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Not worth the paper it’s written on?

What do you do with a toxic brand? If you’re News Corp it appears, you opt for euthanasia, perhaps in the hope that the sheer ‘shock’ of stopping a 168 year old institution dead in its tracks will be enough to divert the rest of the media from your crown jewel assets and side-track regulators and other scrutinisers into believing you’re done enough to warrant completing other lucrative deals.

Consumers can be remarkably forgiving, especially with brands that forge a ‘bad-boy’ reputation. But, as in the case of News of the World, there comes a point where they over-step the mark and brands pass through a thin veil from scandalous to unacceptable. The paper seems to have gone there, in the public’s mind, with its actions over Milly Dowler.

Then what should they do?

The problem with dramatically wiping the brand from the face of the Earth by way of a response is that you bury the problem, and are seen to do so – which doesn’t address or resolve the deeper and more troubling questions such as why the brand was allowed to behave like this in the first place. Heads have rolled. Arrests will follow. But for advertisers the disquieting ethos has not been seen to be adequately resolved.

Nick Liddell, global strategy director at branding group Clear, provides some great insights in this article by comparing News Corp’s actions to those of a utility. Utilities, he points out are largely concerned with maintaining a reputation that ensures they can keep their license to operate. “The companies that are used to behaving like utilities understand that … having the brand is what makes them visible, and that being visible is what makes them accountable … [News Corp] could find that axing News of the World does nothing to make them seem more accountable.”

I agree wholeheartedly.

Whilst I am no crisis management expert, from a brand point of view, it seems to me that media organisations live and die on their integrity and on their ability to identify and quantify, as well as report, on what is happening. If I was advising News Corp I’d have put ‘demonstration of integrity’ at the very top of my list of priorities followed closely by ‘transparency of actions’. So I might have agreed to open the books to the relevant authorities, for example, or pressed for an independent review with a commitment to stand by the decisions. I would certainly have fronted the media and been as open and frank as possible.

Far from defusing the situation, the apparently impetuous act to close the paper (and I’m not convinced at all that it is as ‘impulsive’ as it may have been portrayed) and the perceived protection of selected members of staff has annoyed loyal readers, probably had little influence on regulators and increased suspicion that there is much more to this than News Corp is prepared to let the world see. And we haven’t even touched the sides on the messages that such actions send internally.

If the agenda has indeed been to protect the company’s license to operate, then I agree with Nick Liddell that the most meaningful thing News Corp could have done was to put up with the flak and continue operating. Having dealt it out for years to celebrities through News of the World, News Corp seems to have been a great deal more circumspect when the boomerang returned.

The wider message for all brands facing difficult or embarrassing situations is that you may prefer to say nothing and your lawyers might counsel you to say nothing – but for your consumers and for regulators, there is no comfort, or reassurance, in silence or silencing. In fact, there may be even more reputational risk.

In your face

I think you can read a lot of things into Facebook’s decision to team up with Skype. It certainly aligns with my “war of the worlds” theory in some ways. But what interests me is that, regardless of the technical pros and cons, it does actually make sense from a brand point of view. (I’m still far from convinced that Skype constitutes a sustainably bankable business, but that’s another argument.)

Facebook’s brand is all about people connecting. The introduction of Skype simply channels that sentiment into a different technology. Looking for new partners in an increasingly scaled and bitter war, they have literally searched as far as their own name. Who else is in the business of ‘face’ that’s big enough to feel like a meaningful ally? And it’s a simple reminder to all of us that sometimes the best diversification strategies are staring us straight in the … Quite.

Now all it has to do is work. No pressure.

Don’t study their actions, study their habits

We get it so wrong don’t we? We develop ideas and look to see if they’ll work by intricately studying people’s actions and reactions. We poll them. We survey them. We sample them. We question them exhaustively. Whereas, what we should be doing, according to Dr Art Markman, is studying our customers’ habits and developing products and services that fit with how people want to behave.

That way, they’re already pre-disposed to take an action. After all, habits drive actions, not the other way around. All a brand has to do is encourage a new habit and tie the accompanying actions to their brand specifically.

Habits form, says Markman, whenever and wherever there is a consistent relationship between the world and an action. That means that “[U]nless you are in a business where you interact with each customer only once, your customers have habits related to their interactions with you.”

Strong brands capitalise on those routine behaviours. But to do so, says Markman, brands may need to change some habits of their own:

Stop asking and start observing – What people tell you they do, and what they actually do can be very different things, Markman says. If you really want to know how people behave, you need to watch what they do rather than listen to what they say they do. In other words, most brands need to get out more – into the marketplace, watching how people go about their lives, and figuring out how, where and when they can fit in.

Don’t break people’s habits for them. Customers form their own habits in how they interact with you. Know what they are. Itemise them. Understand the sequences that people follow, and why they do what they do. So many brands don’t do that. They look at demographics or SKUs.

Then, rather than introducing new concepts that force customers to change what they are used to doing, look at making changes that intensify their habits, or improve their habit, or that are noticeable but not disruptive. The classic example of a habit-changing behaviour that we can all identify with is when a supermarket brand alters their packaging. They introduce new colours, say. Or they change the position of the brand in the aisle. Suddenly you can’t ‘see’ the brand anymore, and that frustrates you. It also generates a reason to change brands to something else that you do know and feel familiar with.

Introduce a new habit with an incentive. And do it for a while. If you are going to ask people to change, give them a good reason to do so – something that has tangible value for them. And make sure that whatever you do becomes more and more valuable to them the more times it is repeated. Escalate the rewards. And critically, make sure that the incentive timeframe is long enough to allow this to happen. If you don’t give people good reasons to change for sustained periods of time, there’s a very real risk they’ll lose interest or convert. The new habit won’t have kicked in.

I really like Markman’s final piece of advice: “Study the habits of people who use your competitors. Find ways to affect their environment to get them to think about their choices.” Obvious when you think about it, but so many brands don’t turn their competitors’ weaknesses to their own advantage. That doesn’t mean of course mimicking what others are doing. It means doing more of what was talked about earlier – observing, upgrading and re-presenting a habit back as a better way of doing what customers already know and like doing.

Alongside your efforts to ‘new and improve’ your product, you might like to ask what you could be doing to ‘new and improve’ how your customers love to behave.

Who’s afraid of commitment?

Christine responds to my observations about the “war of the worlds” with an observation of her own that could well prove a dilemma in the making, although not an immediate one. As the big social media brands synergise and extend their offerings to make it more and more convenient to inhabit their brand of ego-system (hat-tip Brian Solis), when will it all become too much?

Is there a danger that it will all become too invasive? And even if it does come to feel that way, once things are that integrated, where’s the exit row?

Can you just buy a branded product anymore in that space without being drawn into a bigger commitment?

When does commitment become claustrophobic? When does convenience become imposition? When are customers being asked to buy into more than they want, even if what, or some of what, they are buying into is being offered to them free?

Perhaps that’s my real concern about Google+. It’s not about whether or not it’s better than Facebook, it’s about the fact that it seems to be so similar to Facebook, and to get the most out of it, there’s an increasing sense that I will need to decide to go with one or the other. To capitalise, I’m going to lock up even more with the Googlesphere or Apple or Facebook or Microsoft and therefore comply at some level with their rules and their worldview.

Choices are evolving into variations, and those variations are increasingly sequestered. Ironical isn’t it? More apps than ever, more ideas than ever, more information than ever … but as Wall Street continues to pile on the pressure for continued growth, how far will consumers let socialising brands go to capture value? At what point does a brand that means a lot to you become just too familiar, too knowing?

Being liked: The danger of popularity for a brand

Wonderful, wonderful article by Neil Strauss on why we should all dislike the “Like” culture. Strauss maintains “Like” motivates us to compromise, to chase stupid metrics in a desperate search for acceptability. “There’s a growing cultural obsession with being blogged, digged, tweeted and liked,” Strauss observes, and it’s all about hitting the numbers, at the expense of having a distinctive point of view.

He has a point. Today’s buzzword – influence – is really all about cultivating a following – with the emphasis on cultivating. On the one hand, that’s a very positive thing. It brings people together, it generates and mobilises conversation. It has an outreach driver that is positive and convivial. It also provides real showcase opportunities to articulate individual expertise and authority in a subject matter, which can be important platforms if you’re looking to publish, speak or consult for example. But Strauss’s point is that, when our actions are influenced by our stats, and not the other way around, the search for approval becomes a straitjacket.

“Like culture is antithetical to the concept of self-esteem …” writes Strauss, “ … we are shaped by our stats, which include not just “likes” but the number of comments generated in response to what we write and the number of friends or followers we have.”

“Liked” is a false god – and it creates a false impression. It lures people into judging how true their thinking is and how valid their point of view is by what others say and how many of them say it.

The difficulty for brands looking to negotiate the social and indeed the wider marketing minefield is that cultivating a following – becoming and staying popular – really is core business. Without scaled approval at some level (even if they are cult brands), brands simply do not have the numbers to survive commercially. The dilemma is how to build enough personality and opinion into the brand to make it compelling whilst at the same time attracting enough people to the brand to ensure its viability; striking a balance between personality and popularity.

I speak often about the needs for brands to be magnetic: to draw people to them because of what they stand for, how they see the world, and the actions that they take. That’s very different from skewing everything you do to find the most common denominator – and that is clearly the gist of Neil Strauss’s concern.

For me, that’s why it’s so important to distinguish between liked and likeable. A brand that is “liked” is a brand people agree with – momentarily. A brand that is likeable is a brand people identify with. Following your “likes” is like valuing your company by watching your share price. Your esteem is totally at the behest of others, and in many ways beyond your control, highly volatile and easily driven off-course by what’s going on elsewhere.

Seeking to create a brand that is truly likeable is about bringing out the deeper qualities that customers see in your brand, that they are drawn to over the longer term and that actually come very easily to the brand because they are at the core of its ethos. A likeable brand is not necessarily top-of-mind all the time and is not necessarily the most popular – but for a customer or prospect looking to purchase, it is the most relevant and  the most engaging when it really matters.

A lot of that comes down to other simple things like how often people buy in that category. I’m not a car fanatic, for example, so I would only be looking at cars every few years. What the car brands would be hoping is not so much to have my attention all that time, but rather to gain my attention when I was in the market for a vehicle. That doesn’t mean of course that they don’t need to continue to engage with them – in this day and age, that’s almost a given – but the fact that they don’t necessarily make the top of my “like” list every day is no indicator of preference.

Purchases happen at the intersection of need/want, preference and availability In that sense “Like” is an indicator. Strauss reminds us though that it shouldn’t be the validator.

Joining the dots

Jeff Bullas’s piece on whether Google’s new Google+ marks an all-out war between Facebook and the search giant for dominance in social media raises some important issues. Bullas points to the demise in popularity of MySpace as a precedent for Google’s need to be concerned. From a technical point of view, I can see why Google+ can be perceived as an intervention in the social media space and as a challenge to the incumbent Facebook. But I think seeing it in that context alone risks missing the wider environment within which this struggle may well be taking place.

I’m not convinced that it’s about the fact that Google wants to necessarily get into the social media space. Rather, they may believe they have no choice but to have a presence – and a successful presence – there in order to defend their very business model. In other words, whilst this may look like another attempt to gain a foothold in an arena that Google has attempted to enter several times before, I see it being much more about Google absolutely having to get this right.

A key reason is the “war of the worlds” I spoke about a few posts back. We are now seeing a number of globally scaled brands building their platforms into ecosystems – Apple’s move into the cloud, Microsoft’s Azure project and Windows 8 initiatives, and Facebook’s Like strategy and its pending mobile developments. All of these developments signal a move to draw users into integrated, multi-purpose, branded environments where so many of each brand’s followers’ needs are catered for that they don’t need to look or source further afield.

Remember though that Google cannot easily search Facebook. That means Google is closed out of that search space. And if hundreds of millions of users cannot use Google within their favourite social media channel, they will look to Facebook to fulfil and potentially expand that function for them.

Couple that exclusivity with a fall in web-related searches generally and I think we’re closer to the real cause of Google’s alarm. Increasingly, people are searching for subjects, information and communities from within their favourite social media platforms. That signals that potentially the very way that we search is changing. And such a trend makes social media very relevant indeed to Google, because of course it represents a fundamental challenge to Google’s business model. Google either makes effective and substantive social media searching available themselves or risks being subsumed in a massive fall-off in web-related search numbers.

As Jeff Bulas concludes, “maybe [Google’s] long term existence and continuing relevance hinges on it becoming part of people’s social networks and not just a search engine.”

Part of the reason of course is that social networks by their very nature bring people together around subjects of interest and get them talking amongst themselves. In the process, they seek each other out, seek each other’s opinions, seek updates and news, and look for technical information and so much more from within their social communities. They are doing their own searching – but not with Google.

There is still that very real sense of mass. But it’s a sense of mass whose media physics continues to evolve.

Today, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple run pixellated empires – massive globally-scaled brands, huge and solid to look at from a distance, but on closer examination made up of millions and millions of individuals, who are in turn each talking about, connecting with and searching for what is special and important and precious to them within their favourite swirling media cloud.

In a little over ten years, we’ve moved from thinking dot-com was a business model to recognising that the business model of the future will probably pivot on how many dots there are and how those dots are joined.

Take a moment

Take a moment

Coming home from Sydney, Paul and I were talking about ‘moments of truth’. One of the great ironies, and frustrations, for many brands is that reputation must be built over years, but can be lost in a tiny fraction of that time – seconds. All because of an action or a word, a misunderstanding or an expectation that may or may not even have been reasonable in the first place. Read More

Funnel vision

It’s always fascinating to compare how you see your place in the market with how others see you. Warren made this astute observation the other day. If you’re in a very small market like New Zealand and you look out, you see the whole world before you. There seem to be endless opportunities.

But step around to the other side of the world and look back, and you see a market like New Zealand from a completely different perspective. It seems small and hard to find.

The issue of course is not specific to place brands. It’s applicable to all brands that are small in comparison to the scaled markets they would like to reach. The brands themselves see a panorama. The world looking at all the choices available to them from so many sources discerns barely a speck.

This is quite literally ‘funnel vision’. Your perspective depends entirely on what end of the funnel you are looking from – the scaled end or the narrow end.

The only way that situation can change is when the brand at the narrow end finds ways to increase its profile and presence, so that it literally looms larger in the minds of those far away. Search can help do that. Partnerships and supply chains can also add proximity.

In the Southern Hemisphere, we talk a lot about the tyranny of distance. But in actual fact, the problems many of our brands face, like the problems small brands face in any scaled market, is the tyranny of profile.

What is not seen is not missed.

Can brands fly?

Do you remember when you were a child the first time someone made you a paper plane? If your recollection is anything like mine, you couldn’t believe how it left your hand and made its way across the room. Before long though, it lost height and velocity, and fell to the floor.

One of my more cynical friends has this joke about how much media budget is needed to keep a brand going successfully: “Give me all the money you can burn and it will go like a rocket!”

It’s easy to see a brand as an expense that relies on getting attention to make its presence felt and to make the expenditure worth it. Detractors see it that way too. They’re very quick to opine that unless they’re constantly fed money to keep them in front of consumers, brands simply fizzle and fall to earth.

I don’t share that view. Particularly now, with all the different ways that we access and talk about brands, I see them less as rockets kept airborne by media schedules, and more as planes that need air flowing over their wings to help them maintain lift.

Those currents are made up of a number of elements that collectively generate value. They include:

  • Perception
  • Reputation
  •  Distinction
  •  Awareness
  •  Relevance
  •  Image
  •  Loyalty
  • Story
  • Competitiveness
  • Packaging
  • Availability
  • Offer

The currents work in different combinations and to different levels of intensity and effectiveness at various pricing and positioning points across every competitive sector. And when they are working well, brands maintain their elevation, even climb. The key point here is that success is not just about the money you spend on your brand, it is about the lift you generate and maintain through this combination of factors, some of which you control and some of which are beyond your control.

It also raises two aspects of market dynamics that help explain to me the need for an iterative brand strategy: market friction; and market gravity.

  • Market friction – the levels of resistance your brand encounters in the marketplace. These are the forces that combine to make your brand fall short if it runs out of impulse. Most of these are generated by competitors, some by wider macro-economic factors, some by reputation
  • Market gravity – there is a natural inclination for brands to fall. When currents diminish, stall or fail, it does not take long for brands to start to lose height. Some will lose prominence but continue on. Others will go into an arcing dive, at varying angle of acuteness, that may or may not lead to their demise. That’s why you cannot set and forget a brand, or assume success.

An iterative brand strategy, in fact an iterative business strategy, is about checking the ‘height’ of your brand relative to your competitors and to your history, and adjusting and responding to the volume and the dynamics of the currents passing across your brand.

How should we rethink the advertising industry?

I enjoy seeing people poke business models, but it’s important that when you look to disrupt a business that you do so without assumptions. The call by Marc Ruxin of Universal McCann to rethink the creative department of ad agencies is a great idea but my sense is that his suggestions still assume the battle is for attention, and that winning that attention and holding it via great content, well presented, is critical to achieving consumer preference.

The noise preventing that, he says, is formidable. Brands are trying to get their messages heard and acted upon in an environment of 150 million tweets a day, 700 billion minutes a month on Facebook, 300 million global players of Zynga games, 200 million Daily Deal subscribers …

I’m far from convinced though that attention and preference are a linear progression. And I think we need to insert at least three further filters into that zig-zag of decision making: notice, consider and purchase. You may gain a consumer’s attention momentarily, but until they choose to escalate that attention and actually take notice of you, there’s no way they’re going to consider you, never mind prefer you – and even then, they may not buy.

It seems to me Mr Ruxin is still trying to run an interruption model based on see, want, get. I feel he still thinks content is the make or break, and he’s now looking to adapt that model to fit the new channels that consumers now occupy their time with. That doesn’t so much require a rethink of the creative department as it requires the creative and media departments to rethink their approach and to adopt new skills. Not quite the same thing.

In his article, the author suggests: “It is a new world: Brands + Skillfully Placed Media Investments + The Right Platforms + The Right Partner + The Right Offer = Creative Success” Two things about that. I don’t think that’s a new world at all. That equation doesn’t look any different from the way it looked when I started in advertising – it’s just that the media, platforms and partners themselves have changed. And there’s no reason to believe that ‘Creative Success’ is the result anyone should be seeking anyway. That’s an agency metric, not a commercial one.

I absolutely agree with Mr Ruxin though that we need to be having this discussion, and I sincerely mean what I say here to be taken as dialogue not refutation. So, rather than just being negative about a call for change, let me give my own perspectives on what needs to run, and I think for the most part is happening, inside the agency world. It’s not a definitive list by any means, but hopefully it hints at where the model might go, philosophically at least:

1. It’s not what brands do for people that matters, it’s what people feel they can do with brands. The dynamics of the brand-consumer relationship have almost completely reversed. Consumers identify with brands because they see them as an expression, and perhaps an extension, of their own views. Tricking the consumer, catching them out, interrupting them … these are all outmoded ideas. Increasingly I think it’s just an expectation on behalf of consumers that brands will be where consumers expect them to be.

2. The creative process is no longer just about what you create, it’s about what you start, inspire and encourage. The creative product itself is only as important as its catalytic effect. If it doesn’t work, it has no value.

3. It’s not just about how much attention you get, it’s about how much uptake you get and how much product you shift – and keep shifting.

4. It’s not about platforms or environments, it’s about encounters, and more particularly it’s about encounters that resonate with people. Resonance, not just presence, generates attention and more importantly, engagement, interest and desire. The platform or environment is the means for that, not the end.

5. Increasingly a communications issue is the flash point for widespread thinking not the defining point for what needs to be considered. I completely agree that a wider range of people need to be involved in the creative process, but I also believe that the creative process needs to extend beyond the realm of preparing and sending messages. If you look at how companies like Ideo, Stone Yamashita or Fahrenheit grapple with a problem, it’s about way more than what is said.

6. Agencies are successfully making the move from advertising to communications to ideas. Now they need to make the radical move to answers. Ideas are wonderful, but that level of involvement alone is increasingly falling short of what’s required. My sense is that agencies need to continue to call on the thinking, disciplines and frameworks of their craft but to apply those to new scenarios. In my own case, whilst I freely admit that I struggle with the technical aspects of social media, for example, many of the ways one might draw on to engage and involve consumers are straight out of the direct marketing playbook – they just need to be adapted for new dynamics and expectations.

Finally, I am optimistic this will happen. Creative agencies have extraordinary experience in building brands. They have hugely talented people capable of achieving great outcomes. They absolutely need to draw on what they know, because there is huge value and insight in that experience – but they need to do so across a changing commercial and social plane. No one conversation will solve this … but at least a whole lot of people are talking. And that can only be a good thing.