Do sweat the small stuff

I’ve seen it before – it is often the smaller details of a business that can be indicative of larger directions, or bigger problems. SEAN ADAMS

Sean Adams

By Sean Adams

One of my favourite sections of Malcolm Gladwell’s seminal book The Tipping Point is where he talks about the “broken windows” approach to addressing New York’s crime problem.

For those who haven’t read the book, allow me to offer a précis.

In this section he talked about how New York authorities, faced with a crime epidemic, decided that the best way to tackle the big picture was to concentrate on the little picture first. As a result, they came down hard on fare evaders, painted over any graffiti overnight and, yes, fixed any broken windows immediately.

These seemingly small measures sent out a much more significant message to those involved in crime, or considering future criminal activities, that the authorities were in charge and meant business. If they are that focused on fixing broken windows, they must be even more on the ball when it comes to the bigger stuff.

The results were spectacular, reversing a long term trend and seeing crime statistics decline.

I contrast this with a scenario at an advertising agency I used to work for. Almost seems a bit old fashioned now, but this agency had employed a tea lady for as long as anyone could remember. She came in each day, served tea and coffee in client meetings and usually baked something for the staff to enjoy. She was also everyone’s favourite aunty and played a role in dishing out advice and helping to fix staff personal problems.

Anyway, the agency was going through a bit of a rough patch and new management were installed by the global chiefs. One of their first actions was to fire the tea lady – we learned about it by memo and never even had the chance to say farewell to her.

Presumably the hard-edged new management had looked at ways of cutting costs and saw the tea lady as a bit of an unproductive extravagance.

However, if they’d looked a bit more closely they might have seen the folly of their ways. Apart from keeping us well nourished, our beloved tea lady was a symbol of a company that cared for its staff.

Once she was gone, morale seemed to change sharply – the rough patch became even rougher and many staff decided it was time to move on. Myself included.

Now I’m not sure how many people would have cited the lack of a tea lady as a reason to change jobs, but it does illustrate how small things can have a big impact on people’s attitudes, and that this in turn can lead to significant changes in their behaviour.

While on the surface, a crime wave in New York may not seem to have much in common with scones in Sydney, I believe that they both underline the same point; one that has direct relevance to marketers.

Often it is the smallest things that your brand does (or doesn’t do) that customers notice and in turn this can have a disproportionate effect on their feelings towards it.

So, the next time you are contemplating making changes to some aspect of your brand, have a think about how these little changes may be interpreted as symbols of a bigger change in your brand’s direction and whether this change is taking it to a place where customers don’t want to go.


Sean Adams founded his marketing advisory company The Seed in late 2000. Sean has had nearly 20 years advertising experience in Australia and Britain across a range of disciplines – research, planning, account management and media. Over that time he has worked with some of the world’s top advertising agencies, working with many of the world’s leading brands.

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