We Often Miss the Most Obvious Part of Our Message

What’s the best thing about your message? Often times, we miss the most obvious part. Finding it is key to knowing your brand.

In the latter days of the nineteenth century, Paris put on the Universal Exposition – a fair for the entire world. They picked 1889, the centennial of the French revolution. The great architect named Eiffel unveiled a steel tower 1,000 feet tall, higher by far than any made made structure on Earth.

32,000,000 people attended, which almost exceeded the population of France. (That would equate to 300,000,000 in America today attending one event.) It was so  big, glamorous and exotic that it seemed to those that attended that nothing could surpass it. Little today compares.

America tried next. After years of haggling between cities, Congress awarded Chicago as the site for a world’s fair, to open in 1893.

United around winning the rights to the fair, Chicago quickly divided over the best location in the city to put it. Deadlocked due to squabbling factions, the commission put in charge of the fair stalemated for months.

Finally the director brought in an outside voice – Frederick Olmstead, the man who had created Central Park in Manhattan. Olmstead quickly found a solution. His letter to the city, as Erik Larson recounts in Devil in the White City, describes the benefit of a brand as well as anything I’ve read. He begins by identifying the common vision behind which everyone can agree:

The fair is not to be a Chicago fair. It is a world’s fair, and Chicago is to stand before the world as the chosen standard bearer for the occasion… All Chicago can afford to take nothing less than the very best sites that can be found for the fair, regardless of the special local interests of one quarter of the city or another.”

Olmstead reminds the squabbling factions that it is not about a single group. It’s about the whole, which serves not ourselves but a larger purpose. He goes on:

“Part of the fair needed to share something in common, one supreme object, viz., the becomingness: the becoming this of everything that maybe seen as a modestly contributive part of the grand whole; the major elements of which whole will be the towering series of main exhibition structures. In other words, the ground, with all it carries, should be won in unity of design with the buildings.” (author’s emphasis)

Not only is the purpose of the event bigger than any single faction or quarter of the city, the presentation of the fair needs to be unified as well. A single design, focused on the becomingness, is a cool way of saying “what is yet to be” – which speaks to the hope and aspirations of people. He wanted the fair people to know the unifying factor, and the attendees – through design – to understand the same factor: all attendees united with a hope for the future.

As for the location, the best spot is the most distinctive, because it can most closely be connected to this unifying vision.

“What the many factions in the battle for the fair seem to ignore is that Chicago has but one natural object at all distinctively local, which can be regarded as an object of much granduer, beauty or interest. This is the lake.”

The local factions who argued about the fair’s location were seeing things from the insider’s point of view, not the visitor’s point of view. They had seen the lake view so long they had become invisible to its power.

For Olmstead, the visitor’s point of view was clear. It was all about the lake.

The commission ended up choosing a desolate park along the edge of Lake Michigan.

Today, that stretch of land is has been named the site of the future Obama Presidential Library.

It’s amazing how easily we lose track of the main thing. Branding is all about recognizing the lake. It’s about:

  • identifying your common vision
  • knowing your distinctive element of grandeur, beauty or interest
  • unifying your design.

When you emphasize the right thing, over time it grows tall as the skyscrapers that line Lake Michigan.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).