Between the Commas
As we were telling a potential new client yesterday, it’s all about what’s “between the commas!”
In the summer of 2005, I was struggling to find the right words when an important new client’s chief marketing officer proudly handed me a large three-ringed binder that contained the official branding statement for which his firm had obviously paid a handsome sum.
“This is our Branding Book,” he said. “It contains our Branding Statement.” My client had obviously paid thousands of dollars to engage his top executives in months-long process of introspection that resulted in the delivery of this heavy book that had since sat prominently on his bookshelf.
“What do you think of it?” he asked me.
I faced a big dilemma. Speak honesty and risk insulting his large investment and possibly lose a wonderful client. Or tell a white lie, praising the lofty branding statement and then from then on be saddled with infusing that into public relations documents.
“It’s a nice statement,” I said, after staring at the 10 words for what seemed like an eternity. “It conveys a soaring feeling, but it does not distinguish you from any of your competitors. You will never ever see that sentence ‘between the commas.’ ”
“What do you mean?” he said, looking at me with puzzlement. “What do you mean by ‘between the commas?’ ”
“It’s not a natural phrase that will end up being used in any story we place in newspapers or magazines. We’ll need to come up with something more accessible,” I said. And we did. The phrase we eventually sculpted for the firm not only appeared in many publications, a Google search today returns nearly a thousand references to those exact words – all associated with our client.
Just yesterday, we were meeting in our Peachtree Street office in Midtown with a potential new client. I was excited to see my associates begin to participate more in the interviewing process. At one point, our editorial director was answering a question about whether we could help this 10-year-old firm with branding.
She was telling the story of how branding is important, but needs to be accessible. She said, “it’s really important to develop what is …” She paused and looked at me and asked, “Did you make up ‘between the commas?’ ” I smiled and quickly said, “I think I may have,” before she continued explaining the concept to our guests.
I’m quite sure someone else said those words before me. Thanks to a Google search, I can see that other people have been quoted using those words, but they are dated after I first uttered them in my clients office eight years ago. I think some band has a song by that name now. And a bright young college student started a blog by that same name last year after crafting the phrase herself in a high school newspaper column.
No matter its origin, the concept is simple and very important. Today’s business professionals are often very good at what they do, but they stumble when telling people what that is, exactly. Skilled at their crafts, a professional must also communicate clearly what benefits their potential new clients will receive when hiring them.
It’s one of the most important gifts we give to our clients: the confidence to quickly express in a few actionable, expressive words what they do that distinguishes them from their competitors. If we are successful, the reporters who write about our clients will appreciate those words and place them in the first paragraph of their stories, right after the name of our client … between the commas.
If we’re effective, years from now, when our clients Google themselves, those words should be tucked in the first line or two of results – even if Google doesn’t present its concise results with punctuation marks.
– Chris Schroder