Monday, March 19, 2012

Brother, can you spare a 'digm?


This weekend, I had one of those steering wheel-pounding “Yes!” moments while out running errands. I was going to the hardware store to get hooks for hanging garden tools in the garage. The mission was a success. The validation was just a bonus, and a nice reminder that there is still a place in the world for serendipity, even if it’s only on public radio.

It was some sort of smartypants current affairs show, and the topic of discussion was LinkedIn and the new realities of job hunting. They’d found an expert (imagine that), and she was explaining why people often don’t get any kind of response from prospective employers when they declare their candidacy for a job opening. The problem with it being so easy to submit resumes, now, she said, is that people submit a lot more of them. Without the burdensome steps of printing, addressing and stamping envelopes and finding a mailbox, people are scattering their CVs around like autumn leaves. As is often the way with these things, that has spawned a secondary industry, namely one that offers electronic screening of those resumes. Keyword-based electronic screening. In other words, no matter how what sort of skydiving gourmet/blogger/secular humanist/renaissance-person you may be, no matter how natively talented and self-actualized, if your resume does not contain the words ‘experienced transmission repair specialist’, you’re not going to get called back for that job. It’s like that.

And so is branding (this is the part where I pound the steering wheel). As breathlessly modern as the world has become, certain things endure. Fire. The wheel. William Shatner. And positioning. In the branding business, positioning is still the minimum condition for viability, despite its bell-bottomed origins. Before you can engage a consumer in anything resembling a branded transaction, holds the theory, they have to be able to clearly discern whom your brand is for, what it’s one of, and that it’s somehow different. It’s the middle part that spells trouble for an aspiring transmission mechanic, or anybody else with something to sell. It was true before there was cable TV, and it’s infinitely more so now in a world where less and less is shoved down our throats or discovered by accident, and more and more is found by specifically looking for it.

And yet we resist. Personal branding experts promote describing oneself as absolutely unique. Marketers gag at the idea that you should navigate by the lights of passing competitors’ ships. Consultants bridle at limiting their potential by defining themselves too narrowly. Tech startups – by the score – get drunk on their newness and don’t bother thinking about the real-life problem they’re trying to solve (it is, from my experience, the single most reliable predictor of failure). But algorithms still need to know where to file you. If they have to fight their way through a vain thicket of slashes, it’s likely you’ll end up invisible. And consumers still need to know what they’re supposed to compare you to, and substitute you for. The human animal’s tendency to think paradigmatically has not been altered by the internet; in fact, it defines it.

Or, put another way, the transmission repair guy gets the gig. The windsurfer/haikuist /ferret breeder/jedi of motive power does not.

As carbon is to life, so positioning is to branding. Yes, ours is a business of glorious adjectives, but those don’t mean much without nouns to hang them from. That can be easy to forget. Except in my garage, of course. There, everything is right where I can find it. And while it’s true that I may miss the thrill of finding the garden weasel while I’m hunting for a rake, there is more joy in the certainty that no leaf will escape my attention.

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