Monday, July 18, 2011

Forget Best Practices
Maybe it’s time for some original thinking

According to Wikipedia, the known authority on everything, “Best Practices are generally-accepted, informally-standardized techniques, methods or processes that have proven themselves over time to accomplish given tasks.” Sounds good, doesn’t it?

It amazes me how many times I hear the term “Best Practices” in the course of a week or month. College professors and consultants love it. It’s a way to reduce mistakes and assure success…so they think. I’ve grown so tired of the term that I’m trying to remove it from my own vocabulary. You see, in my business, marketing communications and public relations, the goal is to discover different and unique ways to communicate a message, not to look and sound like everyone else.

I’m convinced that “Best Practices” are often used by people who are afraid, lazy, or simply lack original thought. “We researched the best practices and followed what has become the accepted industry norm,” is the answer given when challenged by the boss. Really? Here’s another way to look at it. “We couldn’t come up with anything on our own and we were afraid to take risks that might draw attention, so we found out what everyone else was doing and we did the same thing.” That’s a sure path to the executive suite.

What if our most celebrated inventors had followed this logic? Thomas Edison might have gone into the candle-making business and Henry Ford might have become a buggy maker or a farrier.

Raising the bar
When Fred Smith, founder of FedEx, went looking for money to start his new venture, traditional lenders reportedly turned him away because they couldn’t grasp the potential of his business idea. “I want to deliver packages overnight using airplanes,” was far outside the best practices of the day. But Smith had a dream and the courage to be different. He saw something that others didn’t, or wouldn’t, and turned his college thesis into a huge package delivery empire. If he had followed the accepted best practices, who knows what he’d be doing today?

Some practices just don’t transfer well
Just because someone else is doing something successfully in a certain way does not mean it’s the best way for you. For example, companies have tried for years to copy the Japanese practices such as quality circles, Kaizen, and Kansei Engineering. Some, especially Japanese companies, have had some success but others have failed miserably or had limited success. Why? Maybe it’s because of cultural differences. In America, we are radicals. One thing that makes us great is the individualism that permeates every company, community, and family. We find it difficult to blend in and do things like everyone else. We strive to be different and do things our own way.

Commoditization ensues
It seems to me that when everyone begins following the best practices of everyone else, there is a much greater chance that key points of differentiation are lost. Then, if every company and community looks, sounds, and acts just like the others, there is only one difference remaining……price. Not a great situation.

At Brand Acceleration, we are always on the lookout for unique ways to differentiate our clients from their competitors. If we did everything in the same way everyone else did, we be fired in about two heartbeats, as we should be. Our responsibility is to dig in, understand their industry and their target audiences in order to provide solid counsel that generates activity and drives dollars to the bottom line. This is an industry that often survives purely by developing clever and beautiful creative. My opinion is that creative alone won’t cut it. Our clients want results.

Got Milk?
In 1993, the California Milk Advisory Board and its ad agency launched this “Got Milk?” television ad that led to ads featuring celebrities wearing a milk mustache. The ads were simple, memorable, and very successful. In fact, the campaign became one of the most copied ad campaigns ever. A quick Google search revealed “Got” ads for mold, sports, originality (right!), pipe, Jesus, elk, and hemorrhoids. What these knockoff artists failed to realize is that every time one of their ads appeared, the audience was more likely to think of milk than their product or service.

Be original!
Whether business practices or advertising, it’s much riskier and far more beneficial to do your own thing than to follow the followers. I guess I’ve always been something of a radical. Maybe it comes from my hippie days in the 1970’s. When everyone else was going left, I’d go right, just to be different. I love the idea that being different gets attention and makes people talk. It takes courage, though. If you like the idea that someone might look at your ad, web site, or brochure and say “wow,” then you and I are likely to see each other on the road less traveled. I assure you that road will not have a sign that reads, “Best Practices.”

Jim Walton

Brand Acceleration is a full-service advertising, brand management and public relations firm operating from Indianapolis, Indiana and Charlotte, North Carolina. The agency’s focus is on economic development, architecture/engineering/construction and real estate.


  1. Well said, Jim. Best practices often gets poor results for the very fact that there is little original thought involved. Copying is not the solution, but thinking is.

  2. Thanks for the post Jim. What I've seen is that people have varying levels of risk tolerance and people are at different levels of "practices" on a spectrum. Organizations doing worst practices can benefit from doing best practices. Organizations doing best practices can benefit from innovating and taking risks.