Don’t ignore the elephant

“Don’t think of an elephant.” I’m not sure the exact origins of that phrase but I first became away of it via George Lakoff’s book of the same name, and a story in Chip Kidd’s book Cheese Monkeys.

My take on the meaning is once you think about one of those lumbering grey pachyderms it becomes impossible to think of anything else, or other things. Things like language, where the inherent meaning certain words evoke make it impossible to think past them.

Here in lies the scourge of every person trying to find a way around what everyone else is saying. That’s something that can cause even the most grounded organisation to resemble a contortionist trying to say anything but the thing that is the elephant.

I’ve always been a proponent of people carefully using framing so they don’t trip over elephants – after all the minute you evoke those big floppy ears and trunk no amount of “…but” or “…not” will shift it. Go on try it try to not think of an elephant … bet you can’t!

I’ve been up close and personal with this particular problem for years. My elephant is marketing* – the thing that way too many people think of as the beginning and ending of brand. My definition of brand as the result of the promises you keep is my way of stepping around that elephant. But as you can probably imagine, it has its challenges.

I ran face first into one of those challenges the other week at an event. After answering a question posed by the MC he kindly asked my name and what I did. “Michel Hogan and I’m a brand thinker and adviser” I answered. The MC then extolled the audience to remember how important brand is for their businesses and if they need help with it they should seek me out for a chat.

Inwardly I groaned. I knew what was coming. Elephants running amok and heading my way. “No I don’t do logos.” “No I don’t do web sites.” “No I don’t do advertising.” So I decided enough. The damn elephant wasn’t just in the room, he was sitting in the middle of the table right next to the tasteful flower arrangement and jug of water. Time to call him out.

When the next person approached me, before they could even ask anything I said “I don’t do marketing.” And in the process broke just about every rule of positioning and pitchin. Then a funny thing happened. Instead of saying “oh ok” and walking away, we ended up having a much more meaningful conversation about why brand was bigger, more complex and way more important than just marketing – how knowing and aligning around their values and purpose are the foundations of building it.

In my work I’m often faced with elephants. Sometimes whole herds of them just come on in and stampede around making it almost impossible to see what direction we need to go. So here’s a different idea. If you’ve got an elephant being a nuisance, don’t ignore it. Do think of an elephant. It’s going to hang around stealing everyone’s attention anyway so call it out.

How you call it out will depend a lot your elephant. I’ve tried lots of things over the years for my particular pachyderm.

As I mentioned above, ignoring it doesn’t usually work. Just giving it a different name will just delay the inevitable and lead to all sorts of strange vague assertions. Trying to manoeuvre around it will likely just mean it takes you longer to say what you want to say or do what you want to do.

Will owning the elephant and moving on work? I’m not sure, but early signs are promising. It seems like it at least sits more quietly out of the way when it’s acknowledged up front. So for now I will be calling out my elephant. Not as the end of the story, as the beginning.

Because while I don’t do marketing. I do help you understand the promises are you making and how are you keeping them (yes even the marketing ones). And how your brand is the result.

* Marketing as referenced here is marketing communications. Marketing is a much broader discipline that when fully practiced can make a big contribution to building strong resilient brands.

See you next week.

Michel is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan


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