Conflict between corporate conformity and corporate creativity limits
By Bruce Goldfaden, LSV Communications
In his book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace(1), author Gordon MacKenzie, who was a Hallmark Cards, Inc., artist for 30 years, begins his narrative by describing his many guest visits to elementary schools “to share with grade-school children the experience of transforming flat, cold sheets of steel into animals...” [his hobby]. During these visits, he would ask the young students,
“ ‘How many artists are there in the room? Would you please raise your hands?
“ ‘The pattern of responses never varied.
“ ‘First grade:
“En mass the children leapt from
their chairs, arms waving wildly,
eager hands trying to reach
the ceiling. Every child was
“ ‘Second grade:
“About half the kids raised their
hands, shoulder high, no higher.
The raised hands were still.
“ ‘Third grade:
“At best, 10 kids out of 30 would
raise a hand. Tentatively.
“And so on through the grades. The higher the grade, the fewer the children raised their hands. By the time I [visited] the sixth grade, no more than one or two did so and then only ever-so-slightly—guardedly—their eyes glancing from side to side uneasily, betraying a fear of being identified by the group as a ‘[secret] artist.’ ”
During these sixth-grade visits, MacKenzie would tell these students about the younger students’ responses, and would ask, ‘What’s going on here? Are all the artists transferring out and going to art school?’ Following the sixth-grade students’ laughter, he concluded, ‘I think that what’s happening is that you are being tricked out of one of the greatest gifts every one of us receives at birth. That is the gift of being an artist, a creative genius.’ ”
Am I wrong to begin a blog post about the state of business website design creativity by looking at this anecdote? Or, is the anecdote a confirmation that intellectual development is considered far superior to creative development? And, by “creative,” we’ll go with the merriam-webster.com definition: “2 : having the quality of something created rather than imitated : IMAGINATIVE.” Based on this definition, this is our opinion:
There's a conflict between corporate conformity and corporate creativity, limiting website design differentiation, that we’ve observed for 26+ years in oilfield marketing. And, based on the websites of other industry verticals we’ve researched over these years, there's the same conformity versus creativity conflict.
Are many companies afraid if they green light creative genius on their websites, they’ll have to “[glance] from side to side uneasily, betraying a fear of being identified by [competitors] as a ‘[secret] artist?’ ” We would say, yes, many companies are fearful of website creativity, which leads to a similar look and feel among competitors in a vertical, and the answer to the title of this blog post: Why does your website look like your competitors’ website? Because differentiation is a vital factor of marketing with product, price, place, and promotion, this similar design strategy can prevent these companies from creating an emotional attachment to the specific brand with the accompanying reduced competitive advantage and fewer sales prospects.
The corporate website sea of sameness
You don’t have to look far or wide to see the sea of sameness we’re describing. Look at many US corporate websites, and your eyes can glaze over as your mind attempts to swim through the rising tide of the sea’s complicated navigation, difficult-to-read font, deep copy walls, and uninteresting photos, preventing you from quickly finding the correct information. Now that the mind is floating freely and searching for a life raft to sustain you on the journey through the sea, there will be moments when you’ll all but sink into the sea’s surging monotony. These sensations occur when navigating the website of a corporation that fears creativity.
The website design standard for many corporations often comes from inside the box because website and graphic designers are not encouraged to create outside the box.
But, please, don’t rely on our opinion. All good business writing requires independent documentation. So, along those lines, and the fact we can't analyze millions of business websites, we thought to turn to ChatGPT Plus, GPT-4, in a conversation on the state of corporate creativity. As the AI tool explained to me, “My training data includes information up to January 2022. I do not have the capability to access real-time information or updates, including current events, market trends, or up-to-date company information. The sources of my knowledge are diverse and include websites, books, articles, and other texts, but I can't cite specific sources.” We'll identify the LSV prompt and the following ChatGPT Plus response so there’s no mistaking or combining LSV and AI content.
ChatGPT Plus prompt
I think corporate marketing executives fear creativity so they won't look bad.
ChatGPT Plus response
“Certainly, your point that corporate marketing executives might fear creativity so they won't look bad is a valid one. In the corporate world, taking risks can be seen as a potential liability, especially if those risks don't pan out. Executives often have to answer to stakeholders, including board members and shareholders, who may be more interested in stable, predictable returns rather than innovative, creative endeavors that carry a risk of failure.
“Additionally, embracing creativity often involves stepping into the unknown, which can be uncomfortable for people who are used to data-driven decision-making and clearly defined key performance indicators (KPIs). Creativity can be difficult to quantify, and therefore, it might not fit neatly into the risk-assessment models that many corporations use.
“Moreover, the fear of looking bad, as you pointed out, can be a strong motivator to stick to the status quo. Failure can have significant repercussions in the corporate world, including negative impacts on one's career advancement.
“Therefore, while creativity is often lauded as essential for innovation and growth, the pressures and structures in corporate settings can make executives cautious about fully embracing it.”
The corporate website lake of creativity
In the oilfield vertical, we believe at least two companies know that “creativity is often lauded as essential for innovation and growth…”: These two companies, Chevron and slb, have creative websites.
Chevron and slb stand out in the corporate website lake of creativity, a considerably smaller body of water than the website sea of sameness. They understand the website marketing maxim: customers and prospective customers are doing a company a favor by visiting a website in the first place so the company returns the favor by offering content that is easy on the eyes and inviting to navigate with easy-to-find information; in other words, creative.
Let’s look at chevron.com in the international oil company vertical. You have to be impressed, or at least we are, that Chevron’s executives and marketing team realize that the atmosphere is not going to deteriorate by using lowercase letters, a complete reversal of the US corporate writing style to capitalize innumerable letters or what’s known as capitalization for emphasis. [This corporate writing style of capitalization for emphasis, instead of simply and only for proper nouns and trademarked products, is one of the three primary writing characteristics in the sea of sameness, we believe; the other two writing characteristics, in our opinion, are frequent incorrect word usage(2) and the misunderstanding of joined prefixes(3).]
Lowercase letters are scannable because of the varying letter shape versus the uniform vertical shape of uppercase letters that strain the eyes. This easy-on-the-eyes-and-mind font is supported with a banner photo that, interestingly, has a television look and feel, nearly filling the screen as of November 7, 2023. The photo supports the lowercase subhead below. Underneath two large vertical photos is a large video window, also with a television look and feel, that invites the site visitor to learn about the company's expertise voluntarily; the messaging is lowercase also.
The global navigation [page title menu] of chevron.com is lowercase also, as are each page’s subheads. For example, you can quickly navigate the project portfolio page through the large, aesthetically pleasing and thoughtfully chosen photos that illustrate and describe some of Chevron's major oil and gas plays. This page also has a large video in a nearly full-screen view.
With a minimal number of words, the subheads and images encourage the site visitor to go through the site leisurely, which we think creates stickiness: engaging visitors to remain on-site instead of bouncing off and not returning. How refreshing to see a company of Chevron’s stature align with a communication style of brevity that is becoming, if not has become, our prevalent communication style from the influence of text messaging, social media, and video. We, as in all of us, like content that we can quickly scan and comprehend in our personal website browsing. So, why does that affinity for simplicity escape some corporate marketing departments? Chevron, as you can see when you’re on the site, does appreciate this fundamental point of communication minimalism. Great website, Chevron.
Moving on to the oilfield services vertical, the clear website leader, we think, is slb.com. Company executives also realize the value of lowercase letters and, with the new naming and branding, have standardized on slb instead of SLB. Like Chevron, slb knows navigating a web page can be difficult when too much copy is fighting for too little space with photos slightly larger than postage stamps. The top half of slb.com, as of November 7, 2023, is a video that fills the screen to support the company's value proposition. Who prefers to watch a video instead of reading? Nearly everyone.
As you scroll below the video to the bottom half of the screen, there's a large photo almost the width of the video above; the photo perspective is the ground up with four beige cylindrical storage tanks framing the image; the sky is the focal point. What an unusual and creative perspective. Below this photo is another value proposition.
Navigating down the page, there's a 3 1/2-inch-tall banner: the left side includes a digital stock ticker with red and green percentages indicating the gain or loss and, on the right, a headline announcing Q3 earnings results in big white font on the slb brand color. Inviting. As you scroll farther, we like the Products and Services New to the market layout with a 4 1/2-inch-tall image. slb appreciates that large images engage the site visitor, explaining why even something as mundane as shale can be included stylishly with a 5 1/2-inch x 5 1/2-inch photo on the Frac Plugs and Sleeves page. Some websites would post this image at a fraction of the size, encouraging site visitors to bounce off the page because of the usual look and feel.
Overall, the slb global navigation dropdown menus fill half the page, another element that goes against the common practice of considerably smaller dropdowns with much smaller fonts. Like chevron.com, the slb.com site has thoughtful, engaging navigation with a minimalist look and feel: light on copy with outstanding photos and videos. We think slb.com also creates stickiness. Great website, slb.
Nothing to lose but sales prospects
As a marketer, I hope more companies will join Chevron and slb on the creativity journey. All you have to do is loosen the reins on the creative team and see what they come up with. And, who knows, maybe you’ll recapture some of your lost marketing opportunities because, by maintaining the website status quo, you’re probably losing sales prospects who bounce off your site instead of engaging with the content and converting with a contact form.
Give prospective customers a psychological incentive to care, as chevron.com and slb.com do.
Generate mindshare for the brand with creative website differentiation, offering meaningful experiences that prompt visitors to return for more. Your website is often the first point of contact a potential customer has with your company; the site is an essential platform for communicating your brand's identity, values, and technology and, subliminally if not overtly, your overall beliefs about innovation. Can your website communicate that your company has innovative technology or services if the design resembles your competitors? But, again, don’t take our word. Let’s ask the AI tool about the downside of marketing that follows the crowd.
ChatGPT Plus prompt
When competitors’ marketing looks the same, what is the loss?
ChatGPT Plus response
“When companies' marketing looks the same or is too similar, there are several potential losses and drawbacks:
“1. Loss of Brand Identity: Each company's branding and marketing should reflect its unique values, culture, and offerings. When marketing looks the same across companies, it diminishes the unique brand identity of each company.
“2. Reduced Competitive Advantage: One of the main goals of marketing is to differentiate a company from its competitors. If marketing strategies and visuals are too similar, companies may lose their competitive edge.
“3. Customer Confusion: Similar marketing can lead to confusion among customers. They might struggle to differentiate between products, services, or companies, leading to misinformed decisions.
“4. Wasted Marketing Budget: If marketing efforts fail to differentiate a company from its competitors, the return on investment (ROI) is likely to be lower. Companies might end up spending money on campaigns that don't deliver the desired results.
“5. Decreased Trust: Consumers might perceive the lack of originality as a lack of effort or authenticity on the company's part, leading to decreased trust in the brand.
“6. Missed Opportunities: By not differentiating themselves, companies might miss out on the opportunity to cater to specific niches or target audiences that their competitors aren't addressing.
“7. Decreased Engagement: Unique and original marketing tends to be more engaging and memorable. When marketing looks the same, consumers are less likely to engage with it, leading to decreased interaction and retention.
“8. Potential Legal Issues: Depending on how similar the marketing materials are, there could be legal implications related to copyright infringements or unfair competition.
“9. Loss of Creativity and Innovation: Marketing that looks the same might indicate a lack of creativity and innovation in the industry, which can stifle growth and the introduction of new ideas.
“For companies, especially those in a competitive market, it's crucial to regularly review their marketing strategies and materials to ensure they remain distinct and true to their brand. This not only helps in retaining and attracting customers but also establishes a strong brand presence in the market.”
In a recent LinkedIn post, we said,
Corporate website design does not have to be so, so serious, regardless of what came before, such as features and benefits that are antiquated because the typically long lists do not communicate product, service, or technology value.
Your prospective customer base is losing baby boomers and gaining Gen Zers who’ve been online since they could walk and talk. They’re not into old-school marketing. They’re into digitally efficient information presented in an engaging, relatable format with color and infographics and large photos and videos, everything easy to comprehend, the marketing dynamic that Chevron and slb apply.
Our communications habits are changing what customers expect to see from us now. They’re moving quickly beyond the old traditions. With appropriately creative website design, there's nothing to fear. Is there a law that requires many corporate websites to be uncreative? We made up uncreative websites and continuously nurture their existence, the reason for this decades-old conflict between corporate conformity and corporate creativity in website design and other marketing collateral and advertising campaigns.
As we look ahead to 2024, let the tension between conformity and creativity sink; submerge the tension to breathe in the oxygen of a new age of corporate marketing ideas.
Thoughtfully, imaginatively be the sea change. Sail beyond the narrow straits of the corporate website sea of sameness into the wide-open water and sunlight into what can be the corporate website sea of creativity. In this sea, you can differentiate your brand from competitors and generate an emotional attachment to the brand with all of the revenue power that goes with this exhilarating dynamic.
"The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress." Charles Franklin Kettering, (1876-1958, 82), American inventor, engineer, and businessman. Kettering, who was the head of research at General Motors for 27 years, was granted 186 patents.
1 Copyright © Gordon MacKenzie, 1996. All rights reserved. Viking. Published by the Penguin Group. Penguin Putnam Inc.
2 Frequent incorrect word usage includes: affect and effect; anyway and anyways; because and due to; beside and besides; compared to and compared with; comprise and consist; cost and costs; different from and different than; effects and impact; ensure and insure; farther and further; include and incorporate; irregardless and regardless; its and it's; lay and lie; risk and risks; saving and savings; technology and technologies; toward and towards; verse and versus; who and whom; your and you're. In the category of incorrect punctuation, the hands-down leader is placing an apostrophe before an “s” as in “ ‘s ” to communicate a plural concept; examples: 2023s not 2023’s; dos and don’ts not do’s and don’ts; the ins and outs not the in’s and out’s; pros and cons, not pro’s and con’s; VIPs, not VIP’s.
3 The misunderstanding of joined prefixes—which include anti, co, down, electro, extra, inter, micro, mid, multi, non, over, poly, pre, pro, pseudo, quasi, re, semi, sub, super, ultra, un, under, and up—causes frequent misspellings. Joined prefixes form words without a hyphen. Correct usage of joined prefixes includes antifreeze, coworker, downstream, electromagnetic, extracurricular, intercompany, microchip, midsize, multiphase, noncorrosive, overreact, polynomial, preset, proactive, pseudonym, quasilegal, reevaluate, semisubmersible, subsea, superhero, ultraviolet, unwind, underestimate, and updip.
The Society of Petroleum Engineers [SPE] Technical Publications Style Guide 2022 Revision recommends using joined prefixes without a hyphen while merriam-webster.com also documents the spelling includes the joined prefix without a hyphen. The joined prefix rule does vary in limited word uses. For example, SPE and Merriam-Webster disagree on the usage of the joined prefix, “post-.“ SPE recommends hyphenating this prefix; example: post-production. merriam-webster.com spells postproduction, as in preparing a film or video for public presentation, as one word. The two organizations agree on the use of the prefix, self-, as a hyphenated prefix in nearly all uses; example: self-confidence. Two examples of "self" without a hyphen are selfhood and selfsame.
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