The Theory of the Brown Couch

The Brown Couch

“When you try to be everything to everyone, you get the brown couch.”

Growing up, I always believed our home was beautiful. My parents had lived in Japan early in their marriage and our living room was accented with Japanese chests and pottery, an old hibachi served as their coffee table. The hibachi could be partly disassembled: the rectangular wooden base included a set of three tiny black drawers on each of the long sides and the center cooking section was lined with copper. A thick wooden collar fit on top of the base like a serviceable shelf. The collar was remarkably heavy with each side about five inches square of solid wood. A removable glass top fit into the collar turning the cooking pit into a table.

My father’s grandfather was a rockhound, meaning he spent his spare time in the desert near his home searching out rocks and minerals. He had a rock saw and a polisher and when he found a rock with geode potential he would cut it open and polish it. His workshop overflowed with specimens of obsidian, malachite and quartz and dozens of geodes from his expeditions.

Under the glass of the hibachi coffee table, a small collection of Grandpa Harry’s rocks was arrayed making the hibachi coffee table even more unusual and exotic in its living room home on Chesterton Drive in 1970’s Dallas.

So, I thought my home was beautiful and fascinating. I took pride in the way my mom made our sets of Great Books and Encyclopedias and my dad’s collections of jazz and big band albums seem elegant, and admired the charming, cheery turquoise color she had selected for the kitchen. From the wall of the den, hanging kabuki masks looked down on our flower-power print couch, grimacing at the outlandish upholstery and smiling on my mother’s flair in pulling it off. We had taste and flair.

No one else had kabuki masks in the Ethan Allen world.

My father’s career had us leapfrogging across states, landing in this city for a few years, and that city for a few more before the next jump. Almost every move seemed to require a new family room couch, to suit the carpeting or the shape of the room, or the style at the time. The flower-power couch was overtaken by the blue and green plaid sleeper, which abdicated to the tufted pleather cigar-bar couch and love seat combination, in its turn ousted by a couch and love seat covered in a slightly dizzy pattern sampling the Country-with-a-K motif of the eighties.

Enter the next couch regime.

The most important thing about the next couch was that it be perfect. Maria and Larry had a long list of musts. It must have a skirt. The pillows had to be unattached. The arms had to be this big and not that big. The seat cushion had to wrap in front of the arm. The height, the firmness of the cushions, the trim; these were all precisely proscribed. The requirements were as exact as one of those sixty-page software requirements documents I was never good at writing.

The actual fabric to cover the couch, however, was uncertain. Swatches were ordered. Swatches were held up to the walls and the rugs and the framed Carl Gorman drawing. My brother and sister and I were called to frequent summits to examine photocopies of furniture catalogue pages exhibiting couch candidates and to opine on Swatch A versus Swatch B. Swatches were returned.

There were lots of summits. Sometimes all three of us would be required to attend. Sometimes, it would be just me and I would learn that my sister had already picked the stripes but they just weren’t sure. What did I think? Were the stripes too stripey, they wondered? And I would be advised: don’t tell your sister we asked you about the stripes. Okay, I would promise dubiously; we were a truth-loving family. Did I need to keep it on the down-low with my brother too?

This was getting out of hand.

I decided to close the sale. The next time I was called in for a consultation, in my most confident voice, I laid out the value prop for Couch #AB89873 in Fabric Category H, Tweed Surprise. I laid out the benefits and advantages while they nodded yes. When I heard them express in their own words a future incorporating Tweed Surprise into their daily life, I announced. “Great! It’s settled then! Glad to know that all this diligence and careful consideration has come to this glorious and final end. As in Final Final, right?” “Final!” they chorused.

Not So Fast

“Your father needs you to come up to the house tomorrow,” my mom said. This isn’t, I asked, about a couch is it? “Of course not,” she lied. The kabuki mask winked.

In the end, they bought a plain brown couch. It’s not that they couldn’t make up their combined mind between couches. It was that they had so many requirements and so many opinions that they couldn’t resolve to any choices. Nothing could fit all the requirements and encompass all of the options

The Theory of the Brown Couch: When you try to be everything to everyone, you get the brown couch.

The Brown Couch is in the room every time a group gets together to approve a new logo or write copy. When it comes time to select a tag line, everyone parks themselves on the couch.

If everyone can agree then I am confident that it will not be memorable. It will never be Seth Godin’s Purple Cow. If the new idea doesn’t make almost everyone a little uncomfortable, it’s will bore everyone down the road. It it doesn’t sting, it won’t sing.

When I work with a designer and they are showing me a few proposed options, whether it’s swatches for a couch or a website project, I listen to their pitch and at the end, I always ask which they like best. That helps me see the design from the designer’s viewpoint which is usually holistic and the purest one, the version least hampered by my long list of requirements.

And then I say, now show me the one you liked that you were afraid to show me; the one you loved but thought I would hate. That’s the goldmine. Even when you do hate it, there will be treasure in it. It wasn’t built to please you and your long list of must’s. I want to see what the designer dreamed up without pre-editing their idea to meet group taste. By the way, this is one of the best ways to educate yourself about design on the fly and will help you learn more about how to speak design and get the most out of your designers.

Be not afraid. Resist.

Go look at any B2B website and typically you will have no idea what they actually do. The final approval committee for the messaging is too afraid to narrow the scope. You would think they would have done their Moore’s Positioning homework and they probably did. But fear crept in. The fear of being too specific. The fear of leaving out a use case, or a revenue stream, or a product line; this tagline, this copy, this logo has to encompass everything we do. I call this the “But What Abouts.” But What Abouts kill creativity and specificity. Think of it this way: an Oreo cookie doesn’t have chocolate chips or macadamia nuts or peanut butter, which are all great cookie ingredients.

I’m just proposing that what you leave out of your design, your podcast, your portfolio, your couch or your cookie might be the most important thing about it. Everyone will be pushing you to fit more in, to make everyone happy, to meet everything on the checklist. Resist.

I once worked on a billboard campaign for a non-profit. The provocative idea we came up with was simple. Everyone hated it. It was hugely successful.

The Junior League is a well-known women’s service and leadership organization with 10,000 members internationally. Most towns in the US have a chapter founded in the last century by women of substance and social standing. In the following decades, League members invested their time and creativity into understanding and addressing issues that impacted the broader community outside of their families. Like most chapters, the League in my town actively partnered with other community groups, business leaders and non-profits to make good things happen in our town. Our organization had a sterling reputation; or maybe not. In fact, we found, we had image problems. As the head of marketing that year, I decided to re-brand our League and developed a multi-pronged plan, complete with a new, provocative tagline to remind the community of our positive impact over the years.  I presented the plan to the incoming president who had strong reservations. After all, our image, one of being an effective force in the community, was on the line; years of commitment, work and effort were being forgotten or discounted and being replaced with a less than impressive reputation and worse, we were being perceived as irrelevant. She was nervous and my idea was risky. Was I really going to plaster that tagline billboards? “No,” I said, “Not if you truly hate it. But if you are willing to take a risk, let’s get the Board’s approval and go forward.

It turns out that with that billboard campaign I single handedly destroyed the League in our community. “Did you know,” I was asked, “That my boyfriend and I were out to dinner with a group and everyone was saying that those Junior League billboards were awful. They make the League look terrible.” Really? I was intrigued: “Did you and a group of men and women really spend time at dinner talking about the Junior League? Let me ask you, did you passionately share with them the history of our League and what we have done and are doing in our town? Did you make sure they knew that the Junior League was much more than do-good snobby women wearing pearls? Yes, she emphatically had. “How many other times,” I asked her, “Has your dinner conversation centered on the League’s work?”

“None,” she replied.

If we had drawn up a list of requirements for how to get the League back in the conversation we would have failed. If our billboard campaign idea had been put to a vote by the membership, it would have been shot down. Two months after the first billboard went up, I was talking to the executive director of a fledgling non-profit in our community that was just on the brink of thriving, one that addressed the needs of children being emancipated from the child-services foster system. She looked me in the eye and said, “My goal is for our non-profit to be featured on one of those Junior League billboards.” The Junior League provided significant funding and leadership talent to found and support that organization. That’s So Junior League!

The Purple Cow Corollary: Boring Never Works

Seth Godin helped marketers everywhere when he wrote about the The Purple Cow: If you were driving down the road and saw cows, you might think “There’s a cow” But if you were driving down the road and saw a purple cow, you would say to your friend “Hey did you see that purple cow.” You might even take a picture, or talk about it at dinner later. A purple cow is remarkable; it’s something you would likely remark on.  Seth’s point is simply, if you want to people to talk about you, be remarkable.

You may be picking out a couch. You may be creating a new logo and website. You may be waking up a community to a new perspective; consider this: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth not boring everyone.

You really have to influence the “But What About” people. Show them examples of how weirdness, a big sloppy, flower-patterned couch or an out-of-place hibachi filled with rocks could make it beautiful. Talk to them. Say if you really hate it, we will kill the idea, but what if we gave it a chance. Sure, it may not work. But here’s something you can confidently say to get them on board with the purple couch: Boring Never Works.

But Wait

Something that is everything to everybody can never inspire wonder. It will never be wonderful. So does it follow that wonderful is always great? Is there a place for a Brown Couch?

That question brings around a word of caution on the Boring Never Works rule: it’s better to have one Wonderful Thing at a time. A truly remarkable couch may not need remarkable pillows.

I was working with a decorator on a room in my home and we were choosing paint colors. Should we go with something bold? Orange? Or my parent’s old faithful, Navajo White? She said, “You know, this room has a lot going on.” She was right. It’s not that everything must be wonderful, it’s that at least one piece of the whole must inspire.

Choose where you will invest and strike there with boldness. Every outfit, letter, room or garden; every project plan, project launch or sales pitch should have one focal piece that inspires. To inspire, it should not be everything to everyone. It should include a risky step out on its own.

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