Alchemy: A book review

Just finished a business book on branding that I think will be rather useful for artists.

WARNING: people who like spreadsheets should lock their doors now, avert their eyes, and just keep driving.

Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life

Rory is an advertising guy, through and through, and extremely successful at it. What he’s doing with this book is getting people to step out side their normal (“rational”) comfort zone and reply to certain static observations with “Why not?”

As he says, rarely will people get fired if they follow the herd mentality and rational decision making process, even if the idea eventually fails. But you will end up looking and sounding just like every one of your competitors when you do that.

In writing, as with other art, our voice and vision is what sets us apart from everyone else. (In business, most companies either make widgets, or move widgets around.) We should embrace the unique.

So the suggestion is to ask pointed, annoying questions that challenge accepted wisdom on a topic, to see if there is a better way. And also thinking about how to frame bad things with silver linings. One example he gives is landing at the airport, but not being able to get to the terminal gate, because some other flight is still there. The pilot announced that folks would have to ride the bus (boo) but also that the bus would take them much closer to passport control, so they wouldn’t have to walk all that distance dragging their stuff (yay). A different way of looking at something. Silver linings are a human thing you can take advantage of.

The whole book is like that, asking if there are different ways we can look at things to make them more unique. Or give better service in some off-hand, strange way that doesn’t necessarily make sense. (His example is how much more frequently he eats at this one restaurant he liked, once he discovered a car park right behind it, and how a few other places could do the same. Put up a sign showing how to get to nearby parking, rather than changing the menu, for example, and it might increase your overall sales. Cheap, non-linear solution that helps your customers.) Not everything you do has to make the product easier, so much as making the process less painful.

Another example was a website that originally asked POTENTIAL customers to fill out all their personal information before they got to the ordering part. Once they flipped the sequence and gave people the option to just browse now and then fill out all their information later, the company supposedly saw a $300 million difference over a year. All that, just by making the process more user friendly.

Looking at a problem and asking about weirder solutions that might not cost as much money or effort than the one that the dipshit MBA with the pretty tie consultant immediately recommends. (And oh, by the way, his company can sell you that solution, too. “Cheap.”)

You are a brand as an artist. Doesn’t matter what your art is. Words, images, music. You have something special about what you do that sets you apart, and will make fans flock to give you money. (Maybe not much, but that’s the goal, else why are you here?)

from the book’s blurb:

Why is Red Bull so popular, though everyone—everyone!—hates the taste? Humans are, in a word, irrational, basing decisions as much on subtle external signals (that little blue can) as on objective qualities (flavor, price, quality). The surrounding world, meanwhile, is irreducibly complex and random. This means future success can’t be projected on any accounting spreadsheet. To strike gold, you must master the dark art and curious science of conjuring irresistible ideas: alchemy.

And a lot of it is alchemy. You can’t spreadsheet your way to solutions and expect to win. You can do okay, by looking and acting just like everyone else, but damn if that doesn’t sound a great deal like writing to market and expecting to get rich. Sure, you can put in a lot of work and make some money, but you’ll be another utterly interchangeable one-hit wonder pop star, here today and gone tomorrow.

You’ll want to look at your branding from a broader, weirder standpoint. How can you use alchemy to work to your advantage?

You’re artists. There’s a lot here for you to unpack. Just leave the rational, consensus-minded part of your brain behind.