Craft a Product, Not an Excuse

If you’re like me, you’re sick of talking and hearing about the “R” word. (You know, the one that economists like to use that starts with “recess” but is anything but relaxing.) So let’s make a pact: I’ll promise not to use the “R” word if you’ll agree to be open-minded and pull your focus away from everything the “R” word has been forcing you to think about for the last six months. Please? It’s only for the next five minutes.

What I want to talk to you about is why you need to return to focusing on the craft-whatever that may be for you.

Yes, I know: Craft is a haughty term. Actors and artists use it to describe what they do, and it can be a bit much. But the truth is, we’ve all got our crafts-the brands we manage, the companies we run or even just our hobbies. I have hobbies. In fact, my wife tells me I suffer from “OMC,” Onset Midlife Crisis. She asserts that this can be the only plausible explanation for why a guy staring at middle age would suddenly take on new avocations that include playing guitar, brewing beer at home and surfing-or, more accurately, skim boarding. (A quick aside: Mixing two of these hobbies can have detrimental consequences. I’ll let you guess which two. Hint: The ankle cast comes off next week.)

Whatever the motivation for my new hobbies, I can tell you they give me plenty of enjoyment. But they’ve also given me something I never expected: an appreciation of true craft, and the impact that can have on a brand and its customers.

Take C.F. Martin for instance. It is a 175-year-old company that still makes, by hand, the best acoustic guitar that money can buy (I doubt that Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Graham Nash and Woodie Guthrie would have played a Martin were it otherwise). But back in the early 1980s, the company nearly went bankrupt. Management had decided to cut corners by importing cheap guitars from Asia, and started a disastrous diversification into electrics and even drums. It was then that Chris Martin IV, suddenly handed control of the floundering company, made a key decision. He told the craftsmen in his Pennsylvania factory that the only way to save the brand was to get back to its roots. If C.F. Martin could afford to make only 3,000 guitars a year, “let’s make 3,000 really, really good guitars,” he told them.

In other words, even as the competition resorted to cheaper materials and machine production, the C.F. Martin Co. chose to stay true to its craft, returning to the formula that brought it success even it that meant they would make fewer guitars and realize less profit.

A brand with a story like this, one that puts craft above all else, draws consumers in. It’s why, by 1989, C.F. Martin could barely keep up with its orders (the debut of MTV Unplugged didn’t hurt, either). It’s also why I’m now the proud owner of a Martin. The guitar was well out of my budget, but I was so compelled by the brand’s devotion to its craft that I felt that buying anything else would be a compromise. (Now, if only my playing measured up to the quality of this magnificent instrument.)

My hobbies have also demonstrated to me what happens when shortcuts are applied to a craft. I’ve learned that trying to save money in the short term invariably costs more money in the long. Just ask the poor schmucks who tasted my first home brew. I’d been so excited to get into brewing that I didn’t take the time do my homework, so unknowingly I took shortcuts that would appall any proper craft brewer. The result? Well, let’s just say that “skunked” would have been a compliment for my initial libatious concoction.

The lesson here is that if you want something that you and those around you can be proud of, you have to take the craft of it seriously. You must focus on it relentlessly, and you must invest in the right tools (including the human ones) to make it properly. As a former marketer at Procter & Gamble, I learned something about focus and investment. While we directed a small portion of our spending into testing new, scalable ideas for the future, we were reminded incessantly to focus on the core craft, and doing it better than anyone else in our category. The results of that philosophy cannot be disputed.

But too often — and especially now, in these times of the “R” word I’ve promised not to mention-we succumb to nearsighted pressures. We make decisions to hit short-term goals while risking long-term equity. We don’t invest in having the best tools; instead we cut our best talent. And when you do that, you are no longer a craftsman. You’re just a hack in your basement making a skunk brew.

So I leave you with words of wisdom. The people and the craft have gotten you this far. Reflect on your business. Treat it as a true craft. Don’t stray from what has brought you success up to this point. Invest in honing your craft. Your consumers will reward you.

And one last thing: Don’t drink and surf at the same time.

Brian Erdman is an associate director at Brandimage — Desgrippes & Laga, a global branding and design consultancy. He can be reached at (513) 961-6225 or