What's So Wrong With a Spiral Staircase?

Why too many brands are like homebuyers

Some friends of mine are selling their house. Everyone who sees the place raves about it. It's a custom-build, energy-efficient home with a pool and a large yard and in a great school district. But there's one caveat—the house has a spiral staircase, and potential buyers are afraid.

"We love the home, but we're just not sure about the stairs," they say. 

So what's the real issue here? Will it make moving a mattress or dresser up to the second floor a problem? Perhaps, but if you saw the size of the staircase and the open balcony upstairs, you'd understand how easy it would actually be. No, the simple answer is this: Their spiral staircase is … different. And different can be very scary, indeed.

In the advertising world, being different can be a good thing. But sadly, there are far too many companies who act like the potential homebuyers. They claim they want to stand out from the crowd, but find when the moment of truth arrives they embrace change as if it were a wet dog. Proverbial is safe. It's a cozy blanket. There's a certain feel to the fabric and it has a familiar smell. What they fail to understand is to the rest of the world, that security blanky is staaanky! 

Yet every year marketing departments fork out billions of dollars for safe, boring ideas. The truth is, fresh (and different!) thinking can make a difference to the bottom line and deserves a second thought. It should be the norm, not the exception, and it doesn't matter if your business is marketing, architecture, accounting, teaching, engineering … fresh ideas have been known to step out of the shadows and reveal themselves as a Tesla, a pair of Toms Shoes, as an HBO series, or an independent film. One could go so far as to say playing it safe is the biggest risk of all.

Ironically, the advertising business likes to sing about how creative we are, yet far too often we're afraid to show our clients the spiral staircase, despite the fact that it'll do the job just as well and, most important, it'll get noticed. 

"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse," Henry Ford once said. I'm certain if we asked other icons of today's business world—the Rose Marcarios, Richard Bransons and the Elon Musks—they would surely share a similar quote.

My guess is that when these titans of innovation look down from their high perches and view the world they helped to shape, they'd be the first ones to say the ladder they climbed to reach their pinnacle of success was not a ladder at all—but their very own spiral staircase.

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Dave Hanneken
Dave Hanneken is executive creative director at Hoffman York.

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