Shipping stuff across oceans: not easy!

It involves boats.

It involves docks and trucks and trains.

And it involves cranes that load shipping containers in Tetris-like stacks and look, as they stand on the concrete coasts of places like New Jersey and Oakland, like the steel skeletons of Mastodons.

And sometimes, even if you get your stuff onto a ship, you lose that stuff to the waves. Like that time in the ’90s, when a shipping container holding 29,000 rubber duckies went overboard in the Pacific.

Those ducks are still washing up in Hawaii.

And Alaska.

And Scotland.

And yet, without the modern shipping container — a.k.a. the sea can — transporting stuff across oceans would be even harder.

The sea can, after all, revolutionized shipping.

The shipping container is more than just a convenient box

Shipping containers are built in a standard size, so ships can predict capacity.

Shipping containers don’t open in transit, so unassociated goods don’t mix.

And shipping containers are intermodal; they can be easily transferred from truck to train to ship.

Not to mention that every container can be catalogued and tracked.

A simple shipping code on a container can tell the shipping port where to place it in the stacks, it can tell the ship where to stow it in the hold, and it can tell the delivery port which truck should take it from there.

A shipping container isn’t just a convenient box — it’s a convenient set of instructions for use. Every shipping container says to its recipient, “Here’s how to use me.”

In other words, shipping containers were widely adopted because they made themselves useful to every link in the supply chain.

They were useful to trucking companies, so trucking companies changed their trucks to accommodate them.

They were useful to train companies, so train companies changed their trains to accommodate them.

They were useful to shipping companies, so shipping companies changed their ships to accommodate them. Ports created deeper docks. Canals were widened.

So that’s one lesson, and powerful: How you transport a thing determines how useful that thing is to whoever receives it.

Every brand needs shipping containers

Brands tend to be pretty good at making their products easy to use by external customers. Apple computers ship ready to boot up. Ford trucks are sold ready to drive. Google is famously simple and intuitive.

But brands don’t tend to be very good at making things useful to the customers inside their own organization: that is, to their product managers and marketers, their developers and their salespeople. Within their own walls, brands don’t tend to use the communicative equivalent of shipping containers. They don’t tend to help their people help themselves.

Bunkum, you may say. BlatherskiteI work in brand marketing and we created a brand style guide and everybody got a copy.

That’s a good example, but for just the opposite reason.

When creating or evolving their identity, brands will indeed create a style guide. But they do this like they’re pinning a butterfly under glass. The logo is inviolable. The style guide is a rule book. Style guides aren’t a system that helps you be creative. Style guides are a system that tells you no.

Your typical brand style guide doesn’t tell a biz dev guy how to write a partnership email.

Your typical brand style guide doesn’t tell a sales guy how to empathize with a customer.

Your typical brand style guide doesn’t tell a product designer how to make better decisions about how a product does the thing it’s supposed to do.

Or to put it another way, your typical brand style guide isn’t immediately or obviously useful across the organization. It doesn’t come with a shipping container. It doesn’t help itself be used. And so it won’t change how your people do their work.

Here’s another example: content.

When creating content, brands tend to make that content in silos. Say, the marketing team publishes blog posts. Those blog posts may contain trenchant insights on the brand’s product philosophy … but there’s no systemized process for sharing those posts with the sales team. Usually it’s more like an email: hey, here is the latest blog post, kthxbye!

The rejoinder to this argument is well, the team managers will help them figure it out. That’s their job. And OK, sure, but they’ll all figure it out a different way. And then you’ll have multiple interpretations of how to use your identity, or your content — or whatever — each more slightly off-brand than the next.

The solution, as you’ve surely guessed by now, is to build for transport.

That is, don’t stop at the creation of a piece of marketing collateral. Don’t stop at the creation of a white paper. Don’t stop at the creation of a few blog posts, or a new brand identity.

Don’t stop until you’ve created a process that helps your internal supply chain use the thing you’ve created. Every product must have a process.

Otherwise it’s just the old days. It’s just shipping goods in break bulk, when tchotkes were piled like midden heaps inside cargo holds. When you could only hope the truck guy knew what he was doing, and hope the dock guy knew what he’s doing, and generally just hope somebody would find your stuff at the bottom of a pile.

Build shipping containers instead.

Make what you make, useful.