Sunday, November 8, 2009

What We Can Learn From Sesame Street Besides Everything

Sesame Street turns 40-years-old on November 10, 2009, and aside from looking for an excuse to write about one of my favorite shows, nay, one of the greatest shows to ever hit the airwaves, it struck me as a good opportunity to point out the obvious: Sesame Street, like cotton, has become part of the fabric of our lives. From young to old, from Black to White to Hispanic, there are reasons why we still try to get to Sesame Street.

1. A Good Idea that Fulfilled a Need
Joan Ganz Cooney recognized that the children's market, particularly children's education, had yet to be tapped. Her Children's Television Workshop, which included Sesame Street, 3-2-1 Contact and The Electric Company ("HEY YOU GUYS!") were the trail blazers that opened the door for today's uber successful Nickelodeon and Nick Jr. Ask yourself if your brand or product fills a gap in consumer need. Be a pioneer.

2. Repetition
For children, repetition helps them to learn. For adults, repetition helps them to remember. For brands, repetition helps consumers learn more about the brand and remember it.

3. Originality
Find your muppet, make your music. Some jingles are catchy, sure, but so is the flu. It's about a song, not a jingle, and from the opening credits that lead us to the neighborhood where the air is sweet, Sesame Street is full of songs -- "It's Not Easy Being Green," "One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other," and so on -- that share a story and reveal character and identity.

And what is Sesame Street without Jim Henson's muppets? Joan Ganz Cooney believed so strongly in Jim Henson's genius and the impact she knew his muppets could make she went so far as to say there would be no puppets at all if she couldn't get him. So again I say, find your muppet and make your music.

4. Risk

Cooney knew that risk led to reward. Children's shows seem obvious to us today, but then it was unexplored territory. She did her research based on a leap of faith, and it paid off. A specific example of risk that comes to mind for me is how Mr. Hooper's death was handled on the show. Education isn't just spelling and math, it's understanding the human condition. Once a brand is sympathetic to that, I'm not sure there's anything a brand can't accomplish.

5. Perserverance 
Despite declining ratings during the 1990s and early 2000s due to the growing home video industry and other children's shows beginning to cram the cable space, Sesame Street, did the research, adapted, and persevered, and the show is the better for it (as are we).

6. Evolution
Don't misunderstand me when I use words like "repetition and perserverance." Brands must be able to adapt and evolve in order to sustain relevance (another word that should be on this list). If a brand is lucky and smart enough to stay relevant for forty years, my guess is because it knows the world changes, and it better keep up. Sesame Street, for better or worse depending on which parent you talk to, gave the world Elmo because research revealed a younger audience watching the show. JACKPOT!

7. Fairness, Justice and Equality
Brands can't be everything to everybody right? Well, no, men don't need sanitary pads, Infants don't need denture cream. However, some Blacks, Whites, Gays, Asians, Jews and Catholics, women and men may need those things. Bert & Ernie are gay. Shocker. Eh, not really. Handled well by not being soap boxey or "Hey look how hip we are," Sesame Street stayed true to the very root of their mission -- to educate and foster understanding in our children. Hey brands out there -- we don't live in a bubble. Deal with it.

8. Fun
Sesame Street makes learning fun. Volkswagen is attempting to make social and global responsibility fun with The Fun Theory, which I have talked about previously. How can you make your brand,  your product, your service fun?

9. Loyalty and Respect
I can't remember a time when Maria (Sonia Manzano) wasn't on the show, can you? "Be careful who you step on on the way up, you may need to lean on them on the way down," or "Leave with the one who brung ya." These are two other ways to say that the team that takes a risk on your nugget of an idea while you're working out of your garage -- they matter. The customers who have a complaint, suggestion or issue, whether young or old, new or returning -- they matter.

10. Heart
Be authentic. Be transparent. Brands can't hide behind the curtain anymore, and they shouldn't want to. If you screw up, apologize and make it right.  Say thank you. Often. Love what you do. Passion can not be separated from the heart. Believe in what you do and what you have to offer, and people will ask how to get to your street, too.

This post has been brought to you today by the letter "S," and by the number 10.

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