The Do-Say Ratio

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“What you do speaks so loud I cannot hear what you say.”

So said Ralph Waldo Emerson back in the 19th century. Could it be that ol’ Ralph had something to offer the modern-day brand-builder?

Two Brand “Buckets”

I submit that every brand has two conceptual “buckets” – a Say bucket and a Do bucket. Every marketing and branding decision, plus a number of operational, managerial and cultural choices, fall into one of these two buckets.

Most brand leaders are overly concerned with the Say bucket. They want a fresh logo, an updated website, a new deck for the sales team. But what good is an updated website for a parity product? Why charge your salespeople with the unenviable, spirit-crushing task of peddling a deficient service?

Today, I’d like to introduce a concept I call the “Do-Say Ratio.” When building brand strategy, planning your future or allocating resources, The Do-Say Ratio dictates:

“Focus at least two-thirds of your energy on what you do; focus the remainder on what you say.”

In other words, your experience is – at a minimum – twice as important as your communications. What you do trumps what you say.

Starbucks Got It, Then Didn’t

For years, Starbucks lived this idea. It created a compelling environment, loaded with rich sights, sounds and smells. Its employees were well-trained and rewarded. It created unique menu offerings and took pains to ensure quality. As a result, in its entire history, it has spent next to nothing to promote its stores. It hasn’t needed need to. It had customers buzzing, in more ways than one.

So why has Starbucks struggled recently? Because it started to focus on expansion, not experience. Hiring and training has suffered. Stores are noticeably dirtier. Consumers complain about the declining quality of the lattes. Take away the finer points of its experience, and it turns out Starbucks is just another coffee shop.

Our local arts community has shown that it embraces the premise of the Do-Say Ratio. Take Know Theatre. In addition to the intimate theater, its facility includes the Jackson St. Underground, a gathering place that encourages attendance and discussion before and after shows. And Know stages progressive, cutting-edge productions that are far removed from ordinary fare. Know puts the right amount of focus on its Do bucket, resulting in a unique night out for its patrons.

Meanwhile, over at the Cincinnati Ballet, they’re working on what marketing director Barb Hauser calls “extending the experience.” After some performances, the Ballet now hosts after-parties, answering the query so often posed following an arts performance: What next?

And then there’s the series of “webisodes” that can be found on YouTube and These short videos take a humorous slant on current productions. For instance, in the webisode entitled “Smackdown: Ballet Style,” the dancers show off some dazzling moves in a good-natured game of one-upsmanship. It’s set to the tune of “Bolero,” a recent production, and visitors who cast votes after watching the video received a discount on show tickets.

It’s meant to change perceptions – to demonstrate that the ballet offers, in Ms. Hauser’s words, “more than just tutus and tights.” Viewers can connect to the performers as well as the performances. And, not incidentally, all this experiential stuff helps the Ballet meet its business objectives – such as reaching new audiences and putting butts in seats.

Take an honest look at your marketing, brand and business activities. What does your brand’s Do-Say Ratio look like? How do you invest your limited resources of time, people and energy? Are you truly focused on what you do, or just what you say?

Consider what your experience is and how it can be improved. But also consider what your experience could be. And ask these questions constantly. Your Do bucket can never be too full.

One last point: Once your Do bucket is loaded up, you’ll also have something meaningful to add to your Say bucket. And your customers will have something to tell their friends.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on April 18, 2008, in the column “That Branding Thing.”

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2008 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.