4004 Don’t Be Offensive: IBM’s White Shirt Strategy

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Don't Be Offensive: IBM's White Shirt Strategy

Our next door neighbor was an IBM’er. She traveled a lot. She was single so she said she didn’t mind it much. We had 2 rug rats running loose on the neighborhood. She drove a BMW. We did NOT. It was the early 1980’s and life inside IBM was assumed to be about as good as it gets in corporate America. Of course, I was never attracted to corporate America. Or travel. So I had very little envy for her lifestyle. It wasn’t lost on me that she was living a lifestyle as a single person that I was living with a family of four though. I remember thinking, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

These were the days where IBM set the standard for sales and service. They were the safe bet for any corporate expenditure. Nobody was ever going to be fired, or even endure criticism by selecting IBM as the vendor. IBM representatives were buttoned down (literally) professionals known for dropping from the sky if there was ever a problem.

My neighbor didn’t have it quite as regimented as her male counterparts, but she likely endured much higher scrutiny as a woman. The men of IBM didn’t wear facial hair and wore only white shirts. As she explained it to me, IBM wanted to make sure they did not offend a prospect or a customer. Research had shown them that some people don’t like facial hair…so no facial hair. Research had also shown that people assume a degree of professionalism with a white shirt that may not be assumed if a person wore a blue or yellow shirt. So white shirts it is!

IBM has even chronicled their attire through the years at their website. Just go here and you’ll see years and years of IBM attire.

I have never been an IBM insider so I have no knowledge if this was an official stance or a skunkwork of management. Either way, I’ve had multiple IBM’ers through the years tell me the same thing. Admittedly, my information is all circa 1980’s.

The other day somebody engaged me in a conversation about selling and appealing to as many people as possible. Of course, we quickly began to talk of all the profanity we hear and see today. Something neither of us experienced coming up through the ranks. F bombs abound in social media posts, speeches and blog posts. Yes, there’s a ton of informal marketing going on today that was mostly limited to one-on-one conversations in the old days. You can judge for yourself such matters, but our focal point was on the age old premise IBM followed, “Don’t be offensive.”

There’s little doubt it worked. Well, coupled with great products and services and an intense focus on the customer. I won’t credit IBM’s success of the 1980’s on the white shirts and no facial hair on men (facial hair on a woman would be VERY offensive). But I do understand the thought process.

I even remember reading somewhere an IBM executive make what seemed like a sound argument. He wrote that if a male IBM sales rep were to visit a prospect who didn’t like men with beards, and he (the IBM rep) had a beard…why put yourself at a disadvantage before you ever get an opportunity to inform the prospect what you can do for him. It made sense to me. Still does, actually.

The world has changed. Today in 2016 we’re not dealing with the same culture that existed in the 1980’s. For some, being offensive is a unique positioning intentionally crafted. No, I’m not attracted to it, but many are. Just go on social media and look closely at how profanity has infiltrated the headlines of content marketing – blogs, podcasts, articles, videos and photos. F bombs. S bombs. And everything in between. Being offensive has become a niche marketing tactic to prove hipness.*

*The fact that I even use the term “hipness” proves how unhip I am.

Offensive Vs. Being Unique

I admire IBM’s strategy of being inoffensive. The atmosphere is clouded because I think some people misunderstand offensive and uniqueness. I’m personally opposed to the former, but a big fan of the latter.

Might some people be offended or put off by your uniqueness? Of course. Anything is possible.

button down shirt and tieI hate button down collared shirts worn with a tie. It’s a personal preference thing. They look rumpled and awful. I’m not offended by them, but it’s not an attractive look to me. Whenever I see a guy wearing it, it bugs me. Would I refuse to buy from such a person? I might. I might not. There would probably be other elements involved.

I mean look at that photo — and this guy has loosened his tie. It would look worse with the tie cinched up to his neck. I’m crazy enough that I’d be thinking, “What’s he thinking?” But here’s the deal. I’m not offended by it. I’m put off by the look though.

Offensive is defined as “causing someone to feel deeply hurt, upset, or angry.” No, this look doesn’t offend me. But I can’t imagine facial hair on a man causing offense, even in the 1980’s when I wore a mustache! I was young then. There were plenty of old heads who ran companies though and they had no tolerance for men with facial hair working in their companies. So it made sense to me that IBM wanted clean shaven representatives.

Now there’s a vast difference in that buttoned down collar with a tie look and dropping F bombs.

The question and lesson for us is – what can we do or avoid doing to attract our prospects?

Offensive also means “actively aggressive; attacking.” Profanity laced content is actively aggressive. Intentionally so. I’ve heard some marketers who regularly use it claim it’s who they are and how they roll. They argue that it helps them dissect the market and separate the people willing to do business with them versus those unwilling. They think it clears the way toward more effective reach – namely, giving them a leg up on reaching their “ideal” prospect.

Okay. I’m not sure about all that, but if that’s how they want to roll, no skin off my nose. I’m just unsure I buy it. There are some big name social media rockstars who regularly use profanity. Seems to me an awful lot of people are copying that, wrongly assuming that their profanity is one reason for their popularity. Instead, I’d encourage those people to consider the substance of their content, not their profanity-centric style.

I acknowledge that we’re in an age where style over substance is often a reality. We often ascribe substance where style exists. And where style is absent, we think there must not be any substance. It’s true in music, art and business. Probably in lots of other spaces, too.

Choose your strategy. I’m only encouraging us to consider our strategy carefully so we can give ourselves the best opportunity for success.

The other day I got a meeting with a top business owner. He started the business in the late 1960’s. I’m old. He’s older. I put on a black suit, a white shirt and a striped tie. Yes, I admit I dressed with him in mind. I felt it was the respectful thing to do.

I know others might criticize me for that. They’d say, “Dress the way you want. Be who you want to be. Be who you really are.”

If it were up to me I’d wear my black jeans, my New Balance sneakers and a fleece pullover. But I wanted to have a good interaction with this business owner. I’m trying to engage him in meaningful conversation. I’m not trying to put him off and give him any reason to think, “I don’t want to spend any time with this guy.”

I’m not in the fashion trade. If I were, then perhaps I could understand the argument to dress like I want. I’m in the coaching and consulting business. I need my prospects to talk to me. I’m not going in guns blazing telling them all about me. I’m asking about THEM. I want them to tell me more about themselves and their businesses. How I dress and how I speak could quickly ruin that.

As the owner came to the lobby to greet me, I stood, shook his hand firmly while looking him in the eye and quickly thanked him for making the time to see me. As we were seated in a small conference room he introduced me to his assistant. I introduced myself to her, shook her hand and expressed pleasure in meeting her. It’s manners. Professional etiquette. Appropriate dress and behavior. At least that’s how I view it.

As we began to talk I’m rather certain he got some sense of me and my uniqueness. I hope so. I didn’t talk about myself. I asked him about his career and his business. That’s what I was mostly interested in. I wasn’t interested in finding somebody I had never met before and being able to hold forth telling them all about me. This guy was super smart, very bright and engaging. The meeting went well and I was thrilled to have met him. Will we do business? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. But I know I had a good meeting because I was prepared and because I made him the focal point of my preparation and my actions. He was the centerpiece of the meeting, not me.

Who is this about?

I’m mostly put off by some of the marketing and positioning I see because I think the focal point is wrong headed. Marketers think it’s about THEM. Not the client or customer. Or prospect.

Nearly every week I tell people that the main benefit of my podcast is likely found in people’s opportunity to click play, listen to a few minutes and figure out whether I’m their cup of tea or not. It gives prospects the opportunity to find out pretty quickly if I’m a personality they can relate to or not. Yes, I’m myself. I’m honest here. The way you hear me talk is how I talk. It would be completely dishonest to speak as I do here, then when you meet me in person I’m some foul-talking, in your face kind of a person. You’d think, “Man, he’s not at all how I thought he’d be.”

For me, it’s disrespectful of the prospect and customer. I find nothing wrong with dressing and preparing for a meeting with the prospect in mind, not myself. There are going to be plenty of people who will never do business with me, for whatever reason. I need to give myself the best chance possible to do business with some. For those few, I want them to see and hear and understand how important they are to my career and my business.

So let’s end with some questions that may help all of us better figure this out.

  1. How does your attire, speech and behavior help you differentiate yourself? Or does it?
  2. How do these things attract prospects? (Is it about attracting the right people or about repelling the wrong people?)
  3. How do these things give success a better chance?
  4. Are you really being true to who you are, or are you being sucked into copying something you think is popular?
  5. Is respect and politeness part of your competitive advantage?

There are tons of other questions worth asking. I’d encourage you to keep asking and answering them. Figure out what you’re doing, what you want to do and examine closely what’s working versus what’s not working.

The goal is improvement. We just want to grow as great as we possibly can.

All the best,
Randy

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About the author: Randy Cantrell is the founder of Bula Network, LLC – an executive leadership advisory company helping leaders leverage the power of others through peer advantage, online peer advisory groups. Interested in joining us? Visit ThePeerAdvantage.com