Meaning Beats Cliché


Last week we talked about the first songwriting hack for a better mission statement. This time, we have a look at hack #2 in the series of four songwriting lessons for businesses.

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Meaning beats cliché: lessons from Kendrick Lamar, Abercrombie & Fitch, Desigual


You have probably listened to cheesy song lyrics like this:

You touch my soul as I fly away without you, because you break my heart night and day and you drive me crazy when I hold you tight all night, oh baby it feels so right.”

These lyrics were created after years of listening and being guilty of occasionally writing such myself.* The following is an analogy in a business mission:

It is our mission to continue to enthusiastically leverage corporate deliverables as well as completely build innovative methods to solve business problems.”

This mission statement has been randomly created by the Mission Statement Generator (why does this tone sound so familiar though?). Both song lyrics and mission statement are bland, generic, broad, outworn, general, clichéd and used far too often for both business and songwriting purposes. They could be true for anything, anyone, anywhere, at anytime.

To enjoy a great song and to connect to a story, we need meaning. The same is true for a business mission. It is the summary of your company – be it a startup, built from your own sweat and passion, or a hundred year old international corporation that stood the test of time. Both have an exciting story to tell. The difference between great, mediocre and failure is often just the ability to deliver a great story in a compelling way.

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There are a lot of inspiring examples from organizations' mission statements: Uber is “evolving the way the world moves”, the Red Cross is “serving the most vulnerable”, Couchsurfing hosts “share their lives with the people they encounter”IKEA strives to “create a better everyday life for the many peopleand Disney claims to be “one of the world's leading producers and providers of entertainment and information.” All of these are quite some strong statements. 


You can easily test how meaningful your mission is – independent of the question if it’s the right mission for your company: Simply reverse it. If it doesn’t make sense to go after such an endeavor at all, it’s meaningless.

Let’s try this: “We want to serve our customers better than anyone else.” Reverse it and it says: “We don’t want to serve them better.” No company right in their mind would ever write that. This means that the original sentence is a waste of space as well (especially in times of Twitter).

Another example: the opposite of “serving the most vulnerable” is something like “not serving the most vulnerable”, let’s say the upper ten thousand only. Both missions are quite strong and actually make sense for organizations. Being this specific helps to differentiate, with all the pros and cons involved: think of Mike JeffriesSalon interview claiming that Abercrombie is a brand for the cool people only:

Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

For quite some time, Abercrombie & Fitch has been among the hottest fashion brands between LA and Düsseldorf. But in the long term, this interview and the underlying approach hugely backfired on the company. 

Inclusion and exclusion

I recently witnessed a startup pitch with the founder differentiating their products (some kind of transportation appliances) as designed for the rich and hip and stylish in the world’s coolest cities only, but "not for the everyday guy in Boulder, Colorado". That’s quite a statement with a great chance of being perceived as highly arrogant. However it could be also very successful in this niche market, especially since it came across quite authentic.

The Spanish fashion label Desigual states “It’s not the same” in its mission; this is even printed on most of its clothes that often have a radical color and pattern design. With its design, Desigual strongly differentiates itself from its competitors and therefore has passionate followers and strong opponents who would never wear this brand. But what the company does – and that’s important – it doesn’t leave people indifferent.

A strong mission helps to differentiate from competitors. This is true for songwriters and artists as well. Think of rapper Kendrick Lamar’s new album “To Pimp A Butterfly”, which is intensely outspoken and critical on social issues; just read storyline and lyrics of songs like “Institutionalized” or “Hood Politics” (attention: explicit language). Meaning and clarity trump superficiality and streamlined lyrics. A radical perspective wins over trying to be everybody’s darling. The songs and lyrics are obviously not everyone’s taste, but Kendrick Lamar delivered a remarkable and highly appraised album that makes a difference and stands out in the plethora of popular music. 

(Just to put things in perspective: On Spotify, we can listen to more than 30 million songs, with 20’000 new pieces added every single day.)

Being unique and different is a risk and chance for your company. Your mission might not be for everyone. In order to include anyone and to have fans, you have to exclude a large number of possible clients and products. Who do you want to be your clients, which prospective clients don't you want to attract? The mission is the starting point for these (more strategic) considerations.

Successful musicians also create distinct missions. They are different than others. The great ones often have die-hard fans and at times haters. Who would you rather listen to? Blake Shelton or Skrillex? Marilyn Manson or Barbra Streisand? Jay-Z or Michael Bublé? Selena Gomez or Rolling Stones? They may not be in your ballpark, but you clearly know what you get from them. They perform music which mirrors their artistic personality and which resonates with their fan base.

Let’s look at some of the recent chart toppers: most of the songs highlight mission and reveal part of the story through an expressive song title. We know what we get before we even listen to the music:

Wrecking Ball” (Miley Cyrus) is about being destroyed by love,
Roar” (Katy Perry) is about breaking the chains of society,
Stole The Show” (Kygo) talks about the end of a relationship like a theater performance, 
Chandelier” (Sia), is all about alcoholism,
Shut Up And Dance” (Walk The Moon) is about … the title says it, right? 
"Take Me To Church” (Hozier) is about bigotry.

For the record, there are some exceptions with successful songs that have quite generic titles (also look at Hit Songs Deconstructed for more awesome info):

All of Me” (John Legend) or “Stay With Me” (Sam Smith).
Happy” (Pharrell Williams) on the other hand sounds like a candidate in this category too, but it isn’t, as the title catches the artist’s song mission in a great way. Listen to the song once (if you are one of the few who haven’t heard it already) and you understand why.

In my next blog post, you'll learn about the third songwriting hack and further implications for your mission statement.

* Songwriter’s defense to cliché texts: Sometimes it works for song lyrics to be abstract and general, especially if the lyrics are not the most important part of the song. Think of electronic dance music: Rhythm and production elements are the focus, not so much the storyline.





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Johannes FleckerComment