Catching ghosts

Ghost polaroid © drkrm gallery

“It’s our people that make us so special and different from the competition.”

I have probably heard some form of this in every organization I’ve had the good fortune to work with. It’s absolutely true. The problem is, from a communications perspective, that doesn’t make them special.

To be sure, organizations usually strive to hire and manage people for certain qualities and talents. But more than they might like to admit, significant aspects of their character arise from unpredictable and more or less accidental team qualities. Invariably, there are emergent properties that, one hopes, help an organization pursue its mission. Sometimes magic happens.

In my line of business, it’s critical to observe and articulate these qualities, both intentional and accidental. Many times, this feels like getting a Polaroid of a ghost. It’s hard, it takes a fair amount of faith, but when it works it’s very exciting. It might even tell a client something about themselves that they didn’t fully appreciate.

Two examples come to mind. The first was a project I participated in many years ago, with the global clinical research organization Parexel. A big business operating in a complicated space, they clearly delivered value to their clients. But they also had worthy competition, which also performed well for their clients. Why would someone choose Parexel for their mission-critical trials? Why would they bring return business, or recommend them to colleagues? After diligent investigation, analysis, and a few judicious creative leaps, we identified a quality that their clients valued very highly, and that they more strongly associated with Parexel versus its competitors: their trustworthiness as excellent advisors and guides. Steady hands for difficult jobs. We developed a brand strategy around this concept. Clients recognized it; it was, truly, authentic. But there was an additional effect we didn’t quite anticipate: it stirred Parexel people too. It expressed a trait they conscientiously cultivated, and that they were proud of. We captured a ghost many sensed but few could see.

The second was a project with a unique independent research institution in Boston, the Forsyth Institute. Over a hundred years old, the organization had an unparalleled record of oral health research and care. Innovations that emerged from the Forsyth have touched almost every human on the planet, and work they are doing today promises to benefit billions more in the decades to come. Their people were dedicated, curious, and in some cases iconoclastic—but from the outside all these qualities were hard to discern or put together coherently. They knew they were doing important things, but what could we tell them that they didn’t already know? What could we tell the world about them that would matter? We found their ghost by zooming out, looking at their people in the broader context of scientific history and the evolution of ideas. Their people made innovation possible by fearlessly exploring new ideas, and they fulfilled the responsibility of scientists to turn new knowledge into tangible health benefits. This attitude informed the leitmotif of the communications program.

It was once thought by some that photography stole one’s soul. I suppose those of us in the communications business, especially writers and designers, strive to expose something intangible in a beautiful image, for all to see—including the subjects.

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Tip o’ the hat to @matthewbeebe for the title suggestion.