“The Hello Kitty Stapler”


So, this happened …

“I’m not using that!” he said aggressively to his girlfriend. (At least I think it was his girlfriend, although I’m pretty sure that after this, they probably weren’t going to be together for much longer.)

Inside the coffee shop, she stared at him in disbelief, her arm stretched out towards him, holding a ‘Hello Kitty’ stapler in the air.

“What’s wrong with this? You said you needed a stapler,” she said, confused.

“Yes, but, this is a serious job application! Don’t you know how important this job is for me!” It wasn’t a question.

“OK, so staple the pages together and get the application in as soon as possible.”

“I have to take this seriously, I’m not using that damn stapler.” He leaned back a bit, like he was scared that he might touch the pink stapler by mistake.

“Oh for goodness sake, who cares? Once the staple is done, it looks the same. How the hell is the HR department going to know what stapler you used?” I could tell her patience was starting to fray.

But our ‘hero’ wasn’t listening, he was too busy packing the array of papers back into a leather-bound folder, probably to go all the way home where he could get his serious stapler. He’d show that HR department he means business!

As he stormed off, I considered pointing out to his girlfriend (who was now gulping her coffee with a look of complete shock) the irony that her boyfriend was wearing a Disneyland t-shirt today. But I figured she’d probably had enough of an insight into his personality, without my additional dig.

Simple Definition

The ‘Hello Kitty’ stapler: Don’t get confused between what something is, and what something does. When you’re looking for a solution to a problem, you should be focusing on the results and not the so-called packaging.

Summarizing what it means

Anyone who reads this story will be able to tell how silly this guy was being. The job application needed to be stapled together, and that’s it. When the company reviewed his application, they would not be able to tell which stapler he used. Nor would they care.

This case is very clear-cut in how silly his attitude was, but other real life situations might be a little more “shades of grey”. Either way, the key lesson of this #hashtag-story should still be obvious to us in any relevant situation.

To understand what this mean in practical terms, it’s useful to consider that (in the broadest sense) sometimes in life we find ourselves as the buyer, and sometimes we’re the seller.

When you’re a ‘buyer’, be careful that you don’t miss the right solution simply because you are too focused on the fact that it’s a “Hello Kitty Stapler”. And when you’re a ‘seller’, don’t forget that your clients can sometimes get caught up that your solution is a “Hello Kitty Stapler” and thereby miss the fact that your solution is actually perfect.

When you are able to recognize this situation and deal with it appropriately every time, then you can claim to have mastered the secret of the Hello Kitty Stapler!

PS. There’s a lot more to this #hashtag-story than what is written in this summary. To understand it better (particularly when I talk about placebo and nocebo, and saying that f-word) then continue reading into the next section.

Discussing what it means

Sometimes we miss the perfect solution to our problems, because it doesn’t look the way we want it to.

I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about all the examples in my life where I actually (or probably) fell into this trap. And I believe you’d be shocked too if you took some time to think through your past about how often you’ve missed out – for exactly this reason.

Indeed, Seth Godin (author, visionary, marketer) in one of his very short blog posts talks about something similar. As he says, “the first favor” is asking for something to be done, and “the second favor” is insisting that it’s done your way. “The second one costs more,” he points out. In this #hashtag-story, I argue that the cost can be infinitely high, if – because of this attitude – you completely miss out on getting what you want.

And of course there is the joke of the very religious man who’s village was flooding, so he climbed up on the roof and prayed frantically to God to save him. A rowing boat came past and offered to take him to safety, but he declined, putting his faith in God delivering him. Another rowing boat came, and a third, and each time he declined. Eventually the water rose too high and the man drowned. When he went to heaven, he challenged God on his untimely death. “I’m religious, I’m a kind and generous person, and I put my faith in you, but you let me drown. Why?” And God replied, “What are you talking about – I sent three rowing boats to save you. Why didn’t you get in?”

Remember in the examples below, although we use the words ‘appearance’ or ‘packaging’, don’t limit your thinking to anything too visual, since these can be conceptual as well.

Taking (or being the buyer)

Buyers, in theory, are looking for solutions to their problems. They need a new employee to perform a function. They need a diet to lose weight. The need a book that will help them with co-dependent behavior.

But when buyers get confused about what a solution should look like, rather than whether it delivers the results they desire, then buyers can end up getting a second-rate solution (or even not finding a solution at all).

  • If your friends are recommending a book to you that they insist is perfect for dealing with an issue you’re stuck on, but you won’t read it because – for example – the title uses the f-word, then that is potentially a Hello Kitty Stapler situation. (And yes, I get that people can be offended by that magical f-word, so I’ve written an entire chapter on it called #[F you!].)
  • How many people have spent their lives looking for the perfect partner, not realizing that the person was there all along, they had just rejected them because they weren’t wrapped up ‘correctly’. Blonde pilot busty rich doctor white black skinny qualified bad-boy hair-on-head. Hello Kitty Staplers, the lot of them.
  • When a company disregards women, people of color, people who are too old or too young, or any other arbitrary criteria, then they are clearly more focused on appearance than on the quality of the hire. It’s blind enough when the guy didn’t want to use a Hello Kitty Stapler, but in this corporate case it’s just blatant discrimination.

So when you’re buying, or taking, or choosing, be careful not to fall into the trap of judging something by how it’s packaged. Know what your objective is, and focus on the solutions that deliver that. Regardless of format.

Giving (or being the seller)

Sellers should, in theory, focus on the features, advantages, and benefits (“F.A.B.”) of their product. If buyers were rational, then that is all that they would need to discuss.

But buyer’s aren’t always rational, and sometimes their biases come into play. It would be naive for any seller to not allow for that.

While trying to understand your client and your client’s needs, you should also be getting a sense of what ‘packaging’ they are expecting to get their solution in, even if it makes no difference to the quality of the solution. Whether that is fair or not, whether that is sensible or not, if you haven’t tried to understand this aspect of their thinking, you stand to miss out on the sale.

I’ve had many occasions where I was meeting with a client that wanted a very specific financial impact on their balance sheet. The solution I proposed did exactly that – it was a perfect match. So imagine my surprise when I was turned down, more than once. (“I want a solution like that, I just don’t want it to look like that.”)

I learned over time that to avoid these Hello Kitty Stapler situations, I had to do one of two things:

  • I had to, as part of the exploratory phase of the sale, understand their packaging needs, and make sure I adjusted my solution to ‘look’ as much as possible like what they wanted
  • Or, once I understood their packaging needs, and if I knew I couldn’t make it look the way they wanted, then I would have to start steering their expectations early in the process (before they had locked in a specific packaging preference in their minds), so that once the topic of ‘packaging’ came up, I had already defused the matter .

Another aspect to consider is that sometimes being the seller or giver is a matter of who you are (and what you’re able to do) versus what your packaging is.

Race and gender are of course obvious examples, but there are any number of other examples, many much more innocuous, where it helps to be aware of potential perception issues.

For example, had a friend who – many years back – got a big promotion, but because she was a young-looking female moving into such a senior position, she knew she’d be dealing with people who were going to have a harder time accepting her as their boss. When moving into the new role, she started dressing much more conservatively, and completely changed her hairstyle to that of someone a fair amount older.

I’m not saying I condone that action, nor do I specifically recommend that people should have to change in order to deal with gender and age bias. I am however noting that she had identified that she would  potentially be seen in the light of a Hello Kitty Stapler, and she decided to deal with that in her own way.

What the Hello Kitty Stapler is NOT:

  • The Hello Kitty Stapler does not refer to the placebo effect (which is a real phenomenon). If you feel more confident selling insurance with a really expensive pen, and that then helps you win more deals because of what it does to your frame of mind, then great. And the nocebo effect is real too, and if your cycling performance suffers because you don’t have an expensive bike and you believe that disadvantages you on hills, then that could indeed slow you down. But that has nothing to do with Hello Kitty Staplers.
  • The Hello Kitty Stapler is not dealing with fundamental preferences either. If you’re looking for a life partner to love and spend the rest of your life together, and you have a particular sexual preference, then that is a lot more than just ‘packaging’ – it’s about fundamental value. (A useful chapter to read here is #[My Neanderthal is better].)
  • And the Hello Kitty Stapler is not about fashion or style. A marketer will ensure that a lot more money is spent on the packaging (literally, the packaging – like actually the box it comes in) for an expensive skin cream, in order to create a sense that it is a better product, and that the extra money it costs is worth it. But staples? Well, they’re just staples.

Making it personal

As I mentioned above, in researching this chapter I took the time to write down as many examples as I could where I believed that I might have misjudged the value of a Hello Kitty Stapler.

  • Did I judge a potential partner on something that ultimately wasn’t relevant to the big picture (like some aspect of appearance, or qualification, or nationality)?
  • Did I hire (or not) hire someone because of packaging?
  • Did I assume a book wasn’t worth buying because of some aspect of the cover design?
  • Did I refuse to watch an award-winning movie because one of the actors was someone that I didn’t really like?

So take a few moments to think about where you have been guilty in the past of confusing the packaging with the product (or more specifically, with the outcome of the product).

Don’t assume, because the title of this chapter includes the words “Hello Kitty”, that it’s not a serious chapter and that it can’t make a difference in your life. Because it can make a difference.

Just remember, when you face a Hello Kitty Stapler situation in future, whether as a buyer or seller or observer, make sure you flag it to yourself as such. Every time. Once you know what you’re facing, it’s so much easier to deal with.

And that is the whole point of the #HashtagYourLife system.

Related stories

#[The Prince who can’t spell]

#[F you!]

#[The psychic examiner]

#[My Neanderthal is better]

#[Giving comics not books]

#[The boyfriend checklist]

#[It’s not about the typo]

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