You can’t solve a verb problem with a noun solution

Products don’t solve workflows. People solve workflows.

Steve Bryant
Aug 26, 2018 · 4 min read

There are noun problems and there are verb problems.

We need a new web site, or better sales collateral, or a campaign that features our new identity. These are noun problems. Noun problems often require noun solutions — that is, things and stuff and content.

We need our sellers to make better decisions, our marketers to market consistently, or our executives to explain our vision. These are verb problems. Verb problems often require verb solutions—that is, workflows between things and stuff and content.

Every brand needs noun solutions, just as every brand needs solutions that are verbs.

The trick is not to ask for a noun solution to a verb problem and waste everybody’s time like a plonker.

Nouns tend to be commodities.

Nouns are things, and people always want more things. Things are easy to name. Things are easy to pay for.

And, at the end of the day, anybody who buys a thing can point to the thing and say look: new thing! A thing, once delivered, means action has been taken.

Nouns, in other words, represent certainty of the past.

Verbs tend to be differentiated.

Verbs are interactions between things and people. Verbs are more difficult to understand and harder to pay for, because verbs are answers and you have to be first willing to ask a question.

But at the end of the day, anybody who buys an answer can point to the answer and say look: new answer! An answer, once delivered, represents a change that will happen.

Verbs, in other words, represent explanations for the future.

In the best cases, a good noun helps a good verb.

That is, a new web site helps your marketers market, new sales collateral improves the worst salesperson, a new ad campaign moves more product.

But in the worst cases, a good noun hides a bad verb.

That is, your marketers don’t know what to do with a new web site, better sales collateral doesn’t help the worst salesperson, an ad campaign fails to increase revenue.

This is the great tactical danger — reaching for nouns when you should be reaching for a verb. Perhaps you think that a better product will fix a broken process.

But why would this be true?

Buying a more expensive journal doesn’t make you better at journaling, just as buying nicer workout clothes doesn’t make you better at going to the gym, just as buying a fancier ink pen doesn’t make you better at signing checks. (It just means you’re spending more money to sign checks.)

In the same way, buying a more elegant web site doesn’t make you better at promoting your web site, just as creating better collateral doesn’t make your sellers more empathic, or aggressive, or smart.

In the worst cases, getting a new noun means you’re not changing your brand, you’re simply changing the impression of your brand. You may say well that’s the same thing, but it’s not — there’s a difference of who controls the interpretation of the relationship. You’re changing how people react to you more than changing the act of you.

And for an example of that, please see every middle-aged man who just bought a sports car.

At the end of the day, as any business grammarian will tell you, most problems requires both noun and verb solutions.

Sales people need better collateral, but they also need to know how to make better decisions. Marketers need better web sites, but they also need better workflows to communicate. Brands need better ad campaigns, but they also need to capture the attention from those campaigns, and traffic that attention, and do it again and again and again.

The trick, as ever, is to understand when a noun is required and when a verb is required, and to understand that nouns rarely, if ever, fix verbs.

So you don’t waste everybody’s time like a plonker.

This post is a part of a weekly series of stories that explores the ups, downs, and sideways adventures of creative marketing for brands. Each post is based on conversations and consultations with some of the world’s largest companies, many of which work with our agency, Article Group. You may also like:

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