Attention to Intention

Something that designers, branding folks and advertisers deal with is mistrust.  The level of trust in our institutions has slowly eroded to the point where not only is there no trust, there's almost indifference to the fact that there is no trust. Everyone thinks they're being sold a bill of goods all the time. And they're probably right! This makes us all believe that we don't want to be sold to.

But we love it. We seek it out. We're sold something everyday. We get sold on things  by our closest friends and even our own family. The circles of folk we run in are constantly telling us about the next thing we need, or the best of this or that. And we relish the knowledge they give us and act on it. That's called a sell job.

Yet things have gotten lost in how we communicate in the world of commerce (as well as politics, religion and love for that matter). A lot of what's been lost is the idea that words not only have meaning but intention. We only speak to say something. And lately you have to be part mind-reader, part psychologist and three parts cynic to try to understand the intention of people's words.

A huge part of the problem has been the concept of "framing." The idea that issues can be seen from different angles is important to discussion and a functioning society. But framing is not a method for discussion. Framing is a method for obfuscation. Framing is like a smokescreen. Rather than speak your truthful intention while recognizing the rest of a story, framing is intentionally building a wall in front of the story and putting a window only where you want people to look.

We do this by being comically subversive in word choice. To use a political example, the business world claims that they aren't investing in things because of uncertainty. Uncertainty is a convenient way of trying to advocate for their particular interests. To quote Ezra Klein:

Usually, business argues for their legislative preferences "because it would be good for business." Right now, the preferred phrasing is that "it would reduce uncertainty." And I'm sure it would! If the government would pass the "Give Ezra Klein a Billion Dollars Act of 2010," my financial future would become a lot more certain. But I only support that legislation because I'd like the particular future it makes certain. The "Throw Ezra Klein in Jail Act of 2010" would also increase my ability to do long-term planning, but I'm voting against it.

So what the hell does this have to do with anything? A brand that intentionally subverts its true meaning falls flat. There can be no trust. When your motivations are to do something that benefits your business but you hide behind the vagueness of "uncertainty" and you specifically use that word to make other people fearful you shouldn't be trusted.

Many brands do some of this because they don't know who they are. They mislead out of ignorance. Unintentional communication is just as bad of an idea as intentional misrepresentation because the results are the same – lack of trust in what you say.

What am I? That's the question we need to ask ourselves. Is your brand cheap and fast? If so you can't say that you're cheap and fast and of the same quality as the other guy. Because when your widget falls apart and your competitor's is still going strong you lose. And not just that customer, but the entire circle of people around them.

Long-term success happens when you communicate with knowledge and truth. Oh, you can gain short-term success the other way to be sure (see: Sarah Palin, Bernie Madoff, ). But believe me, mama grizzlies will turn on you once you burn them whether you intended to or not.