Do not underestimate the importance of active listening. Staff looks to its leaders to set the tone, provide guidance and assuage qualms. In any physically dispersed company, managers need to connect more regularly with their teams. This means taking the time to actively listen and invest in conversations with team members on a one-on-one basis.


Be empathetic
and show vulnerability

Everyone needs to feel a sense of “we’re all in this together.” Get emotional. Share your own experiences. Pay closer attention to the feelings of your colleagues and help them channel their own emotions in constructive ways.

A company’s culture is the sum of its many parts—values, policies, priorities, benefits, perks, environment, accessibility, perspectives, operations and more. The time has come to move towards a values-centric company culture. People want to work for reputable organizations that reflect their politics, perspectives and positions.

Companies have to provide tangible policies that are going to improve an employee’s bottom line. The new perks are less about what a company can give and more about what a company can do to empower its workers—and the world.

When a company’s operations are digital-first, and its labour is scattered, then employees’ attitudes and behaviours and desires shift more towards the personal. Building the workplace culture of the future must be centred on building the talent of the future.


Flexibility, equity and inclusion

The company culture of the future will demand organizational commitment to an equitable and just society.

It’s not enough to write an inclusive mission statement—what must follow is an action plan with concrete objectives and clearly defined efforts.

In the past year, our team has heard more about the adoption of equitable employment and labour policies—culture changes that have positive effects outside the workplace:

  • Flexible hours make it easier for parents to manage the demands of the household.
  • More time off provides employees with the space they need to re-centre and refocus.
  • Increased access to training and credential-building courses helps elevate performance.
  • One-on-one quarterly reviews deliver mentorship and a sense of personal growth.
  • Access to sick days gives peace of mind and an assurance of protection.
  • Providing mental health resources can help destigmatize emotional distress in the workplace.
  • Benefits packages that include wellness services can supply 360-degree employee support.

Employees want to know:

  • How their workplace aligns with their personal values.
  • How a company is actively promoting BIPOC and LGBTQ+ workers.
  • How recruitment practices are changing to reach underrepresented talent.
  • How organizations will decide what partners and clients to work with.
  • How companies will ensure a similar commitment to values among all vendors.
  • How a business is conducting ethical operations with no attachment to bodies that proliferate hate or profit from prejudice.

We do know that offices and workplaces are evolving. We’re finally seeing the wide scale adoption of telecommuting practices originally promised with the internet’s unveiling. And just as employees are refocusing and redefining what’s important to them, so too must businesses refocus and redefine their company cultures for the future.


Gradually, then suddenly

It started with the straw. Seemingly overnight, chain restaurants, bars, fast food joints and cafeterias collectively dropped the ubiquitous plastic straw used for so many decades before.

Corporate bans from the likes of Starbucks and American Airlines were joined by municipal bans. California became the first state to ban plastic straws entirely in 2019.

The tidal shift in regulations was mostly driven by consumers themselves. As a society we want to save sea turtles and other marine life. We reject plastic straws because they’re harmful. Now it’s on brands to design an effective, sustainable alternative.

Thousands of companies jumped at the chance to market a substitute to the plastic straw. Other materials include metal, plastic, bamboo, glass, paper, silicon—and a quick search for any of these materials will yield thousands of results. The alternative straw market is now a competitive space. The challenge? To stand out, these companies must show not only that their products are effective, but also that they are sustainable and the safest for the planet.


Challenge, then opportunity

In some ways, the alternative straw industry is comparable to the emerging face mask industry. Consumers want to purchase masks to participate in our collective well-being. Brands must offer a product that balances efficacy with design, utility with aesthetics. We want to trust what we buy.

Mask design doesn’t carry the same burden of sustainability that the plastic straw does, to be sure. But the similarity is the undercurrent of feeling like our purchasing choices aren’t just our own; they belong to the planet. Our decisions as consumers can save or sabotage the world.


Cost, then savings

Did you know that using an outlined logo instead of a filled logo can reduce ink by 35 percent or more, which can save millions of dollars per year?

Eco-friendly design doesn’t have to be a burden on the company. Some models, which ask consumers to send back their packaging for sterilization and re-use, save on the cost of production. In some cases, an innovative package is more sustainable and still catches the consumer’s eye. Think of Boxed Water, the brand that uses carton-style packaging for spring water. The company’s stark branding stands out—even though the clarity and purity of the water is hidden.

graphic displaying ink use across differing logos and how brand recognition generally does not diminish with less link
Source: MentalFloss

Humility, then trust

At Stiff, we often say that earning trust relies on the right balance of four qualities: conviction, empathy, intelligence and humility. These qualities emerge through writing and speaking, and certain rhetorical devices can increase or decrease the level of each. The key to persuasion? Let these characteristics emerge in perfect measure through subtle choices in language and delivery.

These character traits show in design, too. An unbranded paper shopping bag at your local grocer? Humility. A heavily branded re-usable canvas bag for sale at the till? Conviction. Design choices send messages to consumers about whether they can trust the company, and trust is the most important characteristic you can have to earn customer loyalty.


Here are four ways to show characteristics of influence through eco-friendly design:


Intelligence

  • Follow standards for recyclable material and label packaging as such. This is table stakes.
  • Go digital. Your mailing list and customer correspondence should be email-based as much as possible.
  • Reduce ink. Outlined versus filled logos can save millions of dollars per year.
  • Do your research. Ensure your practices are based on sound science.

Empathy

  • Keep your design accessible no matter what. Follow standards for readability and colour use. Even sustainable products are no good if they aren’t inclusive.
  • Share your company’s rationale for eco-friendly design. Maybe it’s a quick social media post or a longer web page. Explain how your company values drive your design.
  • Make participation simple. If you ask consumers to mail back packaging, include postage. Know that small costs can still be prohibitive for many people.

Conviction

  • Proud of an eco-friendly design initiative? Explain the benefits with a small (recyclable) insert or a page on your website.
  • Certain practices will come in and out of fashion. Hold fast to your strategy until research prompts a change. Otherwise, you risk coming across as insincere.
  • Consider adding testimonials to packaging, such as “What customers are saying.”

Humility

  • Keep the environmental or social objective top of mind, rather than brand optics.
  • Angling for media? Be careful not to come off as self-congratulatory.
  • Keep learning and be prepared to change when standards change (à la the drinking straw).

We are liberated by constraints imposed by time, money and accessibility standards. These swiftly clarify the parameters of our work.

Designing in the absence of direction—without limitations—is to be rudderless. It is to lack purpose. And design without purpose? Well, it may be art, but it ain’t likely to solve the client’s problem. Rookie designers are often initially frustrated by the constraints of a client brief. They yearn for total creative freedom. But they learn quickly that the more stringent the brief, the more there is to problem solve, which leads to much better outcomes.

Freedom in a straightjacket

The challenge of visual design is to effectively convey information—to ensure a direct and uncluttered path between your messages and the people you need to reach. And that means being unobtrusive, too. The best designs succeed not by calling attention to themselves—not by traditional aesthetic alone—but by clearly positioning the client, product or service. To us, utility is the ultimate aesthetic. It connects our client with the greatest possible percentage of their target audience.


Just throw strikes

Sidenote

Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you likely know that the pitcher’s job isn’t to toss a ball just anywhere. These professionals are paid to throw their most creative pitches repeatedly through a vertical strike zone approximately half a square metre in size.

What constitutes beauty in this scenario is that the pitcher must respect and work within the constraint of the zone. That’s how they earn victories—and tens of millions of dollars each year. Content designers should be so lucky.


Is your brief answering the right questions?

In the commercial design work we undertake at Stiff, the client brief is the main source of constraint. Each brief answers a variety of questions.

We encourage our clients to include these:
  • What is the purpose of the design?
  • Who is the audience?
  • What are the diversity, inclusion and accessibility considerations?
  • What content will be used?
  • What design products will be in play?
  • What tone is required?
  • What style will best uphold the purpose?
  • What’s the budget?
  • What are the design platforms?
  • What’s the review/approval process?
  • What is the design’s intended shelf-life?
  • How much time do we have?
Is your design excluding potential customers?

Are you sure? Check out the “Just throw strikes” sidenote above. Did you notice that we do not refer to pitchers as males? If you didn’t, you now know just how simple (and transparent) inclusivity can be. We made a conscious content-design decision to be inclusive—to respect the fact that there are people of other gender identities who are also pitchers. Look at this another way: referring only to males would potentially exclude virtually half the audience we are trying to reach with this article. Where is the benefit in that?

Another aspect of constraint: accessibility

For brands targeting a broad consumer audience, design accessibility means being inclusive of the largest possible segment of the market. Some brands don’t realize the value of ensuring their print ads, social media posts and websites are accessible to people living with disabilities. According to Statistics Canada, 22 percent of Canadians identify as having a disability[1]—a number that is expected to increase in the coming decade.


[1] https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-654-x/89-654-x2018002-eng.htm


To ignore people who have disabilities is to carve as many as six million Canadians out of your audience. If that is not your intention, it’s time to think differently about accessibility.


The need for accessible design is everywhere

Next time you’re approaching a major old building—a courthouse, hotel or library, for example—note how front steps were once an architectural mainstay. The notion of climbing to your destination reinforced it as lofty and important.

Today, the entrances to virtually all buildings are either at ground level or at the end of ramps. Why? To ensure they are accessible to as many people as possible. And what is true in architecture is true in graphic design. Don’t expect your user to climb to you.

Good design serves us all

Consider the OXO Swivel potato peeler, part of the company’s Good Grips line. First introduced in 1990, the product was originally designed for people with arthritis who have difficulty gripping simple kitchen tools. Yet the peeler became a market favourite because it’s easy for everyone to use.[2]

It’s useful to remember that the abilities of any one of us can be impaired to varying degrees and durations. For example, the only difference between being hard of hearing, having an ear infection or being in a very loud environment is the intensity and duration of the impairment.

Does focusing too heavily on accessibility alienate some users or degrade brands? Not if it’s done well. In fact, it’s worth noting that people in traditionally marginalized groups often express great loyalty to brands that make a genuine effort to be as inclusive as possible.


[2]Of note, OXO initially included a product endorsement from the American Arthritis Foundation on the packaging. The endorsement was removed when the company learned it stigmatized those with arthritis and made those without the condition think they weren’t a target market.


Move like Jagger

Sidenote

The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger is an artist who has found inspiration in constraint. In one of his signature dance steps, Jagger keeps his elbows close to his sides and emphasizes the movement of his hands and shoulders. The move evolved in part out of necessity.

In the band’s earliest days, the Stones performed in small clubs where Jagger had little room for stage antics. He adapted. And what was utility became a memorable dance style (happily left to Mick).


The takeaway?

Think differently. Find inspiration in constraint. And remember that accessible design is not some misguided symptom of political correctness. It’s good business—and the right thing to do.

A look into five essential considerations for designing inclusive brands.

Check out our PDF on Designing for Accessibility which looks at five essential considerations for designing inclusive brands.

Genre is one of the most powerful marketing tools available for reaching niche audiences. Yet many people fail to realize that using genre to promote and sell products is not creative. It’s lazy.

Indolent marketers use genre to make assumptions about the success of a product, brand or content, and about the target audience. When marketers rely on genre, they sacrifice creativity; when brands rely on genre, they risk becoming cliché. They unknowingly alienate prospective audiences while pigeonholing existing ones.

Now more than ever, marketers need to pay attention to the genre-less audience of the digital era. The non-conforming. The consumers that refuse to fit in predefined boxes. Genre limits marketers from putting in the effort to keep creativity alive, to generate fresh ideas and to attract new audiences, especially the younger generation. Millennials and Gen Z not only forego genre categories in entertainment, they apply the same approach to other aspects of their lives.

Old-timey brands and marketers must adapt their products and strategies to appeal to a generation of genre-fluid consumers.


Genre limits marketers from putting in the effort to keep creativity alive, generate fresh ideas and attract new audiences.

Market to diverse audiences without relying on genre

Derived from the French word for “class” or “kind,” genre is a system of classification used to categorize works of art, literature, film, music and theatre. People generally rely on certain conventions and tropes to define various genres and sub-genres. In an age where digital reigns supreme, marketers and brands need to embrace unconventional, hard-to-categorize ideas. Companies like Netflix and Spotify are leading the pack already. Their success is partly because streaming services cater to the “mixed-format consumption habits” of audiences, according to Carrie Battan, a staff writer for The New Yorker.

She also explains that many digital platforms “do not consider any sort of formal taxonomies,” so they don’t bother with the genre gatekeeping that we experience with traditional media. This defocus from genre-based content and marketing is not only embraced by streaming services, but it is also evident in how artists like Taylor Swift reinvent themselves. Her transition from country singer to pop star is a perfect example of how blurring the lines of genre can help advance a person’s ambitions and dreams while earning them profit.


Harness the power of reinvention

In June 2006, Swift made her debut with “Tim McGraw,” a single from her eponymous album. In a matter of weeks, the country song went platinum and ranked in the Billboard top 10.

This release also marked the last time Swift released an album that strictly abides to one specific genre. Over the span of five albums, she switched her musical identity from that of the country girl next door to America’s pop sweetheart. Her reinvention did not come easy. In the Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, she points out that beyond changing her musical style, she also needed to shed the “good girl” narrative that she was known for. Breaking her silence on politically charged topics is one way she presented her new, authentic self to the world. Swift was warned by her label and loved ones that all these changes could jeopardize everything she worked so hard for. It was a gamble she was willing to take.

It paid off. Beyond album sales, Swift was able to pave the way for new artists who want to break away from specific genres and experiment with different sounds.

The power of reinvention and the blurring of genres isn’t limited to the entertainment industry. It’s a common trend in politics and culture. Malcolm X is a prime example of how the ability to recreate our own selves can result in a powerful legacy. He wore many hats in his short lifetime––an entertainer, a petty criminal, an intellectual, a minister, a human rights activist––each identity requiring him to transform himself by any means necessary.

During his Detroit Red phase, he played drums at jazz bars under the stage name Jack Carlton. However, to get his political and religious views across, he had to reassess his musician identity. During his incarceration in the 1950s, he spent time working on his transformation. Malcolm’s willingness to pivot his identity is one of the key factors in his designation as one of the most influential figures in history. As Manning Marble writes in his book, The Reinvention of Malcolm X, “Malcolm’s strength was his ability to reinvent himself.”

As a Black man, his message and experiences with poverty and racial injustices resonated with Black people in the U.S. and in Africa. As a Nation of Islam leader, his views on religion connected him with Muslims across the world. Up until his assassination in 1965, Malcolm, later known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, remained a non-conformist who never stopped challenging the status quo.

Swift and Malcolm X are two strikingly different people from different worlds. Yet they share some commonalities. Both of them made deliberate moves to throw off the shackles of genre to become prominent figures in world culture. Even in the face of adversity, they both dared to reinvent themselves by taking risks. In doing so, they were able to reach levels of creativity, passion and authenticity that made them transcend social, cultural and artistic boundaries, further catapulting them to prominence. While there is no special formula for reinvention, creators, brands and marketers can draw inspiration from the way these famous figures challenged the different systems of classification.


Marketers can step out of the confines of genre and the siloed thinking that comes with it if they’re willing to continually adapt, improve and challenge themselves.

Continually adapt, improve and challenge yourself

Breaking from the confines of genre doesn’t necessarily mean one must fully disregard tradition. It just means that one should be willing to break the rules in order to progress, create something novel and be more inclusive.

The topic of ditching genre is more important than ever today. As the world embraces the Black Lives Matter movement, many companies and marketers are shifting away from the archaic structures that have both intentionally and unintentionally sidelined Black creators. Republic Records is an example. The label recently announced it will remove “Urban” from its music categories, because the company no longer wanted to “adhere to the outdated structures of the past.”

Republic Records executives believe that changing the verbiage will open up more opportunities for artists, especially Black musicians, to experiment with different types of sounds like their white counterparts. This change is also expected to give more marketers, promoters and radio stations the freedom to share works by Black artists outside of the R&B and hip-hop realm.

In marketing and communications, genre fluidity can be applied to how we approach strategy, how we design our teams, and how we adopt and exercise tone and style to our writing.

1. Mix up the skills and experiences of teams to break down silos. Encourage collaboration among people with different personalities to generate a blend of approaches and ideas that lead to success. Creating teams of T-shaped people is one solution.

2. Promote a culture of experimentation and challenging tradition. Make it very clear to employees and clients that your teams aren’t afraid to push the limits.

3. Foster an environment of diversity and inclusion. Give women, people of colour, neurodivergent people and people with disabilities a seat at the table and encourage them to contribute ideas. Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be limited to just HR practices and policies; it should be extended to the day-to-day culture of the workplace.

When we reduce our thinking to fit within the boundaries of genre, we’re supressing our ability to generate original ideas and solutions. After all, conformity kills creativity. As marketers, we need to create spaces where we can push the limits of our creativity, even if it’s risky business.

It worked for Swift and Malcolm X. It’s working for Netflix, Spotify and Republic Records. It can work for you, too.

At one time or another, we have all struggled to find the right word. English users may struggle more than most.

When someone wants to write in English about how something can be both ‘just’—in the sense of justice—and ‘right’—in that is it correct—they need to do the work to show that they mean both of these things, not simply one or the other. To do that well, writers must be concise, clear and leave no room for confusion. It is a balancing act that can be both delicate and maddening.

The obvious choice is to turn to diction to find the precise words to express this idea. Or one could focus less on word choice and more on syntax—the order in which words are used—or on logic or rhetoric, to display truth or to persuade. We call these tools, and two others, the Machinery of Language—read more here.

Writers using Italian, however, have the word ‘giusto’ in their arsenal—a word that means both ‘just’ and ‘right.’ They can do in six letters what an English user will struggle to do in six words.

That’s just one example of dozens, if not hundreds, of instances where a language other than English has a concise—even beautiful—way to say something complicated in as little as a single word.

So why has a language that lacks this level of detail or nuance become the de facto language for worldwide affairs?

The rise of the English (Language) empire

Over the past century or two—give or take a couple of colonial expansions—English has emerged as the primary language of commerce and diplomacy around the globe. This development comes despite English’s comparative paucity of true native speakers and cultures. It is the native language of just under five percent of the Earth’s total population, yet it is the default language of the United Nations, and of business and entertainment the world over.

It is almost ironic. English has become the lingua franca for the entire planet, and yet the term lingua franca itself is Italian.

In 2010, the United Nations established a series of celebratory ‘days’ for each of its six official languages—one each for Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, Spanish and English. English’s day is on April 23, the day of the birth and the death of arguably the language’s most famous and important figure: William Shakespeare.

As a company that prides itself on expert use of language—and of English primarily—Stiff notes a day like this with reverence. But we also note it with an eye to explore just how and why English’s dominance has come to pass.


The concept of a lingua franca has existed since the Middle Ages. Historically, lingua franca applied to pidgin languages, or closely-related languages that served as ways to bridge linguistic gaps between neighbouring cities or countries.

Finding common linguistic ground

They were often conglomerations of similar or shared words—such as between French and Italian used when Crusaders were traipsing through the Mediterranean and needed to communicate with locals for supplies. Since French and Italian are both Romance languages, they shared enough commonalities to mix and create an early lingua franca that was widely understood by most people in the area at that time.

Imperialism and colonialism are major influences on the development of a lingua franca. The process for English can be said to have started with the British Empire, on which the sun “never set.” America’s expansion in the 1900s—along with rapid, fundamental changes to human communication through technology and globalization—cemented English’s place as the global language.

This expansion mutated and supercharged the idea of a lingua franca. It was no longer just a shared tongue between neighbour states. English became the way a computer scientist from Shanghai and a business executive from Rio De Janeiro could speak to one another at a conference in Frankfurt. But imperialism can only account for so much of a language’s reach. Many languages are highly unique and require a complete reframing of one’s understanding of grammar or syntax to learn. What about English makes it malleable enough that speakers of Arabic and Portuguese and Mandarin can adopt it with (relative) ease?


Speaking the language

English is a relatively young language and a tremendously flexible one. It’s also an incredible thief.

According to research, between only 20 percent and 33 percent of modern English words derive from Germanic sources—the original root of Old English and Middle English. The rest are attributed to Latin and French—approximately 30 percent apiece—plus Greek, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Indian languages, German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, and more. Another factor is that on a technical level, English is often more simplistic than other languages. For instance, English has largely eliminated grammatical case and gender. It is a language based on analytic constructions—such as word order, and simple subject-verb-object structures—rather than on conjugations or inflections. English also has a streamlined pronoun system compared to others.

For inexperienced speakers, English can even accommodate dropping fundamental elements such as articles and prepositions and still maintain legibility. In other languages, improper conjugation or botched syntax can alter or destroy meaning. In English, a sentence can sound crudely constructed or “wrong,” but a speaker can still be understood. We call English unruly—figuratively and literally. It eschews the kind of rules that constrain flexibility and growth, such as those that govern French. That unruliness likely helps adoption by foreign speakers.

Sharpening your linguistic sword

Just because English can, for some, be simpler to learn, does not mean it is easier to master. We’ve already demonstrated how, despite its potential to break down communication barriers, it sometimes lacks the words to simply and elegantly speak to certain ideas.

This is where the Machinery of Language comes in. Six foundational ideas—diction, grammar, syntax, logic, punctuation and rhetoric—that can be variously applied to analyze, refine or repair every sentence, every idea, that one wishes to communicate.

If an English writer struggles to describe their idea, and is becoming so frustrated that they can’t function or finish what they are doing—fisselig, in German, by the way—they could step back and see which part of the Machinery of Language could help.

Perhaps their logic is unclear. Maybe their rhetoric isn’t strong enough to convince their audience. Applying the Machinery—and improving one’s skill with those tools—is essential in getting the most out of our mischievous mother tongue.

By fine-tuning your skills with the Machinery of Language, you can wield English with the precision and flair of a seasoned expert. You can shine with a nonchalance that hides the degree of difficulty behind your words. You can exude that sort of effortless ease, that … sprezzatura.

Damnit.

My beef is not that brand storytellers can’t tell stories—I’m sure many of them are very good at what they do.

What concerns me is whether or not brand narratives can achieve the qualities audiences expect from stories, which are, at their most impactful, inherently personal and human.

To me, the idea of story and storytelling is sacred.

I value the intimacy of story and the connection they secure between parent and child, for example. But stories are sacred also because they are a constant—one of our species’ foundational communications tools. In truly civilized cultures, storytellers are revered as the ultimate archivists and keepers of tradition. A heavy burden, for sure.

Imagine a world without stories.

We’d have no beginning, middle and end. No fiction or fable. No history. No narratives whatsoever. Then what is the point of all this? Suddenly the very arc of our species is flattened. See? As soon as you try to abolish story, you realize how rooted it is in our culture.

You may be familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell. He was an ethnographer, philosopher and teacher. Two of his books in particular have been extremely influential in the realm of storytelling: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and The Power of Myth. Famously, Campbell characterized myth as part of what Jung referred to as our collective unconscious. Campbell maintained that the mythic concepts of hero and villain and quest and redemption have been central to various, disparate world cultures since homo erectus decided to do something with his hands besides walk on them.

Hollywood took notice.

In the 1970s, motion picture director George Lucas tapped Campbell’s thinking to craft the mythological foundation for the Star Wars franchise. A bell went off in the heads of studio execs and story editors. Mythology suddenly made sense. What better way to connect with audiences than to tell them the stories they already knew—to use the structures and characterizations that have fired in their synapses since birth.


Brand stories are rarely stories in the book sense.

So what does any of this have to do with brands?

Rather, they unfold as integrated snippets in websites, social media posts, annual reports, advertising, speeches, videos and other collateral. The risk of this integrated approach is that the thread of the story is lost. As remedy, the brand storyteller turns to the not unintentionally named brand bible, although it is unlikely to contain an actual detailed narrative.

Oh, there’ll often be a paragraph or two—the mandatory elevator pitch (and isn’t that romantic)—but nothing truly substantive. In our shop, we find it increasingly helpful to present a more detailed and compelling backstory on which the short snippets of a brand are based. We turned to myth for guidance. Here’s why, and how.


Most brand stories are pretty mundane.

Let’s face it, they’re clinical. They exist solely to prop up a brand rather than breathe life into it.

Most brand stories lack the conflict and drama we associate with our favourite books and movies. This is unfortunate, as many of the brand narratives we encounter behind the scenes are genuinely intriguing. So what can myth teach us to help ensure a brand story is engaging and memorable? Structure is one thing.

Story structure is threaded through our DNA.

Stories have been built virtually the same way for thousands of years. Our lives are stories. We are born, we struggle to survive, we face conflict and emerge battered (older) but victorious, we die and experience heaven’s glory. This existential link is what makes story such a powerful tool. This is why audiences’ expectations must be met. They know story. They couldn’t tell you what the specific building blocks are, but they will let you know when those blocks are missing.

Today’s audiences are infinitely more sophisticated than they were fifty years ago. They are highly literate in the traditional word sense and the contemporary visual sense. They are comfortable with the shortforms of the digital world and eager to know only who the main character is and what the story is about. For them, structure has been reduced to one word.

Stories are about transformation.

A story is a journey—a journey of change. In every good story, the central characters change by the end, for better or worse, undergoing refinement, growth, improvement. Darth Vader finds salvation in his son. Ebenezer Scrooge sees the light. Severus Snape is redeemed.

Transformation is a fundamental—almost primal—story element. From sea creature to land creature, nomad to city-dweller, child to adult, birth to death. The brand at the beginning of its story must be different than the brand at the end. What trials has it endured? How has it turned adversity to advantage? What benefit can it give you that it couldn’t before? If we don’t get a picture of how a brand was different in the beginning, the audience cannot appreciate the value of its transformation.


In her book, Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway notes that logic and reasoning are the main tools used in commercial writing (such as advertising) to persuade us to feel one way rather than another. “Fiction,” she writes, “tries to reproduce the emotional impact of experience…”

As hard as it is, be real.

This is the trend we see in branding—to draw on this aspect of fiction to, as Burroway puts it, “reproduce the emotional impact of experience.” This is where we get into the tricky realm of humanizing brands, imbuing them with, for example, sensitivity and humour. When it works, it’s gold. After all, the more a brand is portrayed

successfully as having human qualities, the more resonance it will have with target audiences. Yet this anthropomorphization is what makes contemporary brand communication so complex and sophisticated—and brand storytelling so difficult. No wonder brand stories often fall flat.


Breathing life into a brand means it has to be authentic.

Here’s another stumbling block. Authenticity. It’s become the Holy Grail of brand identity. The goal is to be genuine. Hmm. Genuine people are comfortable being themselves. Most brands are not.

Clients don’t necessarily expect their brands to be perfect, but most are unwilling to accept enough of the weight of imperfection to be truly authentic. They are understandably afraid of revealing enough about themselves and their troubles to ensure their stories live up to their potential impact. For all the bluster about wanting and needing to be humanized—to be seen as thinking, feeling, acting entities—most brands simply can’t permit themselves the vulnerability that it takes to be genuine. They collapse under the weight of what it means to be human.

Is it really necessary to anthropomorphize a brand? Necessary? No. Powerful? Yes. After all, most brands represent people—those who own, operate, work for or depend on the brand. The brands with the most audience impact are the ones that are willing to show themselves, warts and all. These are the brands that let us in. The brands that are as fallible as their people—prone to mistakes but quick to apologize and make amends, proud yet able to laugh at themselves, somewhat self-centred but smart enough to cheer for others.

The final mythology takeaway relates to the cast of a brand story.

For a brand story to truly resonate as authentic with audiences, it must present the mythic cast we humans recognize and trust. Traditionally, the brand was the hero—the client, their products and services.[1] This notion of brand heroism is nothing new. For years, marketers have presented hero brands on quests to achieve business objectives: increase sales and shareholder value, boost recruitment, solve world peace, etc. At Stiff, we consider the hero to have completed its quest when it has found within itself and finally upholds the four key qualities of character: intelligence, conviction, empathy and humility.

What is often most intriguing for audiences is witnessing the brand’s struggle to develop and balance those seminal character traits. This is the struggle each of us lives, and the true evidence of humanity in a brand. The struggle for humans is to know when it is appropriate to show conviction or be intelligent, empathetic or humble. Similarly, brands endeavour daily to express their character in response to the world they inhabit. Everyone knows it’s not easy. The effort, and even the failure, gives brands human dimensions.


[1] I believe that the trend is to cast customers as the new heroes, the people who rely on brands for help on the journey to face demons, overcome obstacles, reap the rewards and return home successfully. Today’s brand is often the mentor—the Merlins, Obi-Wan Kenobis and Dumbledores who help guide heroes through thick and thin.


Where does the villain lurk?

Branding agencies place great emphasis on the ability to identify the problems that face brands. Perhaps a brand has outgrown itself. Perhaps it has fallen behind the times. Perhaps it has lost its competitive spark or technological edge. Maybe a competitor is blazing a trail ahead of the client’s brand. In myth, these are the shadows to be overcome. In the stories of our childhood, the shadow (or villain) often takes physical form—many still do, and at Stiff we argue it is helpful in the context of brand stories to imagine the shadow as something more than abstract. Agencies do this already when creating audience personas. It’s no great stretch to put a face to the challenge, if only to give you something to throw darts at.

The concept of the ally has crept on its own into Western culture recently. We call on them to get in the face of bullies and stand up for marginalized groups. In the branding world, we have ambassadors—groups and individuals who believe in a brand and promote it: client employees, partners, stakeholders and end customers. Brands cannot achieve their quests without the support of these cast members. As allies, this brand diplomatic core must come through as more than cheerleaders. They must be willing to defend a brand as well, maybe even make sacrifices for it.


Never to lose your sense of humour.

My personal brand-story cast favourites are the tricksters—Puck in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; Rafiki, the mandrill shaman in Lion King; and the inimitable Yoda from Star Wars.

Think of them as the court jesters, yet their roles go way beyond comic effect. They’re disruptive in a positive way, to keep the hero from getting too full of itself. And isn’t that always a danger with brands.

Who plays the trickster in a brand story? Most often, it falls to the conscience of the brand, which is self-policing to a certain extent. But employees, customers and fans are more than just extras in a brand story. They too have a role in steering the brand to its ultimate quest, a responsibility to speak up when the brand misspeaks, point the way when it missteps. In mythic tales and brand stories alike, the tricksters remind us of the ultimate impermanence of all things.

There’s that change we’ve been talking about.

I suppose my discomfort with branding’s appropriation of story has something to do with my own duplicity. I worry about story integrity and yet I exploit it my own company’s brand work. I’m not totally comfortable with corporatization but depend on it. It could be that I fear brand stories are bound to become entangled in the myths of our times. It may be hard to argue they have not succeeded already.

Here’s what we think:

Don’t play the algorithm game to the detriment of your end user.

If taken in isolation, no single SEO best practice (used ethically or not) will get you the rankings, traffic or response you desire. But we do believe there’s a foundational element that will not fail you or your target audience. It’s called intelligent content.

But first, some context

In brief, SEO is the collective efforts made by a company to have its website appear in the top results of search engine rankings. There are multiple approaches to SEO. On-site (or on-page) focuses on the content of the web page. Off-site builds credibility for your website through other sites and people. Think of it as someone with authority citing your page.

Some best practices of on-site SEO include thoughtful and well-written copy, the use of relevant keywords, and good user experience. Google says that its systems are designed to “determine which pages demonstrate expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness on a given topic.” The great hope is that the combination of these practices—as well as others not mentioned, including some technical ones—will land a company’s website in the coveted top five results (the spots that aren’t paid for).

That sounds simple enough. But while we can control the quality of our own website, we can’t do anything about the algorithms. Or can we?


In late 2019, Google updated its algorithm with Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.

Introducing BERT

This update, called BERT, is designed to help Google better understand the context and intent behind conversational queries. Think “where is the best food in the city” versus “local + restaurants + high rated.”

BERT uses Natural Language Processing (NLP), a combination of machine learning (a subset of artificial intelligence) and linguistics to understand intent. Google search and translate aren’t the only systems that use NLP. So do Grammarly, Microsoft Word, Alexa and Siri.

Google calls BERT a “core update.” Such updates make “significant, broad changes to our search algorithms and systems.” Google says that BERT will affect 10 percent of search queries, which may not sound substantial until you consider that 10 percent is approximately 350 million searches a day. Even after introducing BERT, Google’s advice remains the same as it’s always been—offer “the best content you can. That’s what our algorithms seek to reward.”


HAL 9000 says…

The best content is intelligent content. Talk human. Stop trying to outthink the machines. Algorithms may be aiding a user’s search, but that user is still a human looking for a human response.

We at Stiff have been defining and refining what intelligent content is for over 30 years. And while the response depends on the client, audience and end product, a few fundamentals never change:

Intelligent content responds to a need. We spend a lot of time getting to know our clients and what they offer. Equally as important, we get to know our clients’ audiences and what they need. A lot of time and research goes into exploring the gap, if there is one, between client and customer expectations. The content we produce in collaboration with our clients bridges the gap and communicates value.

Intelligent content keeps things simple. Don’t overcomplicate the matter. If you want a user to stick around, speak to them in terms they’ll understand. Being the smartest person in the room isn’t a game of who can speak the most jargon, use the biggest words or craft the longest sentences. The smartest person in the room prioritizes the audience.

And remember, you don’t have to explain everything all at once. Your webpages shouldn’t be white papers, research reports or a bucket list of everything you wished your audience knew about you. They should be targeted, tantalizing and provide enough relevant information to keep your user clicking.

Intelligent content is elegant. There is a difference between writing intelligibly and writing elegantly. Elegant writing is free of errors, employs tools of persuasion and incorporates the good habits of writers. It’s invisible to readers who instead only notice the messages, intentions and convictions being conveyed.


A wordsmith wields the conventions of the English language—including persuasion—like a master. To make things simple, we’ve organized these conventions into what we call the Machinery of Language.  


Intelligent writing is for everyone

Here’s an exercise from the Machinery of Language we call concision. It will get you thinking about one of the principles of intelligent content: keeping things simple.

After writing down everything relevant that you believe your audience needs to know, put your words through the redundant, obvious and immaterial filters.

1. Delete the redundant. Get rid of repeated ideas, which can be facts needlessly explored from different angles, restated for emphasis or accidentally duplicated.

2. Delete the obvious. If facts are common knowledge, and if arguments can be easily deduced by the reader, remove them.

3. Delete the immaterial. Even relevant research can be immaterial. Spot tangents in your ideas and unneeded padding in your individual sentences.


It may not be your job to write SEO-driven website copy, but no matter who you are or what you’re writing, you will benefit from the principles of intelligent content.  

Humble beginnings are just beginnings

Podcasting, a portmanteau of iPod and broadcast, was hardly a medium of instant success back when it debuted in 2004.

A Google search of the term would return just 2,750 hits by the end of podcasting’s first year. Audio files distributed through RSS feeds was a promising concept, but these were early days. Smart phones were not yet ubiquitous. Content creators—comedians and sports fans among them—produced highly niche material. No one had even imagined turning a profit. Even podcast pioneers David Winer and Adam Curry could hardly have foreseen the gold rush that was to come. 

Apple, just as it has before and since, changed everything.   


Distribution + user experience = profit


In 2005, Apple released an update to iTunes that offered over 1,000 podcasts free of charge. It was a visionary moment for Steve Jobs (again).

That December, “podcast” became Word of the Year in the New Oxford American Dictionary. Now a Google search of the term would return 100,000,000 hits.

Still, by 2006, only 22 percent of Americans had ever heard of a podcast—and only half that many had actually listened to one.

Apple continued its strategy to lead distribution. In 2012, the company released the podcast app for iPhones. Most critically, the app allowed users to “subscribe” to a podcast, meaning the content automatically downloaded to their devices. The algorithm would also recommend similar content based on a user’s interests. The app’s “trending” section, meanwhile, was a perfect feature to hook new listeners that were unfamiliar with the medium.

The user experience was impeccable, and the reach was undeniable. Podcasts were gaining popularity with listeners. Next up: advertisers.


First come audiences, then come advertisers


The flashpoint for podcasts came in 2014 when This American Life producers releasedSerial. The true crime mystery swiftly became the most downloaded podcast of all time—a record it still holds today. Podcasts moved from esoteric niche content to fodder for the office water cooler. And no one benefitted more than MailChimp.

MailChimp, the email marketing platform, took a risk sponsoring Serial in its first season. Podcast advertising was virtually unheard of, and the show was new and unproven with audiences. The gamble paid off, though. Nearly 70 million listeners tuned in to Serial, hearing between segments the now-infamous “MailKimp” line. The ad became such a viral sensation that it even inspired a skit on Saturday Night Live.


Podcast advertising became one of the most bankable markets. It wasn’t just because of reach; podcast listeners were also a highly desirable demographic. They tend to be well educated with a higher-than-average household income.

graph of monthly podcast consumer income data showing an equal distribution across salary range
graph of monthly podcast consumer by education with nearly equal data distrubtion will less for high school users
graph of monthly podcast consumers by age showing very high use by those age 18 to 54 and minimal for those outside that range

The specificity of podcast subject matter also meant that advertisers could use a highly targeted approach. SimpliSafe, a home protection system, advertises on the popular true crime podcast Casefile. The podcast Gravy, which discusses culinary traditions in the American south, is sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance. When podcasts took off, options for advertisers were almost innumerable.

And when the medium had proven its mettle, brands rushed to court the producers.  

Oversaturation bursts the bubble

By 2018, ad revenue from podcasts spiked to $479 million in US markets. The number of active podcasts on iTunes was 550,000. For every advertiser, there was a podcast. And for every podcast, content creators hoped, there would be an advertiser.

There wasn’t.

In late 2018, Audible laid off its entire podcast division. Buzzfeed followed suit, shuttering its in-house podcast unit. Panoply, a podcast network under the Slate brand, moved away from content creation to focus solely on hosting.

The issue, experts say, was that there were simply too many podcasts out there. Audiences were overwhelmed with choice, and advertisers couldn’t rely on the metrics. Number of downloads isn’t synonymous with number of listens. Add to those truths that it’s also difficult to produce a high-quality podcast, and the downturn became an inevitability.


Is the golden age of podcasting over?

Maybe not. While it’s true that audience expectations are higher and competition for sponsors is fiercer, one fundamental part of podcasting remains unchanged: we yearn for good storytelling. It’s true, in fact, for nearly all communications—and why storytelling has become something of a buzzword in content marketing.

When done well, though, it works. Critical to Serial’s success was its flawless, gripping story. A single narrator, week after week, unravels a mystery revolving around a mesmerizing cast of characters. It’s a tried and true structure across nearly every medium we consume. It’s not that we want podcasts because they’re podcasts; we want podcasts because podcasts—the good ones, at least—tell stories.


Can you make podcasts work for your brand?

The intimacy of the audible experience is part of what makes podcasts so powerful. When listeners are riveted, they don’t skip a word—including mid-show ads.

That’s why the advertisements can be so memorable. Smart companies can find popular podcasts that share their target audiences, and then offer partnerships on advertising such as promo codes for listeners. The only risk is relying on the podcast’s continued strong performance.

Producing content as a corporation, on the other hand, is trickier. Producing a podcast just for the sake of it is likely to be a losing endeavour. Research, production, editing, distribution and promotion cost time and money, and a saturated podcast market means building a loyal audience can be a glacial process.

If your company is sure it’s the right choice, just remember there’s no formula for how to monetize a podcast. Stay on brand, know your audience, expand your reach and monitor your performance. Those are table stakes.

But to court advertisers, not to mention audiences? Tell good stories.

Podcasts we love

Under the Influence

The History of English podcast

On Brand

Marketing Over Coffee


Words are important.

They express our thoughts and feelings. In communications and marketing, we spend a lot of time using words. (Obviously.)

Think about it: names, slogans, catch-phrases and jingles are all just words—perfectly curated and strung together to make a message memorable. While many brands spend copious amounts of time and money on the words they say to their audiences, it’s important to remember what people are saying back. And there’s one word in particular that stands out above the rest. One word that every brand wants to hear:

Love.

Yes, every brand wants to hear that they are loved by consumers. But beyond being loved, showing love is what sells a brand. We’ve seen many companies fail to keep their customers because they’ve tried too much to be a corporation. They want people to buy from them for life, to be loyal and stick with them always. But what’s the message they’re sending out? Buy, buy, buy. It’s a one-sided relationship. Successful brands do more. They can’t just show up. If they want customers to fall in love with them, they have to try. They have to be a loving brand. Here’s how:


Be caring.

There’s a reason why people love IKEA despite its reputation for lacklustre instruction manuals and argument-inducing stores. The Swedish furniture company shows it cares by doing its research. Before entering in a new market or country, IKEA representatives conduct home visits to talk to potential customers about their wants, needs, ways of life and preferred shopping methods. This process explains why you’ll find deeper drawers in their furniture in America than Italy, and why untreated pine wood is often used in India to protect items from the humidity. Making sure its products reflect customer needs shows that IKEA not only values feedback, but also genuinely cares about making their customers’ lives easier.


Be happy.

The world isn’t lacking for bad news, bad moods or bad vibes. Let your brand stand out: be happy. From the start, Coca-Cola positioned itself as a pathway to happiness. Ice-cold Sunshine. The Pause That Refreshes. Things Go Better with Coke. Open Happiness. These are just some of the slogans the soda company has used over the years. Choosing to promote a feeling instead of a product is a subtle yet effective strategy that many overlook. Coke makes consumers believe that the beverage brand has their best interest at heart because it encourages—and associates its product with—happiness. And that builds trust. The strategy has proven successful. A California-based think tank conducted a survey to examine brand relationships among consumers. Coca-Cola did not receive a single negative remark. Everybody loved it.


Be generous.

More than generations past, millennials (born 1981 – 1996) and Gen Z (born 1995 – 2012) are putting pressure on their favourite brands to care about something more than turning a profit. Recent studies show that nine in ten millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause. And 40 percent of Gen Z consumers said they have boycotted a brand that behaved in a way that didn’t align with their values.

Toms has been in business for 13 years and, during that time, has been at the forefront of the philanthropic consumerism movement that is sweeping across North America. The company is famous for its One-for-One business model. For every shoe purchased, Toms donated a pair to someone in need. Since 2006, it has given away more than 95 million pairs of shoes. Now, in a recent shift, Toms is promising to dedicate at least one-third of its net-profit to a giving fund. Toms’ mission of supporting others and its willingness to give to the less fortunate is largely the reason it has remained so popular over the years.


Be genuine.

No one likes a catfish (someone who seems one way online and is completely different in person.) Just ask Away. The millennial luggage company lured in new customers with chic designs, a direct-to-consumer business model and reasonable prices. And in popular fashion, its website makes promises of an affirming and healthy company culture with positive local and national impact. It describes itself as “a great business” that was built to have a positive impact “from the way [it] designs products to the way [it] connects communities.”

But an exposé published by multi-media news website The Verge revealed a toxic company culture perpetuated by founder and CEO Steph Korey. Away sold dreams of a luxury lifestyle but the reality was far from realized in its offices. Away’s image wasn’t genuine, and the company faced huge backlash on social media. In response, Korey stepped down as CEO of her company.


Be loyal.

Brand loyalty is a two-way street. To gain the loyalty of your customers, you must first be loyal to them. Prove to your customers that they are important to you. Show them your brand is evolving every day because they are a part of it. Take Apple for example. Since its inception, the tech company has had a cult-like following of devoted customers. A notoriously sophisticated design may be part of its success, but design is nothing without utility. Apple builds machines that satisfy people’s needs.

The tech company constantly seeks feedback and engages in conversations with customers about new products. People want easy integration with other devices, technology support, speed and security. Apple has become intentional about implementing these features in their products and stores. And since Apple is loyal to its customers needs, customers are loyal in return. They trust that whatever Apple releases will improve their lives in some way, shape or form—whether it’s the way they collaborate, communicate or consume new information. That’s why consumers will continue to line up to buy the latest and greatest product as soon as it hits the market.


Be apologetic.

As your company grows and changes, things will go wrong, it’s bound to happen. While best to avoid mistakes in the first place, it’s equally—arguably more—important to respond properly when things do go wrong.

There are many examples of companies that have failed in the execution of an apology. It’s something of an epidemic in the industry (Pepsi, Facebook, United Airlines). But KFC is one that did it right. Customers were upset enough to call the police when more than half of the restaurant’s British locations ran out of chicken due to delivery issues. KFC’s response? Take out a full-page ad in two major British newspapers in which the brand rearranged its famous three letters to spell FCK. The anagram was accompanied by a short, heart-felt explanation and apology. The customer’s reaction? Overwhelmingly positive. Some were even impressed.


Let love out.

Good brands conduct good business. But smart brands know it takes more than that to be successful. Love has proven itself a powerful driver of action, time and again. Learn how to leverage it to help last the long haul. And if your brand isn’t feeling loved yet, do an internal check. Don’t overlook the importance of doing the small things well. They can make all the difference in becoming the next big brand that everyone loves.