“A billboard is done when there’s nothing else to remove…”

I learned that in a billboard design class in college and it’s stuck with me all these years because it’s one of the truest things I’ve ever heard.

Take away everything till there’s nothing left to take away.

Then, make that one statement memorable and wrap all your messaging around that one idea. It’s been the cornerstone philosophy of all the brand work I’ve done and it’s created the path to many successful campaigns. But why is it so hard to do?

I find most clients have message clutter. They want to be all things to everyone at once. But what happens when you push too many messages out is that none of them stick. There is a great deal of discipline to cut away all that message fat.

Cut away the fat and find that magic hidden below. What is the ONE message that really matters… Find that ONE message and make it stick.

A few years back I decided to go hike a piece of the Appalachian Trail and I spent a month researching the gear necessary to hike a couple hundred miles. Small, light and less. I read over and over that you should pile up all your gear and cut it in half. Then cut it in half again and that’s what you’ll actually use. There was an element of truth to that. I read an article recently about a man close to 80 that’s been living on the various trails around the US for years. He was down to a small pack that weighed around 8 pounds and that was everything he owned. His philosophy was that every time you release a fear, you can lose some possessions.

Think about that.

When you no longer fear getting wet, you can lose the raincoat. When you no longer fear being bored, you lose the book or headphones.

And when you’ve built a good enough brand, you can lose the fear of not telling your potential customer your product can come in 45 color combinations.

Think about the billboards that surround you. If you normally block them out, pay attention today. Look at 20 billboards and ask yourself how many messages are in each one? Give it three seconds and look away. What stuck in your mind? If nothing stuck, they left too much on the board. Too many people were pushing their agenda and maybe each of them won, but in the long run, they all lost.

If you remember one message, they did the right thing. They stuck to their marketing agenda and maybe that billboard was a decent investment.

My personal gripes on billboards?

1. Being too clever. Some Art Director wanted to win an award for clever thinking and all anyone will remember is his snarky idea, but nothing was sold.

2. Phone number. Really? When was the last time you saw someone whip out their phone and make a call while standing in front of a billboard. And because most billboards face busy highways, an effective board would mean everyone would die a fiery death.

3. Five second read. Nope. You’ve got two seconds… Three if you’re lucky.

Billboards are cognac.

Why do I call it cognac? Cognac is made from white wine and it takes a lot of wine to make a little cognac. Distill it down to it’s essentials to get the good stuff. I do that with my clients. Distill down all the noisy messages, mix in client needs, refine through competitors messaging and you’ve got cognac. It works well for corporate campaign messaging and distill it down to it’s barest minimum and you’ve got a billboard.

Can a company do this themselves? Usually not. Bring in fresh eyes to cut away what you may think is precious and bring out the big crystal snifter.