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“God said ‘Let there be light:’ and there was light,” so the first recorded action in the universe was creation through communication. And equally important, that literally creative act was documented and distributed. So, in this tradition, our world is born out of speech (that we wouldn’t know about it if it hadn’t been recorded and distributed). By extension, marketing, advertising, communications, and public relations professionals are both creators of worlds and the message distribution life-blood that is required for these worlds to survive. That’s pretty cool.
As professional communicators, we are expected to create communications that will be noticed, recorded and distributed. In business, we do this in order to positively impact purchase decisions, accelerate sales, offer the business an enhanced level of recession proofing, positively impact company valuations/stock prices and support the job satisfaction, retention and recruitment of employees. That’s important.
In order to be noticed, outbound messages need to trigger the physiological sensors that can detect them. Aristotle reflected that people have five of these: sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste. To be effective, why wouldn’t modern communicators send various signals to any and all of these receptors? That’s basically what we do at Arrow Electronics, a global company that, at $23 billion in annual revenue, is one of the largest companies headquartered in the United States. I recently shared these ideas at the European Communications Summit, and it went a little like this:
Sight: The majority of corporate messages utilise sight in one way or another, so it won’t come as any surprise that Arrow focuses here as well. Our company logo provides the simplest example. When people see our logo, we work to make that visual connection elicit a favorable response. Think of what happens when we see an animated heart; we think “love.” When we see a Nike “swoosh,” or an Apple logo, or a drawing of Mickey Mouse, we have immediate impressions that transcend just seeing an image. The possibility for people to prefer one image over another simply on the basis of visual stimulation is central to the way that we look at the Arrow logo. We constantly explain and reinforce that we’re a company that guides innovation forward, a company that balances between practicality and possibility, and a company that is constantly thinking “Five Years Out.” This way, when people come into visual contact with our logo, a positive psychological reaction occurs that constructively helps us to move toward our objectives. We regularly promote our logo with clever creative and tier-one distribution channels in order to provoke this intentional response.
Touch: When we created the new Arrow brand in 2012, the first thing we did to share it with employees was to change the business cards of everyone in the company to reflect this new message. Employees reported mixed reactions when they received business cards with new graphic elements and the words “Five Years Out” on them. Think of it this way; as a method of exchanging contact information, business cards are relics of the 20th century that are probably ready for dustbins or business history museums. Their only hope for 21st century value is as a conversation starter. If I pull one out of my pocket, hand it to someone and they look at it and say, “What on earth is this?” then it has done something. So we increased the card stock, made the card odd-sized, and made the dominant feature the new look and feel of the brand, with the bearer’s contact information reduced in size. We didn’t really explain these brand messages very well throughout the company in advance, so employees began crafting their own explanations as best suited the business context that they were in, thus creating their own customised Arrow brand messages. These simple cards became a physical manifestation of the relationship between the bearer and the organisation. They carry the visual imprint of the company, but also the name of the individual. And they can only be distributed physically, through human touch. This physical impact seems very small, but it’s psychologically profound.
Sound: If music can convey messages around concepts like “love,” “fear,” “the city,” “the countryside,” or “the seasons,” then is it possible for music to deliver brand messages like “Arrow: Five Years Out”? Scott O’Neill, conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, composed a piece that did just that. The musical alphabet normally represents octave scale notes as the letters A through G, but if rather than repeating A through G the notes are extended up octaves from an A through Z, then it’s possible to spell A-R-R-O-W in notes. Brought into a single register, these notes spelling “Arrow” (A, D, D, A, B) form a lovely musical signature for our company. Scott placed rhythm behind these notes by also spelling “Arrow” in morse code! He went on to add connections to the pentatonic scale, the five notes in “Arrow,” and an emphasis on the fifth scale degree, and this brilliant composer found five fundamental pathways through music to express the identity, mission and values of Arrow Electronics. In this way he managed to communicate a company message and brand values with stunning clarity through music. This composition can be heard on YouTube by searching for “Arrow Five Years Out Theme Song,” and when performed by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for Arrow employees, audiences explode into tears of emotion and applause.
Taste: We took the winning ideas that drove the Colorado Symphony piece and asked: if our brand messages can be expressed in music, can they also be expressed through the visual arts? In partnership with the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver, Colorado, we put out a call to artists around the world, offering attractive prizes in a competition to artistically express the values of being Five Years Out, balancing between practicality and possibility, and guiding innovation forward. Having just completed its third year, over 300 artists have submitted concepts and 19 works have been commissioned. Upon completion and exhibition at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, these stunning works of art can be seen in Arrow offices around the world. So, rather than entering the typical company office that displays unrelated decorative pieces that may have appealed to whoever was authorised to select them in the office, Arrow welcomes guests with compelling visual works that reinforce our core messages and invite employees to share them by explaining these paintings, modern sculptures and experimental videos.
Online, this programme can be further explored at www.arrow.com/arts. What does this have to do with taste? Well, I call this “savouring” the brand. And I admit that this is a stretch, but it is work like this that leads Arrow in launching a similar contest in the culinary world: prizes to chefs who are able to prepare meals that best represent our corporate values relative to the meal of the future. It may sound silly, but at a company event this menu will either evoke conversation about what the company stands for, or how crazy the Arrow corporate marketing and communications has become – and we’ll take either conversation as helping our mission!
Smell: When it comes to smell, my story falls apart even more than taste, particularly since I don’t really think that Arrow Electronics branded perfume will be a very big seller. But maybe that might work for your company? And in any event, people are good at “sniffing out” deception. Every communicator tries to stand out by saying “We’re different!” That’s sort of the point of it all; to convincingly tell people we’re better, faster and/or cheaper. Nobody in communications and marketing ever says, “We’re the same!” So I would argue that in order for communicators to pass any reasonable person’s “smell test,” it’s not enough to say that they’re different. Communicators have to be different.
If your messages look familiar to you, they’ll surely look familiar in the marketplace and consequently go unnoticed. To be different requires confidence, courage, commitment and a willingness to risk being wrong. Communicators have a simple choice: take the risk of being wrong or accept the guarantee of mediocrity, irrelevance and insignificance. And by deploying messages using all five of Aristotle’s senses, by means of the creative platform alone you’re going to stand out in a crowd!
“To be effective, why wouldn’t modern communicators send various signals to any and all of these receptors?”
At some point, all communicators are approached with the question, “What is the return on investment of this activity?” These questions generally come from people who want to stop a communicator for one reason or another. When people like something and want to encourage it, they generally don’t ask for evidence of a specific return on investment. And measuring the ROI of communications is nonsense on its face. When God said “Let there be light:” there was light. Nobody said to God, “Hey, before you create the universe, could you please tell me what the ROI of that light is going to be relative to the cost of the communication/creation?”
An entire industry has been built up to strike fear into the hearts of the community of global communicators in an attempt to stop creation and stifle progress. It starts with the seemingly innocuous financial question, “What’s the ROI?” and underlies consultants and service providers who will sell frightened communicators all sorts of mysterious tools and snake oils that purport to measure the effectiveness of messages and their distribution.
At the end of the day, all that really matters in any communication are two things; the quality of the message and the quality of its distribution. It’s a mathematical certainty that the average quality message, with average quality distribution, will yield a positive ROI, right? If that weren’t true, and the average message had a negative ROI, wouldn’t we all go around with our mouths closed? So, by aspiring to be average in message quality and distribution, communicators can be assured of certain success (unless, of course, they direct a proportion of their resources toward the measurement of their effectiveness). Applying material resources in the form of capital or time to measure these matters drives up the cost associated with their production and distribution, inherently reducing their ROI. So… at some point you’ll have to trust your gut and your professional training. Why not start there?
The sixth sense
When I spoke on these matters to the European Communications Summit in Brussels in 2015, the title of the presentation was Six Senses PR, which required me to address communications that transcend our five known physical senses. I think that the “sixth sense” in communications relates to the creation and distribution of messages that last for the long term. To be truly effective, we need to create and distribute lasting messages, and the way to do that is not to focus on the long term, but to focus intently on the here and now. Long-term effectiveness comes from people whose senses are exposed to our messages and are inspired to store them in positive memory. This inspiration leads them to repeat and perpetuate the original message. And that’s how communication lives on after we’re gone.
At Arrow, we demonstrated this by building a race car that could be driven by a quadriplegic at high speed, and took it to the track. To learn more about this initiative, visit www.arrow.com/sam, but suffice it to say this initiative has delivered over 1.2 billion (billion!) earned media impressions around the world over the past 12 months. This summer, the car will be on display in Washington, DC at the Smithsonian Institute. Doing something outside the normal course of business that tangibly expresses our company values, while demonstrating that we can do things that no other person has ever imagined for the good of mankind, is the type of activity that inspires the world, and allows our work to have a shot at standing the test of time.
Communicators go out. Say the words. Create worlds and unleash the light!