Making some noise for your business to stand out

To learn to effectively market your business, you sometimes have to learn to be loud, and stand out from what other businesses are doing. To understand the philosophy of making intentional noise, we spoke with Ken Schmidt, former director of communications for Harley-Davidson Motor Company, and author of the new book Make Some Noise: the Unconventional Road to Dominance.

ABERMAN: Well, Make Some Noise! I love the title, but you know, it strikes me: I often hear people criticize businesses because they’re just always making noise, trying to get our attention. I don’t think that’s what you mean. What kind of noise are you suggesting that businesses and leaders should make?

SCHMIDT: The reason I use “noise” all the time as a subject is it’s this, to me, sublime metaphor for how the world really works. And what I like to do is, reduce everything down in from a business standpoint to what people say when they’re referring to business. If they’re talking about you, talking about your business, they are in essence making some noise on your behalf, and noise tends to go one of two ways. It is a static humming drone, which is the way most businesses are talked about, they don’t really have anything distinct or memorable or different to say.

So, it’s just kind of that predictable hum, or it’s a very distinct noise that stands out, that resonates, that people recognize immediately. And the reason I said that’s a metaphor is, if you look at it the way I look at it, which is from a motorcycle perspective, is that you know a Harley’s coming one hundred yards before you see it. The other brands of motorcycle, they all sound exactly the same. You have no idea who built it, nothing precedes it. Nothing remains after it’s passed.

So, from a business standpoint, you want to be like that Harley. You want to be known as different, you want to be seen as different, even though you’re doing something that’s the same as everyone that you compete against.

ABERMAN: And what a lot of people fall into, and you’ve pointed out in your book, is businesses tend to think, oh, I should compete on quality, I’ve got great quality, or I’ve got great service, and they fall into the trap of the table stakes being these things that everybody needs to do, but understand that all you’re doing there is just memorializing mediocrity.

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SCHMIDT: But what’s funny about that, and actually kind of sad, is that businesses tend to emulate and mimic the people that they compete against, the businesses they compete with. I mean, in what universe would that make sense? We want to be different than them, but let’s position ourselves to look the same way they do. Let’s use the same language that they do, let’s spew the quality talk.

You know, our commitment to excellence is unparalleled, and we care about our customers, and it’s all about quality, and it’s our people who make the difference here. Haven’t you heard all that stuff a billion times in your life? We all have! And when did you believe it? Everybody’s making that same noise because they think they’re supposed to, when in fact it’s working against them.

ABERMAN: Yeah. My stepfather was a package designer, and among other things, he designed the Campbell’s soup can. And he spent years teaching me about package designing. You know, soup’s supposed to have these colors, liquor’s supposed to have these colors, a spark plug’s supposed to look like this.

And it really makes me realize, as businesses and leaders, we all tend to fall into what we’re supposed to be because of the commonality. But that then means we don’t stand out. So, how do you recommend a business leader, we’ll start with the leader because that’s I think where it starts. How does a business leader start to create a culture where a company stands out instead of sounds like?

SCHMIDT: Well, the first thing a business leader needs to do is realize that deferring responsibility for your competitiveness, your positioning, your reputation, your desired reputation, deferring that to a marketing or sales function is working against your company, is also working against your competitiveness, because the leadership has to determine exactly what you want, or exactly what they want their reputation to be, what they want said about them, what they want to stand for in the market, and what they want their people to say about the business.

And you can’t defer that, obviously, to another department and expect that to work.

ABERMAN: The biggest issue with a lot of businesses: the employees don’t know why they come to work, and consumers don’t know why they want to buy the product.

SCHMIDT: If employees don’t know why they’re at work, and leadership asks, and I hear this everywhere I go, what are we doing wrong? We can’t retain our people! Well, of course you can’t. They don’t know why they’re here. They don’t know the overall mission, they don’t know the part they play in whatever it is we’re trying to build here. So, they’re going to look for that somewhere else.

ABERMAN: Yeah, my experience is that people want to win. If you tell them how to win, they’ll work like crazy to win.

SCHMIDT: People will rise to the expectation, or the standard, that leadership accepts.

ABERMAN: Now, without giving too much away, because we don’t want to undermine your book sales: you used long distance motorcycle rides with a fair number of points in the book, as a way to illustrate points. And by the way, I loved taking that ride with you around northern Italy, it was awesome! But do you find that you use those experiences as a way to disable people’s disbelief, or do you think that we tend to do our most creative thinking when we’re doing something we love, and it takes us out of ourselves? Why was this a recurrent theme?

SCHMIDT: That’s a great point. The reason I use motorcycles is, whether I’m speaking somewhere, or whether it’s in the book, or if it’s online somewhere, is that they’re very easy to visualize. They’re loud. You can visualize yourself doing it, whether you’ve ever ridden a motorcycle or not, so you get that sort of experience thing happening there. But when you can visualize something, you tend to remember it.

So, I like to wrap my my teaching points around sort of motorcycle metaphors or motorcycle experiences. That way, if somebody in a working environment is repeating the learning that they just experienced through the book, or through me in person, they’ll use those same kind of stories, the same type of visual metaphors, so people that will remember them, and repeat them. It’s just a fun way to learn, frankly.

ABERMAN: And it’s a great reminder, that at the end of day, noise is noise, but intentional noise is success.

SCHMIDT: Intentional noise is a beautiful thing.

ABERMAN: Well, thanks for taking the time, Ken Schmidt. Check out his book, Make Some Noise: the Unconventional Road to Dominance. Thanks for joining us.

SCHMIDT: My pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.