Building Trust, like a Muppet
Last weekend I saw the Muppets take the O2, whilst we got Peter Davison, Adam Hills and Anthony Head and the prior evening got David Tennant(!), Kylie Minogue(!!) and Kevin JIM FREAKIN’ HAWKINS Bishop, I left incredibly happy, satisfied and had an overall sense of warmth.
What is the magic behind Henson's creations? Apart from being entertaining, funny and engaging I think what makes the Muppets an enduring act is something we can use when building products and services.
To be clear, the following is understanding what the Muppet group are attempting to present, not the meta construction of showbiz which they present. Got it? Hopefully I’ll make it clearer...
The Muppets, the group which they present, not the characters, at their core are a group of variety entertainers. They're a throwback to the variety and vaudeville acts of stage and Saturday night TV, with multiple acts taking place throughout the show. Inevitably something will go awry leaving Kermit and Scooter to pick up the pieces and make the best they can from the situation.
Promises are delivered to the audience at the outset. We'll get to see death defying stunts from Gonzo the Great! Grammy worthy performances by the diva in residence, Miss Piggy! Fantastic scientific discoveries from the Muppet Labs! Cutting edge comedy from Fozzie the Bear! Each time we’re guaranteed to see a spectacular show in the conventional sense, think something similar to what you’d get on ITV 1 all with the accompanying needless pyrotechnics, but of course the team over promises on the possible and under delivers as their plans are not possible.
Stephen Mulhern wishes he was half as cool as this gif.
So as the team inevitably fail to deliver upon what they promise their audience, you'd assume the joke would wear thin. But, it doesn't. They sell out show after show. They entertain, engage and we love their efforts.
Hell, if you don't agree with the precept of this, ask yourself why the Muppets continue to be an endearing intellectual property? They’ve had their fair share of critically panned creations, Muppets from Space forced the gang on to made-for-TV/DVD movies in the time when the peak for made-for-TV/DVD was The Lion King 2 or Mean Girls 2. Yes there is a Mean Girls 2, yes, there is a reason you didn’t know about it until now. Their primetime behind-the-scenes mockumentary the muppets was cancelled after one season with many wanting to forget about the insinuation of a sexual relationship with a human and Fozzie. And yet, they endure as pop-culture icons with an almost evergreen reputation and an undying source of goodwill towards them. Is there any way a product or service could potentially have even half the goodwill many hold toward the Muppets?
Why is this?
They’re earnest, honest and clear in their intent. With the Muppets you see what they’re trying to do at the outset which is put on a show and entertain their audience. They do that of course, and not always in the way the characters intended. Why do the audience have such reverence for these characters if they continue to 'let them down'?
“I’ve got a dream too, but it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with.” —Kermit the Frog
Can products and services match that when speaking with their audiences? Potentially.
Building up goodwill can be helped by being honest with our customers, this doesn’t have to be by providing a detailed roadmap with costs, projections and fixed dates. What can be presented though is a thematic roadmap linked to the values and direction of the team. Much like the Muppets, you can set out what you aim to deliver, however you don’t have to fully get there. Show your intent and try your best, all the while being open, honest and receptive to feedback. People don’t particularly care about minute details as long as they feel catered for and your values meet theirs.
Honest and open communication, seeking feedback where possible is powerful. The Muppets are scripted I hear you cry, yes, but they ad-lib, they improvise and their direct focus is on ensuring that their audience has a good time. They’re dedicated to their audience and work hard to ensure that they’re satisfied, which really should be the focus of all product teams. If the act they present is failing (intentionally) the team attempts to make it better, spice it up or sardonically side with the audience. The gang own their mistakes. That’s a powerful and confident thing to be doing that few companies have the courage or tenacity to do. Examples include Coca Cola owning New Coke (after a long time…), Microsoft’s continual memetic burial of Internet Explorer or Apple admitting they totally ballsed up the launch of Apple Music. It’s easy to take a shot at the competition, it’s more difficult to take one at yourself, particularly without making the audience feel idiotic themselves. There’s no malice and any bite is back at themselves.
“Here’s some simple advice: always be yourself. Never take yourself too seriously. And beware the advice from experts, pigs, and members of Parliament.” —Kermit the Frog
At the core of the entire offering though is a product people want: variety entertainment, craft, comedy and songs. No product or service could survive if there was no actual want or need for it, however what sets some apart from other is the relationship we create. Companies want their customers to evangelise their products to their friends and relatives, beyond providing wonderful products and services we can learn from the Muppets.
Strive for an open and honest culture, supply it with continuous and earnest communication. Of course not everyone needs to know what’s going on behind the scenes, but give some indicator that you are taking on feedback and are audience driven. You’ll never please everyone, but you can truly delight those who believe in what you’re doing.
What can product teams do?
- Be honest in your intents
- Deliver something that matches your ethos
- Communicate with your audience
- React to feedback
- Just be nice
“Life’s like a movie. Write your own ending.” —Kermit the Frog
I continue to be terrified of Sweetums.