Brand Debate

Shocking: what brands can learn from the Baroque

Is your brand baroque enoughI have a guilty secret to share. It’s the kind of secret my wife knows about, but doesn’t care to mention. In the Butler household as soon as a secret publicly acknowledged (even between the two of us) the secret is out and becomes ‘news’. News loses its currency with time, so she’s basically self-embargoing – biding her time – for the most opportune moment for release. So, I’m just going to come out with it: … … I WATCH LATE NIGHT ARTS PROGRAMMES. Pretentious Moi? Noo-sir-ie.

The most recent guilty pleasure was on the Baroque. At Art College my Bauhaus mind rejected the Baroque as nothing more than pointless window dressing, piffle, mere decoration for decoration’s sake. But this was a great series charting Baroque’s Italian beginnings through 16th and 17th Century Europe and finishing up with St Pauls Cathedral in London, and it made me rethink my view.

I had to watch the whole series for the clincher – the pearl of insight the Baroque has handed us down through the ages. And it was this: you have to grab people by the scruff of their neck before you can tell them anything. This is something we now utterly take for granted and therefore often forget.

So, step back and take a long hard look at your brand and ask yourself: is my brand being uniquely boring or grabbing attention?


Image credit via creative commons to susanneanette

Brand Debate

An Ideal Brand

Every so often I get the urge to ‘go-see-a-show’. Mainly because it’s an excuse to have a night out with my big bro.

The most recent outing was to see Oscar Wilde’s ‘An Ideal Husband’ at the Vaudeville. You must see it – Samantha Bond does a great turn as the villain Mrs Laura Cheveley, and Elliot Cowan is excellent as Lord Arthur Goring – the dandy in the piece.

An Ideal Husband is a comedy that rings true. Wilde shows us there is no such thing as ‘an ideal husband’- someone who makes no mistakes; is flawless. He tells us that everyone makes mistakes no matter who they are – moreover, it’s how people make  mistakes that shows you who they are. And he helps us understand that on matters of love you should love people for who they are and not how they present themselves.

From the perspective of thinking about brands, this is very interesting.

There is no such thing as an ideal brand. Like the people in Wilde’s play, brands make mistakes, but don’t let this hold back your brand’s unique personality. Mistakes need to have perspective and be dealt with. Simply focus on the process of making an emotional connection with your audience and the right people will fall for your brand, for the long-term.

Which brings me to David Nash (the sculptor – yes, I have been watching Art-on-the-TV again, my pretension is reaching dandying proportions). His labour is creating a consistent process and specifically not controlling the end result – in fact there is rarely a finite ‘end result’ for Nash. His focus is about how the artist can work with the natural environment and natural materials to say something that is distinctly unique – tautologies aside, a collaboration of sorts happens.

Focus on the process of brand building and as the world changes your brand will naturally evolve with it – because the world will collaborate with you.

Brand Debate

Corporate Values: Commitments or Commandments?

Or an alternative title: “I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of Corporate Values.”

Let’s call the first “Commitments”
A Commitment is an utterly unique statement about how the organisation goes about its business. It’s a commitment that everyone in the organisation understands and is very much at the heart of the organisation’s culture – and perhaps is incomprehensible to outsiders.

It’s also unique because the organisation believes in itself – that it has a unique role to play in the world. It is this role or purpose that can be called ‘unique and defendable core proposition’ – the central motivating thought at the heart of any well-managed, proactive corporate brand.

A Commitment bristles with confidence. It’s very clear when the value is being followed and importantly when the value is not being followed. It’s a moral statement that doesn’t preach, just reminds employees of ‘how we do things here’ when they need to make a decision.

It’s also rare. Google got close with ‘don’t be evil’ as the central theme of their corporate values. However, the true test of a Commitment is whether it is reflected in the actions the organisation takes.

But how do you get there?

“The Commandments”: a good name for the second
The Commandments tend to be a number of statements – normally four of five – but can go up to ten (to capitalise on the religious undertones), and focus on commonly held principles: ‘Be Professional’ or ‘Be Passionate’ seem to turn up often.

On the face of it this is a good tactic. However, it is precisely because the principles are commonly held that these Commandments are difficult to gain consensus on and therefore embed – they are not specific to the culture of the organisation.

People choose to express their values when they want to – some people are passionate on the football terraces and some are passionate on a Saturday night, but that’s for another post.

And this is where the real nub of good communications comes in: corporate values are essentially a change management tool – they start by helping a business get to where it wants to get to. For corporate values to be an effective tool they must be about the journey not the destination. Which in turn opens up interesting questions – what journey does the brand want to take over the long-term? It is at this point that emotion moves centre stage and individual products and services offered by the company become less relevant.

Brand Debate

It’s Story Time: Story Telling and Social Media

So, we’re all agreed that social media can facilitate a long-term relationship between a brand and it’s customers. But if you want to go-steady with your customers, I think the important question here is: what kind of relationship do you want to have with them?

Yes, there are some pretty old stats that point to the fact that most people used to follow brands for deals and money off vouchers, which is pretty one dimensional in the relationship stakes.

I think we need to get beyond this if we want to interact with customers on a level that builds a deep sense of trust between customer and brand. And trust is all important for two reasons: it’s the mother-load when it comes to accruing brand equity and it is a prerequisite for sharing content via social networks.

For me this notion of building a long-term relationship is a really exciting frontier. In the old world of 30 second commercials this depth of relationship was simply not possible. Here’s a blog that puts this point across pretty well. Marketers now have the opportunity to inject value into brand by providing a narrative that builds up memories, like your grandmother telling you about a family heirloom.

Story telling frames the relationship

It’s the stories you tell and how you tell them that will frame the relationship. There have been a number of experiments to use social networks as platforms to tell stories. And these experiments gladly move away from ad hoc or ‘initiative lead’ status updates and the type of PR set pieces that tend to suffocate social media. This is a good one, as is this from Mind, the mental health charity (disclosure I worked on this campaign) and also this. Ok, I know this last one’s a guy’s not a ‘brand’ brand, but he’s certainly having fun with it; projecting a character.

What’s the best practice?

From my viewpoint it seems that best practice for building a long-term relationship with customers through story telling falls into five points. Some are simple, some more interesting – they are:

  1. Work out your basic plot and story cycles. How quickly do you want the cycle to turn? Are you a soap opera or War and Peace.
  2. Choose your narrative hub. Where are your customers online? It may just be a question of which of the big networks you want to use, but there is a whole galaxy of other niche networks emerging out of the gloom. Once you’ve chosen it, use the platform as the spine for your content.
  3. Show, don’t tell. Build your narrative using a wide array of ancillary tools. For example, Foursquare is not as ubiquitous as Facebook, but it can feed into Facebook as a tool to set the scene of your story.
  4. Have a good set of characters that update your profile or, indeed are your profile. I think characters, fictional or otherwise, are the big creative opportunity on social networks. They breakdown barriers and people want to interact with them.
  5. Work out your central conflict.  What does your brand fight for? What is it trying to get across to your customer? If it’s simply ‘buy my stuff’ then you probably will not be around for too much longer, but that’s a whole other story for another day.

I hope you find this interesting and valuable – if so please do share across your networks or make a comment. I’m interested to hear what you’ve got to say.

[Image Credit: with thanks to theirhistory, through Creative Commons]

Brand Debate, Uncategorized

London 2012 – the final stretch

Olympics, 2012 brand

Photo used under Creative Commons, with thanks to Ben Sutherland

The last London Olympics were nicknamed the Austerity Games, and the parallels between 1948 and 2012 are not lost on the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG). They’ve navigated the choppy waters on the approach to the games with aptitude:

  • Key sponsorship deals were secured before the financial meltdown,
  • Strong ticket sales will ensure good attendance at the games (despite the anger felt by UK ticket buyers),
  • The regeneration of Stratford is comprehensive and immediately apparent with news footage showing the progress onsite, and importantly,
  • It is running on time and under budget.

This all reflects well on brand UK. Around the world, outside the British tabloid bubble, the message rings loud and clear – the UK’s has got it’s business in order, which at the moment is pretty good news. This message came across resoundingly last week with the celebration events taking place all over the UK’s capital to remind people it’s only a year until the opening ceremony.

The Final Stretch for the 2012 Brand

So far, so good, but there is one thing that nags in the back of the mind that is less concrete than that used in the ahead-of-schedule stadium. The next challenge the 2012 brand faces is extending itself to getting ‘the youth’ involved. This is not an easy task, as a recent survey suggests that around half of the UK’s 11 to 18-year-olds are ambivalent towards the games.

What is required is behaviour change on a massive scale. And due to the stakeholders involved (the British public) behaviour change that has to be evidenced in a meaningful way – numbers of young people signing up is a start, but evidence of repeated activity would be better.

Nike, another brand that reaches back to the Ancients, has made progress in this area with Nike+. 2012 would do well to take a laurel leaf out of Nike’s Macbook – their use of technology to enable people to race each other and connect has been a great success in the contemporary world.

But 2012 will need to take a step further than Nike and identify the exact behaviours they want to change in young people and the motivations for maintaining that behaviour. Only then, from that frame of reference, will 2012 will be able to persuade the youth to commit to a new path. It is a challenge of Olympic proportions (sorry) and if met London 2012 will surely be an absolute success.

What do you think? Do you think the London 2012 brand is helping the UK or not?

Brand Debate

Sustainability Now

You may have noticed the FT’s Responsible Business special report that came out earlier this month and you may also have noticed there’s a lot of chat in the industry about sustainability – you seem to see a stream of tweets like this one nowadays.

The thing is sustainability’s difficult to communicate. It’s about making very detailed promises to stakeholders and sticking to them. Stakeholders know why you must be sustainable, they know what sustainability is and they know how you should be sustainable. So there is very little that can be done apart from report back line by line like a truant child on the promises that have already been made.

So, how come we’ve been drawn into merely reporting and not capitalising on sustainability?

First off it is complicated in the extreme. The law of unintended consequences was invented particularly with sustainability programmes in mind. The competencies needed to ‘be sustainable’ require every bit of sinew in the body corporate. It requires out-right visionary thinking, extreme attention to detail for auditing and reporting combined with excellent, fluent communications.

Secondly, stakeholders want change NOW (not unreasonably – in fact in a lot of cases, quite rightly). No matter how complicated your supply chain, nor how ingrained the habits for your customer the work has to be completed to their time scale.

And finally there is a massive disconnect between corporates and their consumers.

…at consumer level there is still a large values/ action gap with over 50% of the populations being concerned about sustainability but this only translates into an ethical market of approx. 5%.

I don’t see this as a consumer problem, I see it as an untapped opportunity for corporates – no one’s quite cracked it yet. Great brands make promises that are at most three words long, global corporates make promises about sustainability that run into hundreds of pages.

I am over simplifying, but as a communicator it sometimes feels you are caught between a rock and a hard place. You feel that sustainably is about making long-term promises, and the brands these promises affect are about delivering on promises.

M&S’s Plan A I feel was a missed opportunity to capitalise on this values/action gap. Plan A promotions made the promise but every other consumer touchpoint was either apologising for not delivering YET, or slowly moving on to business as usual.

I don’t want to single M&S out, because my heart warmed a couple of degrees when I first heard of the initiative. It seemed like someone had cracked it. It was a prime opportunity to develop a customer service proposition akin to John Lewis’ “Never Knowingly Undersold”. Can’t they phase out old ranges and bring in new Plan A ranges to great fanfare? Or phase out old-fashioned packaging and promote the use of new Plan A packaging in a way that consumers can get excited about them?

It all seems so incremental that no one notices or cares until something goes wrong. Which plays into the hands of the skeptics – WHICH IS NOT THE AIM AT ALL. Sustainability is not about being humble, quiet, ploding, it’s about succeeding in business in the 21st century and beyond.

Brand Debate, Creative Process

Creativity Now

The ongoing debate about the future of the agency took a wrong turn at quite an early stage. I think we are all clear on the outputs: clients need ideas that sparkle with zeitgeist. But the debate lost its way when discussion quickly turned to the agency structures that delivered these ideas – the argument that organisationally an agency needs to restructure to ‘keep up’.

But the root of problem is more fundamental than this. You can’t just move the same people around and then expect them to be different – something’s got to change.

To me the more important question is how does an agency create an environment where people can be creative in a different way (if that’s not a contraction in terms) – a way that is more relevant to today’s culture? Insert your own cliché here on what that you think that is, but for me the best illustration of 21st century behaviour is seeing people stop half way up a flight of stairs to check their Facebook – #stairsarethenewsofa. It happens all the time.

To date, the art school model has done us proud. I remember systematically learning through experimentation every aspect of the medium that could now be described as ‘2D off-screen’. Tone, colour, texture, line, space expressed through printing processes, paint, mixed media, photography were the building blocks that you used to express your ideas. Without a clear understanding of the craft your ideas could not be expressed with absolute clarity.

And learning art and design history has stood us in good stead too. The breakthroughs in this history from Renaissance and perspective to logos and Paul Rand have excited and inspired creatives for decades. But these breakthoughs seem a bit moot now somehow.

It is now becoming clear (to me at least) that this education points us to Big Ideas that are dictatorial, one dimensional, and patronising – no matter how knowing they are (and ok, a bit funny too). This campaign leaps to mind – and this riposte illustrates how old fashioned creative is open to a creative broadside.

Agencies need to be the place where ideas come from. We need to dissect today’s medium of choice and train people about its building blocks before we endlessly restructure our agencies. We need to teach people about the history of creativity in today’s medium (a good place to start as any, ohh and here and here too) before we jump onto the next bandwagon.

Let’s not get distracted by the platforms, more interesting questions lurk – what are the different textures of interactivity? – what’s the interaction that’s taking place when people cry when a fictional character dies? How many tones are there in portable? Why do people stop on the stairs to check something that delays them getting to where they want to get to  – what is it they are carrying that makes this stop so important? How many colours of creative control are there? Are we teachers, dictators, or the dudes sitting in Tin Pan Alley?