1. We Are All Designers

Mastering the Algorithm of Sameness and Difference

#12 Design Your Own Madonna Curve

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Have you ever wondered why, when you’re at a restaurant where the TV is on, you can’t resist the urge to glance over every few minutes? Even when it’s a sport you don’t follow, you keep checking it out. Bruce Mau explains that our brains are hardwired to do this.

“When our neurosystem evolved, it evolved in a context where, if you could see change in the landscape, you survived. If you couldn’t see the change, you were eaten … the lion or tiger got you. And so, we evolved a hyper-vigilant awareness for change.”

This also means that if something doesn’t change over time, we simply stop seeing it. In Bruce’s analogy, our ancestors learned to ignore the baobab trees and look for what was behind them. The lesson to marketers, then, is that to stay relevant —to attract attention — a brand must continuously be in motion; it must refresh itself. Automobile manufacturers got this idea early on by inventing the concept of model years. We are primed to expect new vehicles every year, which are revealed at elaborate auto shows, in cities across the world, in ways that recapture our imagination.

The person who best exemplifies a mastery of this concept is Madonna. She had the uncanny ability to recognize the shift in attention — the point when her command of the public interest had peaked and was just starting to decline. “And when that happened,” Bruce says, “… she’d disappear for 6 or 8 weeks, and she’d re-emerge with a really new image. And it’s important to see that it’s not just a variation on a theme. One minute she’s a cowgirl and the next she has metal breasts…. It’s not a different cowgirl outfit. There’s an actual change. You know it’s still Madonna, but you’re captured by it. It inspires you. It makes you talk about her.” Madonna embraced controversy. She was on hundreds of magazine covers with as many different looks.

As brand stewards, we can apply this strategy to continuously attract audiences, capture imaginations and inspire innovation. But, if we serve up the same content that’s available everywhere else, if we don’t change up our format or offer something exciting and fresh, our brand will become irrelevant. If we don’t design our own Madonna Curve, people will turn elsewhere for information, connection and inspiration.

For those of us creating brand experiences at annual conferences, trade shows and expositions, this can be especially tricky, because we risk becoming “invisible” to specific groups without realizing it. Are we failing to refresh our appeal to younger audiences? Or conversely, have we fallen off the radar of what should be “loyal” participants because we have underserved them in pursuit of some other group? It seems the bigger the tent gets, the easier it is for someone to get lost or left behind.

Consider this example: A trade show catering to manufacturers of musical instruments expands to include amplifiers and mixing boards and other electronics. The show has reinvented itself, but over time, it no longer serves the people making acoustic guitars, pianos and band instruments — which was its original mission. The show organizers can decide to exclude the electronica, but unless they design their own Madonna Curve strategy, they still face obsolescence. And if the group promoting electronic gear for the music industry joins a larger trade organization, they will still need a strategy to refresh their public image or they will succumb to a similar fate. Irrelevance begins the death spiral. The time to relaunch is when you’re still near the top.

If your brand dominates its market today, great. What’s your next move? If your growth plan is just to keep watering the baobab trees, it’s already too late. Your audience is focused on the tiger crouching behind those trees… and they are scanning the horizon for whatever is coming next.

You need to be what’s next.