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February 2, 2022

Sabir x Jamie Mustard

TL;DR: What To Expect From This Episode

Jamie Mustard is one of the world’s most innovative marketers. The author of “The Iconist” made his name improving the visibility of artists, musicians, professionals, and companies, but he admits that he spent his youth being invisible.

Jamie Mustard grew up in abject poverty and was semi-literate at 19. He started from the bottom, worked his way to the top, and has been inspiring marketers and business owners ever since.

This article is based on the conversation that I had with Jamie during the most recent episode of This Week With Sabir. It highlights and expands upon all of the points that we discussed, and by the end, you will understand:

  • How to Get Noticed: There are millions of brands out there, and it’s hard to make yourself heard. Jamie talks about the things that you can do to stand head and shoulders above all others.
  • Grow as a Professional: The techniques used by Jamie are not just relevant to small businesses, they also apply to musicians, artists, authors, and other professionals, all of whom are trying to break through the noise.
  • What Makes an Iconic Brand? Discover the unique traits that help big brands to stand out from the crowd, including the ways that they utilize iconic advertising to become household names.
  • Case Studies: Learn how brands like FedEx and Wall Drug have used methods similar to what Jamie preaches to become iconic while others have lagged behind. Do you have an iconic slogan or a repulsive one?
  • The $100,000 Question: At the end of this guide, you will find two massive 6-figure insights from Jamie Mustard, both of which can help you to push your brand or career forward. Make sure you read to the end to see these top tips.

Making Yourself Seen And Heard

No matter how great your offering is, it has never been harder to grab that moment of attention that you need to show your value to the world.

As an example, think back to the 1500s, the century of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Machiavelli, Da Vinci, and dozens of others who put pen to parchment or brush to canvas and created a legacy that has lasted for half a millennium.

It can’t be denied that these were truly magnificent people, but we’re talking about a time when only 400 million people were alive. Very few people were literate, educated, or even afforded the chance to paint or write, as opposed to working the land.

There were maybe tens of thousands of people who had the means and the mind to create and make a name for themselves, and because their numbers were so few, they shone like a beacon during what was (comparatively at least) a very dark time.

Now fast forward to today. There over 7 billion people on this planet, and a greater number of them are educated than ever before. What’s more, every painter has access to the supplies they need to paint and the education they need to improve. Every writer can read, write, and even publish to their heart’s content.

Think about how many great inventors, writers, poets, painters, and thinkers are out there right now. Statistically, there should be thousands of Shakespeare’s and Da Vinci’s, thousands of people who can make a massive impact on the world. But because they don’t have the means of self-promotion, and there is so much competition, it’s harder for them to get noticed.

It’s not just individuals, either, as brands have the same problem.

As Jamie noted during our discussion, the world of big business and advertising has changed drastically over the last 70 years or so and it’s getting more saturated with each passing day.

In the 1950s, people complained that there was too much advertising. They were being exposed to about 250 different brands every day, from the billboards they passed on the way to work to the commercials on radio and TV.

By 1970, this had increased to 500, with TV commercials, and TV in general, playing a much bigger role in the lives of everyday Americans. Prior to the turn of the new millennium, there was a 10-fold increase in the number of advertisements.

Today, thanks to YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and all traditional forms of media, the average person sees closer to 15,000 messages every day.

That’s a lot of content; it’s a lot of noise.

Imagine that you’re standing in a stadium full of 15,000 people and Lady Gaga is on the stage. You’re shouting as loud as you can to get her attention, but at the same time, 14,999 other people are shouting just as loudly. Do you think she’s going to hear you? Probably not.

That’s what advertising can feel like for brands in 2021.

Jamie Mustard’s job is to help brands and individuals get the attention that they need in the chaos of the modern world. He makes a living out of helping people and companies to make their mark in this world. He’s the light in their darkness; the spark that starts the fire, and he has built a career off of making people iconic.

The Primal Laws

Mustard’s work is based on what he calls “the primal laws”. They are rules that govern how brands and individuals become iconic in this oversaturated, noisy, and chaotic world.

The laws apply to all mediums, whether you’re an artist seeking the attention of your peers or a brand casting the net far and wide.

We’ll discuss how the laws relate to different areas below, but they all revolve around something he dubs “blocks”. They are the most important signs and labels, the ones that we pay attention to and understand even when they’re sitting in a sea of images and content.

Examples of “blocks” include warning signs on the road and on product labels. They tell us when to stop and yield; when not to drink and when to handle with care.

We pay attention to these signs more than anything else, and the goal of an individual or brand, therefore, is to attract a similar level of attention. In the context of advertising, a block becomes something that the individual acknowledges, absorbs, and understands on the same primal level as a road sign or warning label.

It’s large, it’s simple, it’s immediately recognizable.

Once you find the block, use it, and repeat, it becomes iconic and powerful.

Blocks In Art

Vincent Van Gogh didn’t have much success in his lifetime. In the art community, his work was seen as overly simplistic. The perspective was all over the place and on a surface level, it seemed that his technical ability was poor. Artists and critics snubbed him, but when the public discovered his work, they loved him.

Today, he’s considered to be one of the greatest artists ever.

He used vivid colors and created emotional works, but he also focused on simple imagery, and this is what made him iconic.

If you look at The Starry Night, you know instantly what you’re looking at and it evokes an emotion in you. That happens in a split second, and it draws you in.

It’s a similar story with Andy Warhol. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and his style was even more simplistic than Van Gogh, but by focusing on simple imagery, such as a soup can, he became iconic.

In fact, his work even included images of iconic people!

Both of these artists found their style, their “block”, and they repeated it over and over again until they became iconic. In Van Gogh’s case, it didn’t benefit him when he was alive, but it has turned him into a posthumous icon and it’s hard not to love his paintings.

Blocks In Music

The concept of finding something simple and repetitive is one you often find in pop music, and it’s also one that exists in pretty much every “viral” song of the last decade, including the irritatingly catchy “Baby Shark”.

It’s a simple nursery-rhyme-type melody that is repeated over and over again, often with the backing of a complex and more intricate arrangement (although obviously not in the case of Baby Shark).

That repetitive melody pulls us into other elements of the song and is the audio equivalent of the big and emotive paintings created by Van Gogh.

The Concept Of Repetition

If we take the idea of “blocks”, something that is simple, large, and repetitive, we can see it being applied in pretty much everything that is iconic.

Jamie used it in the context of speeches, noting that, in this context, it does more than create memorable moments. It can help to change the mindset of a nation. It can kick-start movements and give people the encouragement they need to fight for what they believe in.

Churchill might not have been the great leader he was if he wasn’t such a brilliant orator, and the Civil Rights movement may have slowed if not for the exceptional speeches of Martin Luther King.

The Martin Luther King “I have a dream” speech is a prime example of how blocks can be used to do much more than selling art, music, or products.

It’s arguably the most iconic speech in the history of the United States, and one that’s also known all over the world. It’s a relatively short speech, and yet he repeats the phrases “I have a dream” and “let freedom ring” close to 20 times.

The most famous speech in the history of the United Kingdom is the one that Winston Churchill gave to galvanize support for the war effort.

It’s now known as the “We shall fight” speech, and upon hearing that phrase, you’ll no doubt recognize the speech. You may even be able to recite a line or two. But those famous lines come toward the very end of the speech.

Contrary to what you might think, and what many seem to believe, it doesn’t start “We shall fight them on the beaches”. That’s not even the first use of the words “we shall…”. In fact, the speech begins as follows:

“Turning once again, and this time more generally, to the question of invasion, I would observe that there has never been a period in all these long centuries of which we boast when an absolute guarantee against invasion, still less against serious raids, could have been given to our people.”

And it continues in this manner for several paragraphs.

The final part of the speech is the one that everyone remembers because that’s where Churchill uses what Mustard defines as a “block”. It’s the simplicity, the repetition. It’s melodic, it’s memorable, and as a result, it has become iconic.

On a purely literary level, it’s arguably not even the best part of the speech, just like Van Gogh isn’t the most technically gifted artist or “Baby Shark” is not the most masterful song. But that part of the speech sticks in the mind much more.

We tend not to remember the closing of the speech, where Churchill talks about the British empire continuing the fight for the “liberation of old” even if the people are “subjugated and starving”.

By the same token, we tend not to remember brilliant moments in King’s speech like, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice”.

It’s like a fan of progressive rock/metal bands like Tool complaining that everyone is obsessing over simple pop melodies when they should be enjoying complex musical mastery. The truth is, while everyone appreciates something that is done really well, they tend to remember and enjoy the simplest things more.

And when those simple things are combined with genuine mastery, as is the case with Martin Luther King and Winston Churchill, they have the power to change the world.

King altered the course of the civil rights movement; Churchill convinced the British people to keep fighting, and both got there using the same concepts that Jamie Mustard preaches in his work as an iconist.

The Con Of Exposure And Why We Can’t See The Tree For The Forest

If you’re an author, painter, lawyer, accountant, or even a small business owner, there may have been a time when you have considered going through a PR company or dealing directly with print media advertising, such as magazines and newspapers. It can be a useful tool for some companies, and there are fantastic PR companies out there, but many of them are stuck in the past.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine wanted to get some publicity for a book he was launching. It was traditionally published, so he didn’t have access to the Amazon page details and couldn’t use their promotional tools. He decided to go the old-fashioned route and hire a PR company to push for TV, radio, and print media features while also speaking with newspaper advertisers.

In the end, he spent thousands of dollars on what amounted to very little advertising and virtually no sales. When he argued that the campaigns were ineffective, they reminded him that he had gained “exposure”, which is basically an industry term for, “We didn’t do anything, but we’re going to pretend that we did.”

It’s true that customers who don’t purchase your product or your services retain some value. If you visit my e-commerce website, look around, and then leave, I have lost you as a customer now, but maybe you will return later. Depending on what you saw when you were there, you have now gained some knowledge of my company and the things that we do. If I can feed you into a remarketing campaign, I may even be able to bring you on board.

But simply flashing an advertisement on a billboard, in a magazine, or on social media doesn’t have the same effect.

Old-school advertisers will try to convince you that the impression was valuable and retains some value, but it’s probably the 10,000th ad that the customer saw that day, and that info just doesn’t sink in.

Jamie’s comparison was to imagine that someone throws a golf ball at you. If it’s one golf ball, you’re probably going to catch it or move out of the way. But if someone throws 10,000 golf balls at you, you’re going to curl into the fetal position and take the hits.

It’s easy to get excited by the numbers when you’re first advertising your company. If an ad agency tells you that your banner ads were seen 100,000 times, you might think it was money well spent. But most of those impressions were from people who are being bombarded every day. Your ad is just one of the thousands.

Slogan Vs Block

There is a difference between a block and a mindless slogan. The former becomes iconic, the latter is annoying. In other words, to assume that the only goal is “repetition” would be missing the point entirely.

A block is like a typical slogan in simplicity and repetition only.

For instance, Churchill’s speech would be far less effective if he’d stood before the nation and said, “We’ll kill them on the coast. We’ll kill them inland. We’ll kill them if they try to steal our country.” It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it and is not the sort of speech that history would remember.

It doesn’t quite say, “Genius orator and leader encouraging the nation to fight” but rather it reeks of “angry YouTuber who has beef with another YouTuber.”

In the example of Churchill’s speech, he was articulate but concise; measured but forthright. His words had a repeatable and quotable pattern, but they also had meaning and evoked images of people standing up and fighting against an evil force.

The same is true for Martin Luther King, he spoke about the difficulties that African Americans had faced. He conjured images of the atrocities that they had been subjected to and juxtaposed this with hope for a better future.

When we’re talking about slogans, it’s a little less obvious which ones are good and which are bad, on a surface level at least, and so Jamie gave a few examples to highlight his point.

He took us back to the 1970s and to a FedEx slogan that was repeated throughout magazines, billboards, and TV commercials:

“When it absolutely, positively, has to be there overnight.”

It’s more than a slogan. It’s something that sticks in the mind and stands out to everyone who needs to send quickly and can’t afford to wait. In an age before overnight delivery became commonplace, and before the existence of the internet and cell phones, that slogan was a godsend to everyone who had birthday presents, important documents, and other essentials to ship.

On the flip side, Jamie pointed to McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” as being a simple slogan. Sure, it’s something that everyone knows, but only because it’s been drummed into us through countless TV commercials.

It also doesn’t speak much for the actual brand. Let’s be honest, unless you’re under the age of 10 when you think of McDonald’s you think of speed and convenience. You think of cheap food, of feeding the family for less than $20. You’re not really “lovin’ it”.

McDonald’s is massively popular, there’s no denying that, but has the slogan played a role in that, or is it all down to the business model and marketing campaigns?

McDonald’s straddles a line between the two as it’s a brand that some people love, but there are others that cross that line.

For instance, there are food companies using words like “wholesome” in their slogans, even though their foods are filled with preservatives. There are banks that claim to support families and everyday Americans, even while they are repossessing their homes out from under them.

Imagine that I create a food company that uses cheap ingredients and produces mediocre food but promises to deliver things quickly and feed your family for less. A run-of-the-mill slogan would be one that emphasized quality and/or tastes while a potentially iconic one would focus on convenience and other genuine USPs.

The former is dishonest, and it doesn’t really mean anything. The latter is something that can take the business forward, something that becomes a mantra, a mission statement, and a goal, as much as it does a slogan.

If we return to the FedEx example, you can use the phrase “When it absolutely, positively, has to be there overnight” throughout the business. The board members, employees, and customers will understand what it means. The former can use it as a goal, making sure that phrase always remains consistent and accurate while the latter will understand what it is that makes the company unique.

And then you have, “I’m lovin’ it!”. What does that mean to your consumers and your employees? It becomes more like the pointless mission statements that I discussed in the episode with Sasha der Avanessian.

Why It’s Hard To Create A Block

If creating a block was simple, everyone would be doing it, right?

There are ultimately two things stopping them.

The first is that they get too caught up in trying to be succinct and catchy. Brevity is key, but not at the expense of accuracy and directness.

The perfect slogan is short, catchy, and easily repeated. “I’m lovin’ it” might be recognizable, but it’s not necessarily as iconic or effective as “Just Do It”. Both are just three words, but the latter speaks volumes for the brand’s identity. It suggests that anything is possible, everything can be achieved, and nothing should hold you back.

The second issue is that everyone tries to cast their net far and wide as opposed to simply focusing on one USP.

FedEx didn’t just cover overnight shipping. It covered a wide area, delivered most items, worked with businesses and customers, had an expansive network, and offered insurance and special delivery options. But they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with a general slogan like, “We do everything”.

It’s hard to limit yourself to a single feature if you provide a number of them. You want to tell the world that you’re the biggest, best, fastest, and most affordable. You don’t just sell the world’s strongest coffee, it’s also organic, premium, Fairtrade, and eco-friendly.

The trick to being iconic is to focus on one thing. That will be the thing that people will remember you for.

Once you find that thing, it needs to feature everywhere—your slogan, your imagery, your promotions, your website. This is where the repetition comes in, and once you commit to that, you’ll start seeing the rules.

What Is Your Free Ice Water?

The best way of highlighting the effectiveness of Jamie’s “block” principle is to retell a story that he recited during our discussion.

It begins in 1931 with Ted Hustead.

Ted was fresh out of pharmacy school and had three simple goals to fulfill. He wanted to own his own pharmacy, raise a family, and attend catholic mass. Those were the three things he cared about in the world and while he was living during a very difficult period in world history, one in which millions were struggling and starving, he had one thing going for him, an inheritance.

It was small, but it was enough for him to purchase a pharmacy in a small town in South Dakota.

The problem was that the town of Wall had just 200 to 300 residents at the time, and all were broke, so no one visited Ted’s pharmacy.

As Ted’s dreams slipped away, anxiety and paranoia crept in, but there was an upside. A major interstate ran straight through the town and Mount Rushmore—which had been built just a few years earlier—was only 60 miles away.

Thousands of potential customers passed by the town every day but none of them dropped by. Hoping to take advantage of this potential passing trade, Ted’s wife had the idea of offering them free ice-cold water.

It was a simple freebie that wouldn’t destroy their overheads, and it would be enough to draw a crowd. After all, those drivers were hot and bothered. They were parched from hours of driving in the heat, and this was before the invention of air conditioning.

The promise of water would surely attract them.

They created a large billboard declaring “Free Ice Water – Wall Drug”. Before the sign was even erected the pharmacy was mobbed by customers, and it has remained that way ever since.

That simple sign and genius offer was enough to turn a failing pharmacy in the middle of nowhere into a landmark on the South Dakotan landscape. Wall Drug is now one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state.

It’s much more than a pharmacy these days and it attracts over 2 million visitors every year. Nobody drives by without visiting, and therein lies the power of iconic advertising.

It took one message and one ingenious idea to transform the fortunes of Ted Hustead and his business and, as a result, he was able to exceed his goals and create a lasting legacy.

At the end of this story, Jamie posed the question, “What is your free ice water?” That’s not to be taken literally, of course. You don’t need to give things away. But the idea is the same.

What is the thing that will draw all of those people toward your business; the thing that will create your legacy?

There Is Still Room For Brilliance

One of the mistakes that we make in the modern world is to assume that there are no great ideas left, just as we assume that there is nothing left to invent and there are no great stories left to be told.

We live in a world saturated with content, ideas, marketing, and technology, so it’s understandable to think this way, but it’s wrong.

Charles Holland Duell is often quoted as saying, “Everything that can be invented has been invented” over 100 years ago. In truth, he never actually said this (if anything, he said the opposite). But history is littered with stories of people who made these assumptions and we’re still doing it today.

The truth is, there is always room for excellence. There will always be new ideas, new companies, new products.

When people look back on the great artists of the 21st century, they might focus on graffiti artists or graphic designers, instead of painters; when they think about great writers, they’ll probably look to fiction novelists and scriptwriters.

Maybe we will look to superstar influencers instead of artists; business analysts and CEOs instead of actors.

There is always room for other “Free Ice Water” stories, and assuming that everything has already been done or that others have already tried your ideas and failed, is just a cop-out.

The $100,000 Question

Everything that Jamie shared during our discussion was absolute gold. Any time you can open a business owner’s eyes and force them to think outside of the box you’re doing something priceless.

But I wanted to squeeze a little more out of him, so when our discussion neared its end, I asked him the $100,000 question, the single piece of advice that can generate over 6-figures in value for people seeking to implement his strategies.

He actually offered two insights, doubling up and going the extra mile as always.

There is a lot to cover here, so let’s dive in.

Keep It Simple

The first insight was that anything busy and complicated in a world overloaded with information will be discarded instantly.

As an example, let’s say that you’re selling hot sauces and you purchase an ad in a magazine.

A busy and needlessly complicated approach would be to fill that ad with text describing your product’s many benefits and ingredients, along with the ways that you are unique. Maybe you have a few different images, a messy slogan, and some other content.

You’re paying for the page, and so your instinct is to cram as much content in there as possible. The end result is something that has your brand story, product benefits, coupons, and a host of other info.

As soon as someone sees that they’re going to skip right over it. They will turn the page and continue reading the magazine.

There are two assumptions that companies make when advertising in this manner. The first is that their ad will be seen. The second is that the viewer will pay attention to it.

The first is true, albeit only briefly. The second is a fallacy.

It harks back to my conversion with Joe Yoon about building a brand on Instagram.

Many small companies use Instagram as a free marketing platform. They post all of their offers and promotions there because it’s free, and they hope that people will see them, buy from them, and become loyal.

But people don’t use Instagram to browse ads. No one is going to follow a company that just posts offers all day for the same reason that people don’t get excited when they get marketing emails.

No one sees a spam folder full of newsletters they didn’t sign up for and marketing they don’t want and think to themselves, “Oh, I can’t wait!”

That person is reading a magazine, or in the case of online advertising, they are watching YouTube, browsing social media, etc., They don’t owe you anything and they definitely don’t owe you their time.

Your goal as an advertiser is not to tell them everything in one advertisement, but to catch their attention, hold their interest, and direct them to where you want them to go.

You need simple, catchy, and thought-provoking imagery. Your message should be clear and big.

Think back to the Wall Drug example. The billboard didn’t say, “We have lots of great medications”. It didn’t list a series of ailments to cure, nor did it advertise a discount. It said, “Free Ice Water” and the rest was history.

Any time a prospective customer needs to think about what you are and what you do, you’ve lost them. If it takes more than a second for them to grasp the concept of your ad, it’s wasted time and a lost customer.

It’s not just about ads, either.

If you’re a musician, your approach shouldn’t be to upload lengthy YouTube videos where you spend the first five minutes awkwardly talking to the camera and the next 15 minutes showcasing your experimental progressive rock music. It should be short, catchy; it should make someone stop and take notice.

The Super-Information Highway

Jamie’s second $100,000 insight was to imagine the world as a massive super-information highway with thousands of lanes and billions of people.

All of those people are looking for something. Their eyes are on the road scanning for roadsides that appeal to them.

They’re looking for their free ice water so they can turn off, stop, and make a purchase.

Your goal as a company, artist, musician, writer, or business professional, is to create a road sign that is large enough, clear enough, and simple enough to attract their attention as they speed by.

They’re driving fast and the road is crowded, so they don’t have time to stop and read hundreds of words. They also see thousands of other road signs every day, so if yours is generic, they’re going to skim right over it and not absorb any of the information within.

To get noticed, your sign needs to be bigger, bolder, and more noticeable. It also needs to be repeated, so that it appears at many points along their journey.

That’s what a block is, it’s what being iconic means, and it’s an idea that Jamie has used to help countless businesses and professionals over the years.

With a little time and consideration, it could help you as well.

About Jamie Mustard

You can discover all of Jamie’s methods and strategies in his book, available right now on Amazon. You can also read his bio and find his social media links below:

Jamie Mustard is a strategic multi-media consultant, artist, design and product futurist, and Iconist. He has codified the primal laws of what causes anything, in any medium, to STAND OUT and take hold in the human mind. His breakout work, The Iconist: The Art and Science of Standing Out won the OWL Award (Outstanding Works in Literature), awarded by the largest e-commerce bookseller in the world. Jamie is Resident Iconist and Staff Writer at Forbes IGNITE, the social innovation magazine of Forbes. Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes, says “Jamie cracked the code” when it comes to magnetizing attention. His passion is to teach the science and art of obviousness, helping professionals, change agents, artists, leaders, and businesses confidently and at will make their messages and ideas STAND OUT to their desired audiences.

2001 Lincoln Center named and screened a documentary Jamie produced as one of best films of the year. A graduate of the London School of Economics, his work is an explanation of the ‘economics of attention’ based on primal laws of human perception called Blocks™. Jamie’s Iconist work spans some of the world’s leading companies, innovators, scientists, artists, designers, nonprofits, and the globe––Nike, Cisco, Intel, Adidas, Symantec, World Congress of Science and Factual Producers, Content London, and TEDx at creative giant, Wieden + Kennedy. He has guest lectured at numerous universities including The Pacific Northwest College of Art, Parsons The New School, Pratt Institute, as well as classes in marketing and neuroscience at Hult International Business School.

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