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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.


I love this observation by Jay Deragon about the Social Learning Curve: “All things social are creating a herd of copycats following practices, methods and behavio[u]r created by the frenzy of learning something new …”

To what end? is the inevitable question.

Once learned, something is no longer new. In fact, it retains distinctive value only whilst the numbers of people who have access to that knowledge remains small. And yet, thanks to all things social, the chances of that happening are becoming less and less. And the pressures to democratise what one knows are also increasing.

So everyone feels a pressure to learn, and many brands feel a pressure to share, but once accessed by many people, learning retains diminishing competitive advantage. It quite literally devolves to common knowledge. It becomes how ‘everyone’ does things, what ‘everyone’ agrees on, the way ‘everyone’ sees the world. Soon, what was new is basis.

The tipping point for example. Once breakthrough. Now mainstream.

Knowledge commoditises.

I happen to really like Collins’ book ‘Good to Great’, but if you believe that by reading it today somehow you will emerge with an understanding that presents you with a clear competitive advantage, you couldn’t be more wrong. Why? Simply because everyone you’re competing against has read it too. And between those readings, the reviews, the lectures and assignments at every business school across the world, and the many subsequent discussions, all the learnings are now widely circulated and applied. There is no secret to be had. ‘Hedgehogs’ are now relatively commonplace.

That dynamic puts so many brands in the knowledge business in three ways:

  1. They must keep pace with the learning around them to avoid being left behind;
  2. They must share new learnings publicly in order to make their brand more findable, to gain authority in the marketplace (ironically by making more and more people aware of, and accepting of, what they know), and to encourage others to feel that they should share their learnings too; and yet
  3. Brands must retain and protect some learning, or some aspect of their learning, and continue to generate new learning or new variations of their cornerstone learning, in order to differentiate their brand from that of their competitors. Otherwise they too will become an also-ran.

Increasingly it seems to me brands must steer a knowledge course between three very different principles:

  • Momentum: They must use knowledge to gain thought leadership status in their sector and to move customers’ and investors’ thinking forward to the point where it aligns with what they offer.
  • Protection: They must take care not to be so open with their thinking that competitors gain the upper-hand or that customers feel they can do things themselves.
  • Reaction: They must be prepared to react astutely and decisively as competitors choose to advance their own thinking in order to meet the insatiable demand of the market for new learning.

I liken this to trying to get anywhere by car in Rome during rush-hour: accelerator, brake, lane change …

When was the last time you actually changed your mind?

The hardest thing a brand can do is convince – to go against what people already believe and to ask them to believe something different. Actually, that’s not just true for brands, it’s applicable to anything or anyone. In the scheme of natural human interactions, conversion is relatively rare. To succeed at convincing, you need to overcome all the natural resistance that comes with encountering something new. Essentially, you need to break down all the inclination that has already amassed for an idea or a storyline. You need to destroy the loyalty that already exists for what people have and replace its equity. That’s amazingly difficult. As Seth Godin once observed, “If the story of your marketing requires the prospect to abandon a previously believed story, you have a lot of work to do.”

Redirection is simpler. You change soaps. You change airlines. You change shirt brands. Particularly if soap, airlines and shirt brands don’t mean that much to you. Changing from a brand that says and does one thing to another brand that seems to say and do the same thing under a different name is easy. That’s why and how things commoditise. When we see no difference between them, when changing makes no difference for us, because it doesn’t represent a change to our core belief system, we can do it without hesitation. Add in a good price, and we’re gone.

The irony is that as consumers, we all say we welcome change. We don’t really. What we really welcome is improvements, additions or extensions. And we have strong preferences and priorities. Some things, packaged in some ways, appeal to us more than others – but only if those elements conform with our worldview. A dispositionalist would explain this by saying that as humans we are significantly, if not completely, influenced by the cache of beliefs that we run behind the scenes and that subconsciously decide huge amounts of what we agree with and disagree with every day.

Marketers are optimists. We naturally believe that the power of a strong, well-presented argument must win through. It’s simply not true.

The easiest thing a brand can do is confirm – to give us more, by way of physical product or perspectives, of what we already know and agree with. Loyalty jumps when brands tell their customers, show them, present them with something they had always wanted to hear, see or think about. Launching iCloud recently, Steve Jobs told Apple fans the world was entering a post-PC age. It was an idea that was readily and speedily embraced, because it confirmed what Apple fans believe, or would like to believe, anyway.

Marketing may help decide preference but it cannot alter fundamental inclination. On the contrary, inclination pre-decides the success of so much marketing.

An option or a choice?

Just getting a presence in most markets can be hard work. One of my friends is finding that in the beverages game – a longer runway than he and his partners expected, and a lot more patience required as well. Long days, he says, having to justify every metre of shelf space you’re allocated.

Same with being a speaker or a consultant. But doing all the work to get on the map just elevates you to the status of another option.

That’s not the same as being a choice.

Options form part of the line-up for how customers decide. Choices are a conscious decision in themselves. Option means you’re available, you’re on the list, in the books. You’re a speculation. Choice makes you an active decision, one part of yes/no, either/or. You’re known, you’re quantified, you’re considered.

Now if you’re in the business of selling variety – like supermarkets, book stores, speakers’ bureaux, search engines – options fill out the stock book. They reflect well on you because they prove that you can tap the market. They give you a long tail. And they give your clients the sense that they have the full pick of what’s available. Chances are, for that reason, if you’re in the business of selling variety, you welcome options (or at least the best options) with open arms.

Being the option isn’t quite so glamorous. It may have boosted your ego to have made it past reception, but if you just stay an option, frankly, you’re making up the numbers. And it’s easy to forget that, in order for the market to continue to work efficiently, for every brand that becomes a choice, so many more must either become or stay options.

Today’s marketing environment has tricked many brands into believing they are contenders. They post a website, they get traffic, they’re making their metrics. To them, they’re a choice.

But until that traffic monetises or that shelf placement improves, or the call volumes really lift, they’re more likely to be an option.

The thing is, most times you don’t get to decide your status. Customers decide – based to some degree on what distributors decide, agents decide, the media believe you will be worth to them. Fundamentally, the shift from option to choice isn’t based on attention, luck or talent alone. It’s based on consciously shifting influencers’ perceptions – of your value and your potential value.

A brand strategy blog

Upheavals: A blog for people who love branding

Welcome to my blog. Here you’ll find my observations, perspectives, questions, ideas, new thoughts and models for brands. I focus on the changes and developments in business and brands that catch my eye (and perhaps will catch yours) – things I read, things I observe, stuff I theorise about, attitudes that frustrate me, and conversations I have in passing about market changes and their implications.

If you’re a brand owner or a marketer, responsible for retaining the value and competitiveness of your brands in our rapidly shifting and increasingly social world, please take a look, add a comment, make contact … Cheers.

Conversation vs recommendation

Nice piece from Neil Glassman draws a distinction that I think has escaped many of us between conversation and recommendation. As the author himself says, he thought of social media as a platform to directly scale up word of mouth (WOM) marketing. But the synergy that looks so obvious doesn’t happen. In fact, says Glassman, compared to the effectiveness of what takes place offline, surprisingly little WOM is generated on social media.

My sense is that while there is plenty of talk being pushed into the media, that content is then not, for the most part, being transmitted-on (or more specifically picked up) in the way that it is when WOM is in full flight.

Glassman himself hints at why. People, he says, participate in social media to interact with friends and like-minded strangers about things that interest them. Social media marketers, on the other hand, engage with their customers hoping to encourage them to spread the word. The first interaction pivots on “us” – about the things that “we” share, which means ownership exists. The second is about turning “mine” into “yours”. It’s about encouraging people to take ownership.

Glassman continues, “It appears that as much as social media has changed our networked world, it hosts only a small bit of the conversations about brands, products and companies. Not what social media marketers talking amongst themselves would expect.”

One observation on the difference between WOM and social media did surprise me. While 20% of WOM conversations are triggered by media/marketing, half of all conversations about brands have references to media/marketing, and positive experiences trigger more WOM than negative.

We share what we enjoy – no surprises there. But we share what we enjoy most effectively when it has affected us personally. In other words, we convert mere talk into active endorsement when we have emotional skin in the game. By contrast, Glassman observes, most people on social media networks are passive. They’re talking, passing time.

The key aim for people engaged in social media is bonding and the subject matters they discuss are just part of the conversation. This may make them less inclined to endorse a product or an idea. By contrast, WOM focuses on shared subject matters because people talk about they have in common, so they are much more likely to recommend something that they think the other person would like.

Key message for brands: until people see your brand as part of their world, they may talk about you but they are less likely to recommend you than most marketers would like to imagine.

Becoming a cultrepreneur: the first 3 secrets

I coined the term ‘cultrepreneur’ some years back to describe enterprising business people who consciously set about developing brands that are anti-scale, hard to find and fervently followed – cults. A number of people have asked me how you go about building a cult brand. So here’s my first three secrets:

1. Make something amazing, and then make it unavailable. Alright, not completely unavailable. But part of the secret of growing a cult brand is to grow the legend, and part of growing the legend is to cultivate a myth of short supply. With a cult brand, you always want to be making just under the market demand. Enough to cover costs obviously, but too little for everyone to be able to get hold of it easily. The thought of missing out intensifies the pleasure of getting and the desire to procure.

2. Nail the long tail. Cult brands appeal to those who think they know better about a particular subject, and who want more than what is widely available. The secret is in the discovery. So that’s about two things. First of all a product line that’s far enough off the beaten track to appeal to collectors rather than consumers. And secondly, something that takes some finding. That search for something special starts with a mention, a hint, a throw-away remark or endorsement – and that reference kicks off a journey that could end in a garage sale, a bar 400 miles away or at a club in the down-beat part of town. Cultrepreneurs are masters at leaving bread-crumbs for a journey that a passionate few will take. The challenges of course lie in where the crumbs are left and creating a journey that is enticing enough to persevere with.

3. Deliver what’s missing. Sometimes that’s about sheer quality, or a particular quality. It could be authenticity (in a market where everyone else is just putting up an appearance). It could be an irreverent attitude or just plain rudeness (in a market filled with stuffed shirts). It could be humour. It might be availability or recognition. Whatever it is, it isn’t seen by some as being there now, and there are enough people who want it, or who would want it, to inspire a cultrepreneur to make it happen. Almost inevitably, a cult brand is edgy, polarising and unafraid to fray a few nerves. Protest and outrage often act as fuel, and persistence, especially when greeted with derision by those regarded as the status quo, is read by brand followers as a sure sign of deep conviction. There’s a real skill in pushing that outrage far enough to keep it interesting without having it universally dismissed. Cultrepreneurs possess that sixth sense for being fashionably unfashionable.