Make 2015 a Year of First Principles

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“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I once came across a website that sold manuals for creating Unique Selling Propositions (USPs) to small businesses. Among the preposterous sales claims for this manual was the following:

“In less than two hours… you can sculpt a killer USP that will literally hypnotize your prospects into buying from you and enslave a generation of customers for life…”

If you’re like me, when you’re confronted with hyperbole that’s laid on with a trowel, you start looking for the exits. That single sentence violates so many first principles that it makes me a little dizzy.

(To start, branding is about serving, not enslaving. A selling proposition can neither hypnotize nor enslave. And don’t get me started on the use of the word “literally.”)

But some people, looking for an outsize result with minimal effort, no doubt paid the manual’s three-figure price. I can’t say with certainty how that turned out for them, but I have my guesses.

Emerson on Principles and MethodsAlmost every designer I know has a few stories of clients who wanted a “world-famous, immediately recognizable” logo, usually for a few hundred bucks. Again, there’s no principle at play here, unless you consider a wish to be the same as a principle.

In the eight years that I’ve been writing for publication, I’ve focused heavily on first principles. It may not be the sexiest stuff, but in my experience, it’s the stuff that works. My premise is that, given the principles, my readers are bright enough to select the tactics that work for them. I think Emerson had it right.

Allow me to offer an incomplete list of first principles that I’ve found to be evergreen:

  • Brand-building is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s difficult work that requires sustained commitment, which is why so few brands attain greatness.
  • But you can improve your speed in a marathon. There’s no reason that you shouldn’t seek rapid growth, and the keys to that are focus and creativity, smartly applied.
  • Do something meaningful, and you’ll have a story worth telling. If you envision branding as a matter of service, of improving lives, you’ll never go too far wrong.

And don’t forget to bring your own first principles to work. Maybe you don’t want to be associated with tasteless advertising – even if, let’s face it, it’s worked in some cases. Stick to that. There are other ways to reach your goals besides crotch jokes, and you’ll sleep better at night.

Make 2015 a year of first principles – of fewer, more vital priorities.

Define the things that are most important, and select only the methods that fit those first principles. Your list of potential methods will shrink dramatically, and those that remain will work much harder for you.

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 2015 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.