The case against toning it down.


I hate the word soften. Even if I see it referring to butter in a cookie recipe, I cringe. Because it reminds me of that heart-sinking moment in a marketing project. You know the one. It comes right after the client claims they love all the creative, when they ask if you could you just, you know, soften it a bit.


They don’t even mean what they say. Because I could soften it, easily. A bit. That would mean keeping the same theme and attitude and just expressing it in a less abrupt manner. Which I don’t recommend either. But that’s never what they’re asking for anyway. What they want when they say this is for you to take everything cool and meaningful and powerful about your idea and trash it. They want the water without the wet. The sweetness without the sugar. Remove the essence of the idea, please. Take out its teeth. Castrate the thing. Render it impotent.


And why? This I’m still trying to figure out. The best I can surmise is fear, which is of course a terrible impulse to indulge when you’re trying to stand out in a fiercely competitive marketplace. Do you know how hard it is out here? It takes a lot of courage to play in this game.



I feel like I’m always fighting against a misguided belief that speaking to people in a way that is honest and on their level is potentially alienating. I think this particular fear stems from another mistaken belief that there are still people out there who are able to be offended. Brands like to call them soccer moms. I don’t believe in soccer moms. Soccer moms are leprechauns. Mythical. Not a real, actual thing.


Suburban married women who have children who play organized sports? Those exist. They aren’t a monolith. Some of them know and use the word fuck. Some of them do fuck. Some of them are freaky as fuck. Some of them are super vanilla and virginal, I imagine. Who knows? Why are we even talking about this? I’m tired of ignorantly edgy coastal marketing people acting like the rest of the country is sitting in church clutching their pearls. Remember, even the people who are doing that, lots of them voted for Trump.


When you’re telling me to tone it down, you’re doing it in a time when America has a president who brags about his penis size and pussy-grabbing. People like him because he “tells it like it is.” That obviously doesn’t mean he is a truthful person. It just means he doesn’t sugar coat his dimwitted opinions. He doesn’t soften shit. So why should your brand? Work to make your message meaningful and tell the truth. Be super positive if you want. But don’t tone it down. That’s not the vibe now.


Even if it were, you shouldn’t be concerned about what old fashioned, easily offended people think of your brand if that’s not who you need to be speaking to. Which leads me to the other “why” of toning it down—the mistaken belief that your brand is “for everyone.” It isn’t, I promise. And casting a wide net by sanitizing your content doesn’t make it so. I can see why you’d think it’s better to be careful about excluding and alienating people. But the opposite is true. Playing it safe is the riskiest thing you can do.


Seth Godin talks a lot about the minimum viable audience (MVA). It’s a subset of people who will really appreciate your products once they find them. These are your people, your community. When you speak directly to them, they will respond and support your brand with a fervor that makes the masses irrelevant.


Or, if it turns out I’m right, that more people are cooler and smarter and more modern than you think, then you will capture the imagination of the masses with your edgiest approach.

Try it sometime.


 Are you ready to take some risks?