Ideas, meaning, purpose and fluff: when brand strategy goes wrong

(This is an archive find and one of my few longer pieces. I wrote it just before leaving Landor back in 2011 and later edited it with the help of Frances Gordon. It’s seeing the light of day for the first time and I believe it is still relevant. Hell, every project is a Déjà vu…)

Mission, worldview, vision, values, personality, role, insight, opportunity, story… Has your brand strategy proliferated so much that it’s hard to see the wood from the trees? If so, you’re not alone. Read this article to understand how it’s happened, why it’s happened, and what you can do about it.

Smart and succinct brand language is proven successful

Most celebrated brands find their articulation through simple phrases: Apple has “Think different”; GE has “Imagination at work”; Sony has “Make.Believe.   Google’s mission statement is simply “to organise the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful’’.

While corporations may have more detailed versions internally, it is these surprisingly short phrases that are most often cited as best practice by marketers and most often admired by everyone else. Because once the fundamental creed of a brand is identified, very little strategic language is necessary. So instead of focusing on endless wording and rewording, corporations can focus on taking action to make their strategies live.

‘’Brand language” plays a greater role than that of a slogan. These words become central to the ethos of the brand. These short statements serve to rally together internal and external communities of a corporation. At its best, this “strategic language” gives communities focused, lucid creeds that have clear strategic imperatives and imply real-world action.

But if smart and succinct wording is recognised as best practice for brand strategies, why – more often than not – do we see reams of overcomplicated text used to articulate what should be a clear concept? Continue reading

Superbrands 2014: no brand is safe, but it’s never too late…

(Originally written following the publication of Superbrands 2014, then handed between editors until it was too late to publish. Points still valid though..)

The annual Superbrands list is a fun one. Unlike some brand lists/‘indexes’ that are based on complex, notably opaque, brand equity models; models which often employ statistical calculation bordering on voodoo, it simply turns to the public with a list selected by experts and asks them about their perceptions.

Once a long list is selected by industry experts, participants are asked to consider which brands are ‘Superbrands’. A Superbrand being a brand which has established ‘the finest reputation… [and] offers customers significant emotional and/or tangible advantages over other brands, which (consciously or subconsciously) customers want and recognise.’ In addition, they are asked to judge the brands against the factors of quality, reliability and distinction.

To answer those questions, participants have to fall back on their own perception of brands, and, arguably, also their perception of the perceptions of brands. With that in mind, it’s interesting to try and figure out the reasons behind the movements in the ratings. Since we’re in a perception-led territory, it makes one look back at the passing year and try to deduce how events, communications and the general zeitgeist banded together to create such an impact.

If I had to summarise the lesson for brands from this year’s results it would be ‘no brand is safe, but it’s never too late.’ Continue reading

Made in Provenance: global brands and the second coming of origin stories

4291-Paul-Smith-sale(Originally published on The Crossed Cow)

Where do great brands come from? Iconic brands often seem like they’ve always been great. That myth is propagated by both companies and agencies. It’s the branding equivalent of the dying myth that success stories come from nowhere and are largely led by individuals rather than by communities.  An often overlooked part of the answer is hidden in plain sight within the question: Where?

One of the earliest roles of a brand was to signify origin. To this day, provenance plays a vital role in many brand narratives. In categories, such as food, fashion and pretty much anything with a design angle, provenance is always a fundamental ingredient these brands use to engage with consumers and position themselves among their peers. When it comes to Italian Gelato, French Champagne (from Champagne, naturally), Savile Row suits etc., provenance is used as shorthand for the authenticity and heritage that product heralds.

It’s tempting (but naïve) to think that in a globally networked market the question of origin is no longer as important as it once was. However, with people having more access than ever imagined to information about brands, it has arguably become even more important. It can still signify quality, authenticity and character but additionally, it now relates to new selection drivers such as environmental sustainability, social responsibility and ideological compatibility.

The global, cosmopolitan consumer may still seek out the international superstar brands, but these brands are successful because their provenance equity is built in. Globalisation is actually one of the main drivers of the importance of provenance. Continue reading

Marketing ideas as disruption, the case of Swatch

(Originally published on The Drum)Swatch 30th anniversary_0

Swatch turned 30 this year, but its story could have been entirely different if the Swiss watchmaking industry had continued on its downward trajectory of the 70s. A look at how brand embraced disruptive technologies through marketing idea and reversed the fortunes of a floundering industry.

In popular culture, Switzerland is synonymous with clockmaking and watchmaking. The tradition of Swiss clockmaking craft dates back to the 16th century, and while the second world war saw watchmakers in other countries limiting production and supporting the war effort, Swiss neutrality gave the industry an unexpected push.

However, in 1983, centuries of history nearly came to a bitter end as the number of watchmakers shrunk to a quarter of the industry’s size in 1970. The legendary Swiss watch industry was on the brink of being erased.

Continue reading

Designing reality’s interfaces – Between the Tube map & Facebook

The People Mover by Trey Ratcliff (CC)

The People Mover by Trey Ratcliff (CC)

(The following article was originally published on Marketing Magazine’s blog. Since the original publishing coincided with The London Underground’s 150 anniversary, the broader theoretical aspect was cut out to turn this into a post about the Tube map alone. I’m publishing an uncut version here for your interest)
In 1931, a part-time engineer draftsman sat in the offices of the London Underground. Like designers of all periods, he was working after hours on a pet project. That project turned out to be with one of the most revolutionary information design concepts in history.
 
As most of you have guessed – the design in question is the London Underground map. The engineer turned design-legend was Harry Beck. An amusing/alarming fact is that it took about a year for “The Suits” to agree and trial Beck’s radical, uncomissioned, concept. It was another year before it was published on a mass scale. The rest is history. Beck’s map became the blueprint for public transportation maps worldwide and Beck himself spent the next 30 years tweaking his map to near-perfection. He was paid 5 guineas for his map – the equivalent of about £144 in today’s money.
Some things never change, indeed.
 
Train maps were a popular giveaway with newspapers at the beginning of the twentieth century, and looking at some historical maps will quickly reveal the scale of Beck’s conceptual breakthrough. Navigating the increasingly intricate London Underground network was a design problem. It was waiting for the right solution for decades. Like many major design problems, it was born at the intersection of social change, technological advancements and rapid expansions in commerce. 
 
It seems 1930s spam was much better than what we get nowadays. Tube maps lived side by side with poster campaigns exalting the many benefits of travelling by underground, many displaying levels of craft rarely seen in today’s graphic design. Maps were often given away for free with the evening papers to encourage the public to ride by train. They were a marketing application, a touchpoint – part of a campaign. “Swift and sure” exclaimed a logo tag-line on a 1908 version. Like most key touchpoints, maps weren’t single sided propaganda that shouted at the audience; they were useful brand utilities. These maps were a tool to help guide the audience in a modern world of ever more complex urban living. A part of a more complex meaning system.

Definitive products, inevitable brands

Binder label: Food Title: Heinz Baked Beans with Tomato Sauce [back] Date issued: 1870 - 1900 (approximate) Physical description: 1 print : chromolithograph ; 13 x 8 cm. Genre: Advertising cards Subject: Boys; Canned foods Notes: Title from item. Statement of responsibility: Heinz Collection: 19th Century American Trade Cards Location: Boston Public Library, Print Department  Rights: No known restrictions.

(Guest Column in The Drum, 1.3.2013: ‘Ketchup is ketchup, so why does the Heinz brand mean so much?’)

Ketchup is weird, Malcolm Gladwell observed a few years back. It is served alongside mustard, but while mustard is a highly diverse product category, ketchup, as we all know is, well… ketchup.

Yes, it is, essentially, a type of tomato sauce, but it isn’t part of that highly diverse category either. Tomato sauce lives by a completely different set of rules.

So if ketchup isn’t like mustard, and it’s not a type of tomato sauce, what is it then? Ketchup is ketchup. Ketchup is weird. Ketchup is magic.
And Heinz is its magic brand.

Yet Ketchup is not the company’s only magic brand. Heinz dominates the Baked Beans category too. There are few definitive products in our world today, and far fewer still where one brand owns two of them. Maybe Apple has managed to achieve this with the Mac and the iPhone (with two product brand names), but you may struggle to find other examples in the mainstream world (Coke and Diet Coke are variants so don’t count).

Both Heinz Baked Beans and Heinz Tomato Ketchup are operating in ‘categories of one’. Competition isn’t fighting Heinz through differentiation; it is forced down to copycatting. Heinz, with its dominant presence and rich, long heritage is just too strong.

From a design perspective, Heinz marries its definitive products with brand identities that are textbook case studies in the long-term management of iconic brands.

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. Tend to it. It’s this custodian mentality that keeps these definitive brands alive and well. Continue reading

The Apocalypse is bad for business

coming soon, by Digital Trash on Flickr

Coming Soon, by Digital Trash on Flickr

(The following post was originally published on Marketing Magazine’s Marketing Blogged blog. It has also been posted on Linguabrand’s Science and Learning section, among a highly flattering group. This is a delayed cross-posting.)

Expanding the definition and remit of sustainable marketing
When initially introduced to c-suites and boards, the allure of sustainability was that it made a certain brutal business common sense. Performance driven business leaders don’t have to love trees to understand that ignoring environmental impact will eventually kill their business: Materials and fuels will get more expensive, regulations will bear down on them and other forms of public scrutiny will become increasingly unforgiving.

Over the years, the remit of business sustainability has expanded from environmental responsibility to include other economic, social and almost any other aspect of responsible long-term resource management and social stewardship.

However, sustainable marketing has so far remained focused on the environmental aspect. It largely stands for paper sources, non-toxic inks, recycling, etc.

This is an oversight as it’s clear a large part of marketing’s impact on our society is not physical. I would like to challenge this narrow view of sustainable marketing by suggesting that just like businesses increasingly look beyond the environmental impact of resource management, marketing should do the same.

The two new elements I would like to introduce into the definition of sustainable marketing are the cognitive and the cultural aspects. Continue reading