Finding new answers by asking new questions

The need for new brand questions

If businesses are truly intent on developing strategies that cut through, perhaps the best place to start is with stranger questions. Asking the less obvious might push more brands to think more laterally about their futures.

People are a mass of contradictions. Thank goodness. That confusion of impulses defines each of us. So why do we keep trying to build brands that are eerily consistent in every aspect? Why don’t we build brands that have more quirk?

Should strategies be collisions of ideas?

It feels to me that if we want brands to feel more human and to behave in ways that people truly relate to, then we need to deconstruct the construct; not so much to remove the discipline but rather to add greater spontaneity and responsiveness.

The guts of the problem as I see it stems from how we built brands in the analogue age. Marketers found ‘solutions’ to consumer problems and attached a brand to them. But today, those pure-play products and services have been eclipsed by the broader experiences people seek. I wonder therefore whether we have reached the point where brands need to be ideas in their own right. Or rather – to revert to my point about contradictions – collisions of ideas. So, less about answering specific and carefully-researched needs with branded goods, and more about creating intriguing concepts (with products attached to them) that people feel drawn to interact with.

If this all sounds a little ‘arty’, there’s no suggestion here that we should ignore consumers or the issues that sectors pass. Rather, what would happen if we went about finding answers that weren’t always quite as frameworked?

Inspired by oxymorons

Some years back, my mother was making her way to The Great Wall, declining or ignoring the many vendors who pestered her to buy knick-knacks and rip-offs when she noticed a sign that immediately made her smile. Beneath the prominent logo of a well-known prestige watchmaker was a claim that she told me later was utterly irresistible: GENUINE FAKE.

I’m not condoning illegal copying at all, but this is a story and an idea that I have returned to time and again over the years – because, what if that watch had been exactly what it said? What if that prominent watchmaker had decided to counter the many forgeries it battled with globally by producing a watch that was made by them but used parts that enabled it to be priced more affordably?

The power of oxymorons like this is that they re-present situations as riddles.

The crash of ideas forces rethinking. It demands, in this particular case, that the marketers embrace the contradictions of prestige and affordability and draw from both influences. Most importantly, it has the potential to stimulate marketers to reconcile these opposing forces in intriguing ways. So much of what we do in branding and marketing is premised on what we think must happen. Too often I feel, brand strategies lapse into sameness because the questions that are being asked replicate what everyone else is asking. The answers can only go where the questions lead. Solution: change the questions.

Here’s an example. Right now, the fashion industry finds itself rushing to keep up. Everyone says this is wrong, that there are too many shows, that quality and creativity are suffering and that it’s only getting worse. But the reason they are doing this is to keep up with market and business demand.

There are two obvious answers. Fast fashion – where you use copying, speed-to-market and cheap manufacturing to feed the high street. And fast runway – where, as Burberry have done, consumers get even faster access to what they see.

Tackling sameness with riddles

Both approaches demand greater acceleration. That makes sense if you assume that profitability and speed are linked. But what if they’re not? What would happen if one of the high end brands didn’t try to make their brand faster at all? If instead, they deliberately set out to achieve what at first glance appears to be the impossible: the world’s slowest, most profitable, ethically sourced fashion brand. The absolutes within that idea form the riddle – and the riddle completely rewrites the parameters.

The brand may or may not find a literal answer in this line of enquiry. But they are more likely to find a way of working that redesigns the rules for them than simply looking for more ways to speed up. There’s a big difference between an answer and a formula.

Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the title New Questions Shape The Future Of Brands.

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