The Brake Institute of America
In 1959, Gunemdtha Pids was facing a conundrum: having fled revolution in his Hungarian homeland barely three years earlier, he founded a successful business in Flint, Michigan, manufacturing the brake assemblies essential for automobile production. Business was good for the first two years, until a curious phenomenon began: manufacturers started buying cheaper brakes from the competition. Pids was shocked, because brakes were essential to safety. They were the only thing separating a happy motorist from disaster. The only worse thing that could happen in a car was for the gas tank to explode!
Pids thought carefully about how he could make motorists understand and care about this essential part of automotive anatomy. He reasoned that if people understood more about brakes and how they’re made, they would understand how important they were for their cars and — by extension — their safety. With that realization, he founded the Brake Institute of America on December 8, 1959. Bringing together similar high-end brake manufacturers from across America, he set forth to educate the populace about the critical role quality brakes play in their personal safety. Pids engaged no fewer than three Madison Avenue ad agencies to produce a variety of newspaper, radio and TV spots extolling the virtues of the materials, processes and procedures that members of the Brake Institute of America used, paying the (at the time) lavish sum of $5.8 million.
The ads talked about:
- The materials used in the brake pads, including the chemical composition of the ceramics, and how essential they were to proper brake function
- The use of solenoid actuators to improve response time
- The quality assurance procedures used on the assembly line to limit the number of defects
- The injection moulding process that improved upon previous manufacturing processes
…and so on.
Pids and the other Institute members sat back and waited for the results and ensuing lift in demand for their products.
The Moral of the Story
Days turned to weeks. Weeks turned to months. Demand for their products barely budged. The members of the Institute started raising their voices in anger. What went wrong? Why is the public not responding and buying cars with their quality brakes installed? Why aren’t orders surging through the roof?
At dinner one evening at the Hungarian Society in the midst of his doldrums, Pids was approached by a fellow refugee from his homeland, Ferram Ramk, who was making a name for himself as an up-and-comer on Madison avenue. As Pids poured out his soul to Ramk over a few glasses of plum liqueur, Ramk delivered a revelation to Pids: people don’t care about what you do; they care about what you can do for them. It was fine and dandy that Pids had spent almost $6 million trying to educate the American public about how great the Institute’s processes, materials and procedures were; those things were essential to producing quality, reliable brakes. But in the end, the American public didn’t care about any of it. They cared about their safety.
Ramk went on to explain that the campaign needed to refocus not on the brakes themselves, how they function and what they’re made of, but on how a good quality brake keeps you and — by extension — your loved ones safe. By focusing on what was important to him as an engineer, Pids had become blind to what was actually important to people, which wasn’t what he did, but what he could do for them. By focusing on materials, processes and procedures, he had missed the mark.
The Big Reveal
The Brake Institute of America is fictional: I just made it up (“Gunemdtha Pids” is a near anagram for “made up things” and “Ferram Ramk” is “Mark Farmer”). Tragically, many well-intentioned organizations make the same mistake my phony institute made: overestimating how much people care about what you do versus what you can do for them. This is sometimes referred to as “inside baseball,” the idea that what you do might be the most important thing in the world to you, but doesn’t and shouldn’t necessarily matter to others.
It’s important to step back from what you do and look at it from the outside. Focus on our day-to-day activities can blind us to what our public actually cares about.
Also, if by some bizarre coincidence there actually is a Brake Institute of America or someone named Gunemdtha Pids or Ferram Ramk (in spite of my best Googling to the contrary) please don’t sue me.