What Your Brand Can Learn From Neil Gaiman

Author Neil Gaiman recently spoke to a group of college graduates about how to become authentic, make it as a professional, and create their own rules for success. Applying these ideas to your brand will make all the difference.

On May 17th, author Neil Gaiman addressed over 500 graduates at The University of the Arts’ commencement. You can should watch it at your earliest convenience—I recommend now:

In his speech, Gaiman relays many wise insights from the viewpoint of an artist, a writer, and a freelancer. Embracing the ceremony’s theme, “Courage,” Gaiman weaved together words and concepts in his trademark style, merging imagery, high concept, and whimsy that left these young minds inspired, grinning and applauding.

As I listened to Gaiman's anecdotes, confessions, and insights, I realized many of these same principles would equally apply to brands to produce profound effects.

The brands that win in the world actually do adhere to and apply a number of these basic principles. Here are 3 you can put to work for your brand or company: 

Copying Versus Finding Your Voice

“Make the stuff that only you can do," Gaiman told the students. "You may start out just a copy—and that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find their own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.”

Companies struggle with finding their voice continuously and endlessly. Sometimes, they luck into something that sticks. Other times, something much worse happens: a comittee is assigned to it (the ultimate nail in any coffin of a brand's demise).

The primary problem here is forgetting that companies and brands are nothing without the recipient. Yes, the initial passion is vital, but if a brand is to go beyond being a personal work of art, a company must embrace and build itself upon the views, values, and passions of the desired consumer.

So copy for a little while if you need to, but make it a goal to find your brand's own voice, a voice so remarkable that others will want to copy you.

Don't become complacent in this pursuit. The liberation that comes with finding your own voice will be worth the effort. If you lack the passion to find and embrace your own voice for your brand, nobody else will make the time to embrace it either.

Brand application: Nobody will put more life into your brand than you personally will.

Two Out of Three Is Fine

"People keep working in a freelance world. And more and more of today’s world is freelance because the work is good and because they’re easy to get along with and because they deliver work on time," Gaiman says. "And you don’t even need all three; two out of three is fine.”

Let's see how this converts to brands:

  1. You produce a great product or service (you do great work)
  2. You give a great service (in other words, you're easy to get along with, are super helpful, anticipate the needs of customers or are simply fun to be around with great wit)
  3. You're timely in your delivery (on-time or ahead of schedule)

Leading brands have a minimum of two of the above, but the truly stellar ones have all three.

Losing or struggling brands sometimes have two of the above; more often they have one which is overcompensated for because they know they're blowing it on the other two. But the point is, losing brands have too low a threshold on what it takes to make it. Their baseline is too low and people revolt in the form of unsubscribes, refunds, complaints, lousy reviews, and never coming back. Certain restaurants can only be snobby so long (justifying waiting too long for a meal to be served "because the food is so good") before patrons find someplace else where they are treated with dignity, not attitude.

Brand application: Find your sweet spots. Embrace your intolerables. Ensure your brand (and you personally) do more good than you think possible. 

On Old Rules and Making Up New Rules

“The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are. So make up your own rules," Gaiman says. "Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult—in this case, recording an audio book. I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it.”

Too many clients approach the "status quo" of how everything's been done with great caution. Frankly, when it comes to branding (as well as living in general), caution is the great vanilla-izer. It turns spontaneity into planned boring activities. Caution turns great mistakes (which open the door to innovation) into things which "must be avoided."

In short, caution sucks and will suck the life out of almost anything.

Steven Spielberg is said to have gotten onto one of the Hollywood lots pretending to be somebody, before he was somebody. Look at him today. For some, it takes “pretending.” For others, that “pretend” begins in their own conviction that they do something that change the course of the world. Steve Jobs is a a great example of this. He was great in his mind before others caught on. You can do the same.

Brand application: Learn rules. Then test them. Question. Verify that they're still applicable to today's circumstances. Invent new ones to achieve your vision.

So, if you have a brand. implement these and thrive:

  • Be bold. 
  • Without the passion, you only get money. With the passion, you get the reward of creating something remarkable and get to live with the joy of having been paid for it.
  • Embrace mistakes.
  • Break rules.
  • Make good art. Realize what you do and the service you provide is as much a work of art as it is a career or a profession or a source of income. 
  • Follow Mahatma Gandhi's words, "We must be the change we want to see in the world."

Go forth and kick some sacred cows' butt.

David Brier is an award-winning brand identity specialist, package designer, and branding expert, and the author of Defying Gravity and Rising Above the Noise. David's series of videos shed new light on real branding in these short TV interviews; find more thought-provoking videos on his YouTube channel, or request a free copy of David's eBook, "The Lucky Brand" here.

[Image: Flickr user Jutta @ flickr]

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