It seems to be a disease of our time.
Companies, organizations, all kinds of institutions know themselves to be profoundly important--even essential--to everyday life. But the problem is, they're just not relevant to us, the people who are living that everyday life.
Think of all the big companies and old, respected non-profits that are enormously powerful. But you don't actually know what they do. Or how they do it. Or why they matter.
The 100-year old giant telecom company that is global--but when you're asked what they make, sell, do, provide . . . you don't actually know.
The non-profit that has been around for ever, doing . . . well, doing good. But exactly how isn't clear any more.
If you work in one of these organizations, you know what it's like to be invisible, inaudible, and irrelevant. If you run one of these organizations, or sit on the board, it's even worse. It's bad for morale, bad for finances and fund-raising, bad for business.
Left untreated it could be fatal; the good news is, there are three steps you can take to relevance--you can fix it.
Step 1: Make yourself visible.
When I was learning how to drive a car, my dad told me, "Don't watch the brake lights of the car in front of you; watch the brake lights of the car in front of him."
The problem for many irrelevant companies is that they don't have a direct line of sight to an end-customer; they sell their product or service to an intermediate company, and that company sells it to the end user. So the irrelevant company is hidden from sight, shielded from the end-user's sight by the intermediate company.
If that's you, do what BASF did a few years ago: Start a campaign that explains to end users how important you are to them. "We don't make X," BASF's campaign said. "But we make the Y that goes into making X."
All of a sudden BASF was stepping into the end user's line of sight!
So that's what you guys do! You don't make the actual life-saving product I depend on, but you do make the chemicals that go into that product! I get it!
If you want customers to see you, you have to step out of line and make yourself visible.
Step Two: Make yourself audible.
Do you actually know the differences between micro-processors?
For that matter, do you know what a micro-processor is? Or what it does--other than process things at a micro scale?
Neither do I.
That said, I do know Intel. And I like Intel, although I don't know why exactly. I just know that I like what Intel stands for. Although if you pressed me hard, I couldn't exactly say what Intel does stand for, come to think of it.
I just know that when it comes to my computer, I'm glad I've got Intel inside.
And why am I glad?
I'm glad because Intel made a big deal out of the fact that, even though I can't open up my laptop and look inside, it's really really important that Intel is inside there.
They told me that over and over again. They made it fun for me to know that. They showed me guys hopping around in bunny suits.
And now I know that Intel is a good organization, and that as a consumer of technology, when it comes to what's inside, I prefer Intel.
Intel got a voice and talked directly to me. And it worked.
Step Three: Make yourself matter.
When it comes right down to it, you may not have a way to stand out or speak up about what it is you make or do.
But you do have something you care about.
Face it, every company, every organization, every institution has to have its own unique values. Facebook says it embraces The Hacker Way. Google says, do no evil. Even Hugh Hefner went to great lengths in the early days of Playboy magazine to articulate the Playboy Philosophy.
If you can't make us interested in what you make or do, tell us what you care about. What you stand for.
If you can't make it business, make it personal. That's about as relevant as it gets.
Person to person.
Three steps to relevance, with one thing in common, the one thing Steve Jobs understood when he started Apple back in the beginning.
One of Jobs' first calls was to Regis McKenna, Silicon Valley's marketing master.
Because, as McKenna wrote a few years later in HBR, "Marketing is everything."
Three steps to relevance, but they all start with one giant leap: into marketing.
All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb