Will Uber’s next CEO be Tony the Tiger?

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This piece first appeared in Marketing Gazette.

If you look past the politics and the intrigue, you will find that the story of Travis Kalanick’s departure from (and Arianna Huffington’s subsequent arrival at) Uber is, above all else, a marketing story.

It’s a story that has seen Lyft – Uber’s primary competitor – skilfully pivot around the fallen CEO’s every misstep, and in doing so carve out a niche as “the ethical ride service” which, without their rival’s antics to bounce off, would never have been possible.

It’s also a story that has seen Uber unwittingly develop a brand identity as the “bad guys” of taxi apps, partially through the scandals, and partially through Lyft’s reactions to them. We now find ourselves with a classic brand standoff, in the mould of Coke vs. Pepsi, where we have two giants slugging it out for market dominance, with the public forced to take sides.

What makes it not so classic however, is that unlike most brand face-offs, this scenario didn’t arise from advertising. These propositions aren’t the result of an agency’s “big idea”, or any brand pyramids, onions, or cuboids. They haven’t been forged through tag lines, campaigns, or media buys. They have instead been formed through the day-to-day realities of how these companies operate, and the wider public’s reaction to these realities.

This is how advertising works now.

Everything remotely interesting about a company will find its way out into the public domain, and whatever pattern emerges from these anecdotes and facts will be its brand.

Because of this, creating a strong brand now means taking the same strategy and creativity that used to apply to campaigns, and instead applying it to the business directly, shaping it in such a way as that you indirectly control the message that will be created in the court of public opinion.

In general this is a pretty good thing, as businesses now have to become more and more innovative and interesting in order to build powerful brands. But it also poses some challenges, as Uber are now finding.

The principal challenge is that every internal company action is now a mini-advertising campaign, lending a brand dimension to decisions that used to be purely functional. The identity and practises of the CEO are prime examples of this. CEOs are now not only there to do their job well, they have to act as company mascots into the bargain. Mark Zuckerberg is to Facebook what Tony the Tiger is to Frosties – and so too was Kalanick to Uber.

So, what do you do if an ad is causing you damage? As Pepsi showed us, you pull it – and thus the same fate is likely to befall an attacked CEO.

But changing CEO is not like pulling an ad. Unlike maybe an ad, the brand image created by a CEO and their practises will be based in truth and can’t be wriggled away from so easily.

The smart move in marketing terms is to stick with that image and simply nurture it more effectively. There were of course some really great things about Kalanick’s Uber, such as phenomenal vision and innovation. This wasn’t in spite of Uber’s culture, but because of it. This is their brand too, just looked at through a different lens, and whilst it may not be as media-friendly as Lyft, it is far more groundbreaking.

Thus Uber now have a choice – double down on what they already have (with the poisonous bits surgically removed of course), or pivot. It remains to be seen which of those moves the Huffington appointment represents, but for Uber’s sake I hope it’s the former. If they go for the full pivot, we will essentially have a market leader trying to occupy the brand position of their nearest challenger. That’s marketing suicide, as if I want a business like Lyft, I already have… Lyft.

Whether or not their board has the stomach for such a tricky tightrope walk is another matter. The fact is that having a pioneering CEO comes with a level of uncertainty that is highly undesirable in today’s media climate. Sometimes it’s just easier to embrace generic mediocrity. Uber certainly wouldn’t be the first brand to deliberately dampen what makes them special. American Apparel (a brand for better or worse built on a highly unusual business model and a hyper-sexualised image) fired their highly unusual hyper-sexualised founder Dov Charney when his antics could no longer be tolerated, opting instead for conventional management in the hands of fashion industry veteran Paula Schneider. The story ended in bankruptcy, a result (according to Charney) of their attempts to run it like Gap.

It’s interesting to wonder whether Steve Jobs would have survived at the helm of Apple were he operating today. Obviously he had been ousted before in favour of “safe” management, but at least then it was an internal decision. In 2017 would Apple have been able to spin his bullying behaviour as simply a commitment to high standards? It seems doubtful.

So, whilst organisations need to wake up to the marketing impact of their CEOs and business practices, they also need to be mindful that they cannot simply pivot away from their core brand when things go sour. Only by applying a clear understanding of their core positioning to management practises will they be able to balance dynamism (which Uber had), with safety (which they didn’t). The alternative is simply letting fate decide – and fate doesn’t do happy endings.

Brand “purpose” has been hijacked… by Keith Weed

Embargoed to 0001 Friday November 27 Undated file handout photo from 'Dove' of model from their advertising campaign that used "real" women for its promotions and not airbrushed models. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Thursday November 26, 2009. Women are suffering poor self-esteem because of advertising campaigns which use airbrushing techniques to portray "unattainable perfection", a survey claimed today. Images of models which have been digitally altered are causing more than two thirds of women to suffer low confidence about their bodies, the study by beauty brand Dove has found. See PA story CONSUMER Airbrush. Photo credit should read: Dove/PA Wire

This piece first appeared in Campaign

They say that with great power comes great responsibility.

This is clearly something Keith Weed takes pretty seriously. In the same week that his “great power” was confirmed by being voted the world’s most influential CMO, his company Unilever sought to display “great responsibility” by spearheading a drive to “un-stereotype” advertising at Cannes.

It’s this kind of industry-wide leadership that no doubt cemented Weed’s status. Having the biggest budgets is one thing, but what really counts is an appetite for driving change that spreads to other organisations, and in this regard he stands alone.

I just hope this crusade goes better than his last one.

You see, the thing about this power-responsibility stuff is that good intentions aren’t enough. Sometimes you can wreak havoc even if you try to do everything right, and nobody in marketing has proved this more in the past few years than Weed. His principal crime? The promotion of brand “purpose”.

Now, the word “purpose” is pretty important in business. Literally it means “the reason something exists”, and it’s probably fair to say that every company could do with one of those. If you don’t have a reason to exist then you are by definition pointless, which naturally isn’t a great marketing platform. Better purposes mean better businesses – more useful, more insightful, more unique.

You would think therefore that the industry should be indebted to the man who spearheaded the “purpose movement”. Logically his legacy would be an explosion of differentiation and innovation, as each business tries to carve out its unique place on this earth, in ever more creative and helpful ways.

Alas no.

Counter-intuitively, the increasing focus on “purpose” – at least as Weed and his acolytes have defined it – is leading not to a diversification of brands, but in fact a homogenisation. Rather than prompting brands to think about their markets differently, it is in fact leading them to cluster around a handful of common spaces.

What gives?

It all comes down to definition. In short, “purpose” no longer means “the reason something exists”. Instead it has been recast as a synonym for “social responsibility”.

Becoming “purposeful” doesn’t now mean identifying a unique value that can be brought to the world. It simply means becoming more sustainable. Or maybe supporting disadvantaged communities. Or celebrating diversity. Or indeed promoting any worthy cause that can draw attention away from the organisation’s core identity and genuine purpose, which, chances are, is something they’re not quite so proud of.

Check out this interview with Weed in 2015 to see this logic in action:

Weed proposes that brands with purpose deliver growth. Yup, hard to disagree with that given that, as discussed earlier, the alternative is being pointless. However he then goes on to equate that purpose with sustainability – as if Unilever and all the brands in its portfolio exist only for this cause.

If that’s the case, they might as well pack up and go home. Clearly Unilever have competitors in each of their categories that are well ahead of them in the sustainability game.

It’s hard to see how brands like Axe and Persil can compete with purer competitors such as Lush and Ecover in that space. Weed made the error of equating purpose with worthiness and in doing so seemingly forgot what his brands are really for.

Thanks to his influence this error has now become so common as to be the norm, thus rendering the word “purpose” essentially useless.

Now, this doesn’t mean social responsibility is not a worthwhile ambition. Naturally every organisation should endeavour to be as responsible as possible. It’s just that with a handful of exceptions this is not the core purpose of the majority of brands.

It’s an understandable mistake make, I suppose. After all, many of the world’s genuinely purposeful brands (such as Tesla, Lush, and Unilever’s very own Dove) are occupying these types of spaces. However that doesn’t mean that to become purposeful other brands need to copy them, in fact quite the opposite. We already have these brands, these market spaces are already filled.

You need to bring something different to the party, offer something on top of your green credentials; otherwise customers might as well just go to the originals.

Brands like Red Bull, Apple, Airbnb, Monster, Southwest Airlines, and Harley-Davidson are all clearly purposeful, but you wouldn’t necessarily describe them as worthy. Worthwhile yes, but not worthy. Hopefully they operate in a responsible way, but in each case responsibility is a way of operating, not the reason for operating in the first place.

So when you’re thinking about your purpose, think broadly. You are not Ben & Jerry’s, you are not Dove, you are not Tom’s, you are you.

Your goal is not to blend in, but to stand out. And the best way to do that is to know what unique value you provide. Figure that out and deliver on it, and you’ll truly be “doing good”.

Panel announced for “Make interesting companies” event

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We’re now less than a week away from “Make interesting companies, not interesting advertising”, so we just wanted to send you a quick update on the great panel of business founders we have lined up to speak.

Dan Kieran – Unbound

Dan, described as “a true disruptor” by Richard Branson, is CEO of Unbound, a crowdfunding publishers that gives people the tools, support, and creative freedom to bring their ideas to life. He is also an author of 12 books including The Idle Traveller and a travel writer for The Guardian, Observer, Times, Telegraph and Die Zeit in Germany. He presented a BBC Radio 4 programme about the month he spent driving across England in a 1957 vintage milk float and gives talks on entrepreneurship, creative writing and how to have ideas.

Joan Murphy – Frame

Joan co-founded Frame, a London-based fitness brand which pioneered the boutique pay-as-you-go studio movement in 2009. The brand has expanded to 5 locations across the city. Together with Pip Black she set out to build a brand which would encourage fit, healthy living through high energy and fun-filled classes. Over their 8 years they have proven a new fitness model that is both profitable and can diversify into other areas such as apparel, equipment and education. Joan is currently launching a new business, Mumhood, to promote fit and healthy pregnancies and help rebuild bodies after birth.

Charlie Hoare – Tapped

With an extremely tender bottom, Charlie Hoare got off his bike after a year having cycled 10,000 miles from Malaysia to London raising money for the mental health charity SANE. Switching the saddle for sap (but still wanting to satisfy his need for healthy living) Charlie then moved onto his next challenge – co-founding TAPPED birch water.

Charlie met his co-founder, Paul Lederer whilst working at Innocent Drinks and together they took TAPPED from nothing to a business with RSV of £250,000 in its first year. They are building the tree water category, educating consumers about alternative sources of healthy hydration, whilst creating value for retailers. Charlie still cycles to work.
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Each of these businesses have something teach us about how to win fans through execution, product, originality, and industry disruption – so it will be fascinating to hear what they have to say.

For tickets, please click here.

Come and learn why people don’t think advertising is necessary anymore

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A new piece of research by Basic Arts has revealed that the UK public now believe advertising to be unnecessary for “great brands”; something they proved by voting Lush cosmetics – a business who adopt a “no advertising” policy – as their most admired brand.

In the survey, an overwhelming 95% of people agreed with the statement “I don’t think great brands need to advertise”, with their rationale being that the internet now offers such a wealth of impartial information for consumers that the cream of businesses can automatically rise to the top.

They sited “reviews, journalism, and other impartial coverage” as being the most influential form of information they use when forming opinions on brands, outstripping even the opinions of friends, which came second, and leaving brand-produced messages such as advertising and company social media channels at the bottom of the pile.

Normally claims such as these need to be taken with a pinch of salt, as people are notoriously bad at accurately determining what influences them. However the respondents appeared unwittingly to verify their own opinions when they voted Lush as their most admired brand, since the UK cosmetics outfit choose not to invest any money in advertising and media buying. Their ability to outperform even the usual suspects such as Nike and Apple in a brand love poll suggests there really is a new approach for businesses to explore.

Mark Constantine, the founder of Lush, puts their success down to honesty, transparency, and consistency, as he noted “You need to walk your talk, and sustain the message you put out there… companies who have been using advertising to say they are something they’re not have never truly been in control of their brand”.

It is this commitment to truly effective advertising being built on internal behaviours which respondents also identified as being the thing most important to them. When asked to identify what it was that drove them to love the brands that they did, by far the most crucial factor was simply “what I know about what they do”.

These results call into question the common orthodoxy of confining brand thinking and creativity to marketing departments and advertising, rather than spreading it over the whole business. It appears that in an age of transparency and democratised information, the battleground where businesses will be fighting it out will not be in paid media, but rather within the walls of the business itself.

The full results of this research, as well as the interview with Mark Constantine, will be launched on Wednesday 29th of March in an event in London which will also feature the opinions of the founders of three further businesses who are taking this approach.

For tickets please go here.

To request a copy of the report when available please email contact@basicarts.org 

Basic Arts speaking at Shoreditch House

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On Monday 24th of October at 1pm Basic Arts will be hosting an event at Shoreditch House, covering advice on how to build an interesting company.  Here’s the synopsis:

We all know that today great brands are the ones people talk about, not those who talk about themselves. The problem is, most brands aren’t worth talking about. They save their creativity for their ads whilst the real business underneath remains dull, confused, or worse. This session will introduce you to a simple technique you can apply to any business to make it inspiring for the both its customers, and the people who work for it.

If you are interested in attending, drop a line to contact@basicarts.org to be added to the list.

Basic Arts to speak at the Marketing Forum

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From the 5th to the 8th of October Basic Arts will braving the high seas as speakers at this year’s Marketing Forum.  The event takes place on the good ship Aurora, ensuring a memorable occasion, and, more importantly, a captive audience 😉

The topic of discussion will be “How to build a business for the post-advertising age”.  We’re looking forward to a great few days and want to extend our thanks to Richmond Events for the invitation.

Basic Arts vs The News Media

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Basic Arts latest project sees us team up with the disruptive media startup The News Hub. Their unique model allows readers and journalists to take editorial control of the news leading to an unpredictable collision of topics and opinions.

Following a period of beta testing our two companies are working together to analyse the usage behaviour of The News Hub’s community, and translate the findings into a powerful purpose for the platform – helping to craft a new and provocative way of consuming news media.

Find out just what that is in the next few weeks…

The View From BA’s Office

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Basic Arts is delighted to be working with luxury tour operator Hartley’s, not least because it involves working together in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

We’ll keep you posted with more details on our first consultancy project, but in the meantime enjoy the view whilst we enjoy a couple of sundowners.

Hello

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Welcome to Basic Arts, a community of people changing brands and culture through a new advertising discipline called ‘basic’.

Basic is at its heart a technique of building interesting and meaningful companies, rather than interesting and meaningful advertising. It’s something that the most inspiring businesses today do instinctively, allowing them to not only create powerful brands, but also to influence society for the better.

By codifying this behaviour, giving it language that all businesses can share, we seek to make it accessible for all brands – not just the radical few.

Over time, our goal is to see the £500,000,000,000 that companies spend annually in media making brand promises be, at least in part, redirected to making those promises a reality.

Here are some things you can expect from us over the coming months:

  • Thought and ideas through our friends in the media and academia
  • Education programs for brands and agencies through independent trade bodies
  • The creation of some unique and inspiring businesses

In the meantime we here at Basic Arts are always on the look out for new opportunities to inspire people with this better way of working – so whoever you are, do get in touch as we’d love to see what we can do together. We’re based at Second Home in Shoreditch, London, and you can reach us at:

contact@basicarts.org