Sunday, 12 February 2017

A few words from the 'crazy' brand show us how ambition and aspiration can conquer the world

THE notion that words can transform the world may seem a little grandiose. Yet writing is a powerful transformative tool, sometimes in a quiet way and sometimes with a fanfare.
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
These 35 words from the American Declaration of Independence may seem a little dusty for modern language tastes, but they're one of the most influential sentences in the English language.

How does writing as a world-changing craft apply to creating stellar companies and global brands? There is no better example than Apple's 'Think Different' campaign.
Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits.The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. the ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
You may see little in these words that's prophetic or delusionally ambitious. Apple, after all, is the world's largest music retailer, has more than one billion actively used products, and was the first American company to be valued at more than $700 billion. 

But these words would have struck you differently in the late 1990s when Apple's fortunes were bleak. Having previously been forced out of Apple, Steve Jobs had been wooed back to save the company he'd co-founded years before. Apple was three months from bankruptcy. It needed a miracle.

Jobs and Lee Clow, the creative director of ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, had worked together before and agreed on the need for a brand image campaign that would remind people of what was distinctive about Apple. Despite its financial woes, Apple was one of the top five brands in the world, thanks to some faithful customers.

But it had a fundamental problem. 'We at Apple had forgotten who we were,' said Jobs. 'One way to remember who you are is to remember who your heroes are.' This realisation was to kick off a campaign that become known as the 'crazy ones', a campaign praising those who 'think different'. 

Even with a simple core idea, it wasn't an easy plan to pull off. Consumers were already holding back from replacing old Apple computers thanks to the publicity about Apple's financial woes. And Jobs was known to be uncompromising, someone notoriously hard to please. He hated the first draft of the TV ad, but agreed it carried a brilliant idea, confirming the ad agency's view that the soul of the campaign was there from the beginning.
Ultimately, the final draft used the 101 words shown above as a voiceover by actor Richard Dreyfus, a dedicated Apple fan. Black-and-white footage of 20th century icons — the likes of Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr, Richard Branson, Muhammad Ali, Mohandas Gandhi, Alfred Hitchcock and Pablo Picasso — provided the visual backdrop.

You can see the ad here

Few companies could have pulled off such an audacious plan, associating a nearly-bankrupt brand with a host of world-changing figures. But Apple backed its 'Think Different' approach and the campaign was instrumental in the company's path back to profit. 

The words defined the company's target audience at the deep level of values and philosophy, and declared its purpose of changing the world. Unusually for a tech company, the campaign used not a word of jargon.

In time, Jobs and Apple would transform five industries — personal computers, mobile phones and tablet computing, digital publishing, and animated films. You could argue that Apple made a dent in retailing too, by launching stores radically different than those of most retailers. But it's a path few have dared to follow.

So how do the words work?

There's no quick fix here. No computers, technical specs or prices. Instead, we have long-term vision, a reflection of Jobs, the man, and Apple, the company. The campaign foreshadowed the company's mission... 'The people who think they can change the world are the ones who do.'

Apple would follow through on its ambitious declaration by creating and selling revolutionary products to people intent on making a difference in the world. That's where we came in. And, let's face it, we'd all like to believe we can change the world a little before we die.

We've all been through times when we felt different from the crowd, out of sync with the accepted norm. 

And we identify with the rebels and heroes who stand up for their beliefs, no matter what the consequences. We admire them for getting back up when they fail, dusting themselves off and having another go. We wish we had their courage, persistence — and their eventual success.

The Apple campaign invited each of us to become a crazy, genius disrupter, someone made of the right stuff — creative, courageous and full of vision. How could we resist? 

Jobs was not a man keen on research and focus groups, preferring to trust his gut instinct and personal vision of how the world ought to be. More often than not, he got what he wanted.

But Apple also had an existing product niche in the creative industries. The company had evidence to support the belief it was already a magnet for those crazy rebels who wanted to make a difference. The goal was simple: make that group bigger.

These words are in the style of a toast being delivered at an industry event just before a lifetime achievement award is handed over with smiles and greeted by rapturous applause.

A clear idea, carried by simple words, building with momentum, emotion and punch.

We may feel this to be the area where all the writing happens, but the heavy lifting had already been done. Apple had a huge vision and clear target audience, along with a workable structure — the only job left was to choose the right words to express its message.

We all recognise good writing when we read it or hear it. Our reaction is both visceral and intellectual. With great work, we don't mind if the writer breaks grammar 'rules', and the chances are we won't even notice, so caught up are we with the power of the vision.

Apple showed the confidence to break a couple of language conventions:
  • sentence fragments — at odds with grammar 'rules'.
  • sentences that start with conjunctions — something most English teachers would tell students to avoid.
Since Apple's target audience were the crazy genius types, it was unlikely they'd object to breaking a couple of 'rules'.

But where it was important, those involved in the 'Think Different' campaign grappled with anal detail as well as big-picture vision. They even debated the grammatical issue of whether 'different' was being used to modify the verb 'think'. Was it an adverb? A grammatical mistake? Should it be 'Think Differently'?

Jobs insisted he wanted 'different' to be used as a noun — as in 'think big' — not an adverb — as in 'think differently'. It was no mistake, but a deliberate choice.

It's important to remember that the message of the 'Think Different' campaign stretched beyond potential customers. It targeted staff too, becoming a touchstone that reminded everyone of Apple's philosophy. 

Given the parlous state of the company's finances, the campaign risked scorn and laughter. Instead, it marked a turning point in the company's fortunes. It told staff what they needed to do to keep the company on track, reminded existing customers why they bought Apple in the first place, and wooed new ones with an ambitious, appealing vision.

This handful of words is simple and brave, aspirational and inspirational, shows clarity and purpose, and demonstrates the confidence to break some language 'rules'.

Whether we're building a world-class company, rallying a cause, or trying to turn a complainant into a follower, these words show that we don't need a thesaurus of words to make a strong case that enlists readers to your purpose. We just need smart ones.

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