All businesses could do with some McConaughey magic

The McConaissance isn't just for rom-com actors: but to reinvent yourself, start with your language, says ad guru Tracey Follows.

by Tracey Follows
Last Updated: 21 Aug 2014

For weeks I have been under the spell of the man who has bought about his own McConaissance. As I watched the Oscars and saw Matthew McConaughey pick up his trophy for best actor, I was spellbound by this onscreen anomaly. Could this be the same man who once fell for a wedding planner? I was witnessing a reinvention.

Captivated as I was, the cause lay not in what I was seeing but in what I was hearing. The language McConaughey was using was completely different to what I had expected to hear, or indeed anything like I had heard from him in the past. He basically thanked himself.

That’s weird, I thought. But then of course it wasn’t that weird because who else does one thank in a case of reinvention? The issue is how do you know when it should happen and how should one go about it. Mr McConaughey has something to teach us all about brand reinvention.

Reinvention is the art of creating a new reality; to recast something familiar or old into a new form of existence. I am reminded of someone I grew up with: Dr Samuel Johnson. (Just to clarify, we were both born and raised in the historic city of Lichfield and everywhere I went, he would be there too, usually as a statue). What he has to say on reinvention is important here.

‘The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.’

And of course this is the way in which we should view reinvention; as having an author. That is why I think McConaughey is quite within his rights to thank himself (odd as that may seem, even for Hollywood).

Dr Johnson’s quote also reminds us that it is language that defines reality, not vice versa. If one can author a new language and tell a new story in a familiar way, or a familiar story in a new way, the world will hear and see that as new reality.

It is most likely that banking brands would like to be viewed quite differently in the world than the way in which they currently are. Perhaps if they stopped using the language of ‘bonuses’ that might be possible. It is a language that is so heavily burdened and loaded with negativity, it is hard for people to see anything beyond the banking behaviour they already feel they know. So how might we learn the language of reinvention and apply it to a business or brand we would like to reinvent?

Shed the old to make way for the new

Some brands are very good at collecting new language, as are businesses. Recent examples include ‘omnichannel’, ‘personalisation’, ‘optimization’, ‘real-time’, ‘agile’. Brands can be equally good at forgetting to kill off the words they don’t need any more, like ‘process’ in light of some of those mentioned above. Unless these are killed off they tend to hang around, polluting the new language and resulting in confusion.

Brands who want to create new cultures around ‘community and collaboration’ should not at the same time be talking about ‘levels, layers and titles’, all of which belong to the world of command and control. When we adopt a new piece of language we should be chucking the old one in the bin so we don’t sound contradictory or have two sets of language operating at one time.

Name the successful outcome and measure it

A colleague of mine told me that a couple of years ago whilst at SXSW (the music festival/tech conference in Austin, Texas) she had seen McConaughey speaking on a panel about his plans. He said that his long-term goal was to win an Oscar and he had started to only select film projects that would take him to that end goal. ‘Oscar-winner’ describes a clear, precise, measurable outcome that he and everyone around him can understand.

Maybe if Kodak had described its anticipated outcome it would have led to better decision-
making and prioritisation, and a roadmap of what initiatives or undertakings would get it there. It could have strived for the territory of iconic imagery, social photography or professionals - only, we’ll never know.

Articulate your fundamental beliefs about the future

So many brands are frightened to make predictions as to how consumers will behave or what they will need for fear of eventually being proved wrong. Of course not all forecasts will be right, but as life-coach Tony Robbins would say, ‘you get what you focus on’. If you focus on your beliefs about how the future will pan out, it’s more likely that it will be that way.

Brands can’t reinvent themselves if they have no language about values and behaviours they believe will become most significant in the future. Why has Miley Cyrus’s behavior led to self-destruction rather than personal reinvention? Because it is all carried out in the present rather setting off on a path towards an intended future. Though she has added twerking to her repertoire, she still sticks her tongue out like she did as a child: she has failed to develop a new adult language through which we could know her any differently.

So perhaps we give all this its own language and name it ‘McConaughey’s law’, which states that if you want to successfully reinvent yourself, your business, or your brand then start by reinventing your language.

Tracey Follows is chief strategy officer at JWT London.

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