How to bring your people with you

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To become the kind of inspiring business that wins friends and fans in the modern world is a team effort. We can’t just bring in a hot shot marketing director and expect them to “do” some great marketing for us – instead we have to make everyone marketers, all working creatively towards a perfectly defined and consistent brand purpose.

However this isn’t easy. Most of the people in your business weren’t hired to think this way. Chances are they are simply looking at their given task within the machine, and rarely raise their head to ask what the point of all this is. If that’s the case, they will perform their given task in a completely generic way (in just the same manner as they did with their former employer probably), and will, with the help of all their colleagues, end up creating a vague and generic business.

Not all businesses have this problem of course. It goes without saying that the interesting companies we mention around here all the time have employees who really believe in what they’re doing. Rather that focusing on them by way of example however, we can look to something a bit more obvious – charities.

Generally speaking everyone who works for a charity is passionate about whatever that charity’s cause is. If you work for, say, Dogs Trust, it’s pretty likely that you like dogs. And this doesn’t just go for the dog-handling roles in that organisation; the secretaries, the accountants, and all other generic roles will probably share that passion. This is because the end result of what this body does – helping dogs – is something that certain people care about, and therefore the business is likely to attract these certain people as employees. This shared passion results in charities having much more coherency and harmony than your average business. It also changes the way the employees actually carry out their jobs, because they are all able to attach their actions to that bigger purpose.

A slightly cheesy, but nonetheless good example of this same principle was at play with the oft-quoted anecdote about what happened when President Kennedy visited the HQ for the Apollo missions. Coming across a janitor sweeping a hallway, he asked “what is it that you do here?”, to which the janitor replied “I’m helping put a man on the moon”. You can bet that this janitor did his “janiting” in a slightly different way than a janitor in a regular office building. He certainly did it with more pride and more focus. The combined effect of his mindset and that of all the other workers do other menial jobs on that project ended up with something pretty impressive. The exact same principle can be brought to bear in any business.

How? How can we get all our employees, regardless of their role, to be as in-tune and engaged as those at Dogs Trust or the Apollo missions? The crucial question here comes in identifying what the true output of the business is, what exactly the point of it all is.

Naturally this can’t be profit. Well, it can be profit, but if that’s the case then you have to accept that this goal will be shared by all your employees, which will result in them orienting themselves around their personal renumeration. If the business is here for cash, then so are its employees. If the business is here for dogs, then the employees will be motivated by that instead. Thus it’s best to define profit as being the reward for a job well done – not the job in and of itself.

The job needs to be defined as the worthwhile thing that the business is on this earth to achieve. A good way of articulating this is the business “purpose”.

The term “purpose” has come to be rather distorted in recent years, since it has become synonymous with “worthiness” rather than being simply worthwhile. This definition is dangerous as it has shut many businesses out, leaving them to think that it’s not the type of business they are. However to be a purposeful business you don’t need to be solving the world’s energy problems, or feeding the homeless – you just need to be achieving something which, if it wasn’t for you, would be missed.

GoPro is an extremely purposeful business, but there is nothing worthy about it. People make sacrifices to work for GoPro in the same way as they would with a charity. At a push, a purpose can even be negative and still work – at least in terms of difference and coherency. This was shown by the brand Death Cigarettes, who promised “we kill you faster” before they were put out of business in a legal dispute. Of course, those involved with the brand weren’t motivated by killing people; instead they were joined by the “punk rock” spirit that such a claim implied.

With such clarity of purpose, an identity is created, one which runs through employees as well as the brand itself.

Most businesses are made of people who bounce from company to company, even industry to industry, with only things like advancement, ease of commute, and a bit of extra cash as their driver. They are passive and reactive, letting circumstances dictate their decisions, rather than any genuine preference. It’s no coincidence that this attitude is mirrored by consumers. If you can’t get the people who work for you to be motivated by what you do, then with the public you’ve got no chance.

Ultimately they’re all people, they all have the same desires, and thus contrary to conventional marketing wisdom all their desires can be answered in the same way – by being a company which is doing something great.

How should we organise our marketing departments?

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Sometimes the old ways are indeed the best. You might be familiar with the concept of the four, or latterly seven “ps” that comprise marketing – product, price, promotion, place, process, people, physical environment. Whilst this list has been around for a long time (the original variation cropping up around 1960), it actually represents a far more cutting edge approach to marketing than that seen in the vast majority of contemporary businesses.

Marketing today has come to be almost synonymous with “advertising”, or to put it another way “promotion” in the list of ps. Few are the marketing departments which are defining business processes, designing the products, managing the people, building the physical environments, etc., however today as we have seen it is this holistic, “total business”, approach to marketing which is essential to build a coherent and inspiring brand.

It makes sense up to a point that marketing got trapped in this narrow definition, since twenty years ago the primary battleground where brands fought was in paid media. The only way information could really travel or get purchase with the public psyche was if it had a huge amount of money to support it. Unsupported pieces of information – say the type produced by a normal person – quickly dissolved away. The chances are that if you won the promotion wars then you won the game full stop, even if your business was technically an inferior one to a competitor. After all, who’s going to buy them if nobody’s heard of them? Thus marketing adopted a very outwards-facing mindset, turning their back on the real business, seeing it as almost incidental as to whether it became successful or not. This created countless farcical situations where brand teams and agencies would agonise over how to position and sell a sub standard product, with nobody ever thinking to say “hey, what if we just changed the product?”.

Contributing to this superficial approach was the very idea of the “marketing department” in the first place. Most businesses are divided into different departments each with a different responsibility; HR, sales, manufacturing, marketing, etc. These departments, for obvious reason of symmetry, are generally all of equal seniority, lined up side by side, sitting perhaps underneath a board of directors. Generally this makes pretty good sense – but not for marketing. If we think of marketing not as a department, but as a discipline, we can see that it is the body of thought which essentially defines what a business’s role in the world is. Why is it here? What’s the point of all this? If you answer that question well, and then deliver on it across all the ps (however many of them there might be), then you’ll have a great business on your hands, one which is doing great marketing every day just through its very existence. This means that rather than being a department that sits alongside all the others, marketing done correctly should instead be an umbrella approach which sits over them – ensuring that everything is done in a joined-up and on-message kind of way.

It is for this reason that many of the new breed of inspiring brands – whose marketing everyone admires so much – actually have no marketing department at all. They know that to have a dedicated marketing department sends the message that actually fulfilling the business’s place in the world isn’t everyone’s responsibility – a bad move in today’s world. They might have a publicity department (which is essentially what most marketing departments are these days), but the responsibility for defining what the brand stands for sits at a much higher level, and is activated by everyone in their own field.

So what’s the best way to place marketing internally? Whilst the traditional department model is clearly not ideal, there’s not necessarily any one “best” alternative – you just need to make sure that everybody is involved. If you already have a marketing department, you might simply repurpose them so they sit across all your other departments, helping keeping them all aligned and operating creatively. Or you might re-label them something more appropriate like the “promotion” or “publicity” department, and instead assign someone in every other department the role of “brand thinker” whose responsibility it is to ensure that their department acts in an distinctive way. Or you might try something completely different. Many businesses now are adding the role of “creative director” to their organisations as they start to take creative control back from their externally-focussed agencies.

Ultimately the answer to the question will depend largely on what the current status quo is in your organisation, and how you can most smoothly manage the transition. So long as you find a way to bring that kind of thinking to every corner of your business, you’ll immediately be far ahead of the competition.

Why firing Damore was a bad marketing decision for Google

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This piece originally appeared in Marketing Gazette.

In the fallout following the ever-so-juicy James Damore “MemoGate” scandal, opinion has roughly fallen into two camps: if you disagreed with his points you think Google were right to fire him, and if you agreed with them you think they were wrong.

That’s a pretty understandable decision making process I suppose, but it’s not a very smart one. The real question here is not whether you think he was right or not – that’s somewhat irrelevant – it’s what the smartest strategic play for the brand was when faced with a very difficult (and very public) challenge.

Essentially, how could they minimise their damage and leave themselves in the strongest position?

Sadly Google didn’t seem to see it that way. They made their decision the same way everyone else has, whilst failing to consider the bigger picture business consequences of their actions. And thus they may find that in the legacy of this case, the worst is yet to come…

To understand why firing him was the wrong move, we need to start with fundamental rule of modern marketing: your actions are your advertising. This is especially true for a company like Google, whose every twitch creates news stories. The basic idea is that you’re still trying to do the same thing you’ve always done with your ads – project a specific message that persuades people to use your product – however you are now trying to do that by running your company in a way that implies it, rather than pumping it out there in ads.

Google therefore, like everyone else, need to always be thinking “what’s our message?”, and “how can we make decisions that align with it and bolster it?”. Every move will basically be a mini ad, and it will either be an effective one or a crap one. And this was a real turkey.

The reason for this is the nature of their core product, search. Google are essentially responsible for the world’s access to information, which, in spite of them being a private company, is a huge civic responsibility. To be trusted with that responsibility, they need to show an unerring commitment to free speech and not favouring one form of information over another – an extremely tricky challenge in a world of bomb tutorial videos, child pornography, neo-Nazi stuff, and other material people think should be suppressed. However where we draw the line on that “other material” will never be cut and dried. There will always come a moment where you hit upon something half think should be allowed, and the other half think shouldn’t, and thus people have always relied on Google to be neutral mediators in these clashes of ideas.

By choosing to fire Damore – in effect “censoring” him internally for opinions that are widely held amongst their own employees according to an anonymous survey on the issue – Google have drawn attention to their lack of neutrality. It’s not that they shouldn’t have opinions (everyone does), but it’s the fact that they have allowed their opinions to guide behaviour, rather than the core principles that underpin their product. Being “right” or “wrong” is beside the point when you are a brand built on mediation.

Now, of course their behaviour in this situation does not necessarily mean that they will start suppressing conservative thought online, but that doesn’t matter. What matters, as we all know, is the message; and they have sent a message that many people are translating as “we can’t be trusted to treat information impartially”.

If they were almost any other company – let’s say Tesla – then their decision wouldn’t have been a big deal. They could have then acted completely as they wished, because ultimately politics do not directly influence the efficacy of an electric car. The public would not have assumed Tesla have a worse product because of their decision to fire a sexist. But unfortunately for Google, different rules apply. This is a company that is already facing increasing calls to be regulated like a utility, to have its private status and its ability to make its own decisions taken away, and they have just awakened millions of people to that debate. Yesterday I might have thought of Google as a harmless intermediary – today I read stories about them “crushing free speech”. How long before I demand to know the secrets of their algorithm?

The right course of action would have been to make a statement thoroughly denouncing Damore’s opinions (thus dampening any accusations of tacit agreement), but saying that due to their commitment to open debate they won’t be disciplining him, they’ll simply make sure they prove him wrong through action and further steps to accelerate diversity. Then behind the scenes in all likelihood his position would have become untenable anyway, resulting in him leaving voluntarily and ultimately causing minimal damage for Google.

It’s no longer enough for businesses to merely try and do “the right thing” to minimise damage when it comes to scandals like this. They need to apply some ad strategy too, linking everything to the core purpose of their product, or risk having it erode over time. They may have thought their decision was good PR, but it was bad advertising – and when the government eventually tightens its grip on them, we might look back on this as a crucial tipping point in that journey.

Purpose is broken – here’s how to fix it

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This piece originally appeared in Campaign.

Every brand has been created for a reason. That reason can generally be found in the value they provide that people are prepared to pay money for.

Your local coffee shop, for instance, is there so that people in a very particular vicinity can get coffee. They are providing a piece of value, and getting commensurate value back in return. That, in essence, is business.

It’s also the purpose of the word “purpose”. If a brand figures out what it’s for, and strives to deliver it to the best of its ability, then it can maximise the value it gives to the world, and thus maximise the value it receives. In this situation everyone wins – the brand is focused on value creation and innovation, which is good for the customer, and the customer rewards them handsomely, which is good for the brand.

Whilst this may sound like common sense, most brands are very bad at it. If you ask them the point of their business, the majority will either give you a muddled response, or will outline a purpose that is already served by a host of competitors (“we make comfy shoes”, “we make tasty drinks”). This is why the growth of “purpose-driven business” is so important – it defines market roles and creates focused, remarkable brands.

And it’s why the distortion of purpose is such a tragedy.

As I wrote in Campaign a few weeks ago, a new generation of marketers has narrowed purpose to mean the “social good” that a brand provides. Purpose is now about either sustainability or inclusion, and has thus created the reverse effect it’s meant to have, delegitimising the vast majority of non-worthy brand purposes, and encouraging everyone to cluster around a handful of crowded territories. Rather than seeing these things as worthwhile hygiene factors that sit beneath your core purpose, they are now seen as the ends in themselves, resulting in some remarkable logical contortions as brands like KFC struggle to define themselves as champions of animal welfare.

It’s time to reclaim purpose and return it to its dictionary-definition meaning, for the sake of better brands, better marketing – and yes, a “better world” too – because the world would be best served by brands providing clear value in a responsible way; not value-less responsibility.

With this in mind, here are some thoughts on what makes a real purpose.

The first (and most obvious) characteristic of a good business purpose is that it be ownable and unique.

Think about it: if someone else is already offering what you offer, then you are by definition “purpose-less”, like a third sleeve on a shirt. Sure, you might argue that you are providing competition by throwing your hat into a crowded ring – and if expending huge effort in a race to the bottom is your thing then go right ahead.

However, most brands will not want to build their strategy around this. A truly unique and ownable purpose can create monopoly effects even within a crowded category. Apple play in some of the most competitive spaces going, but do you think their consumers see it that way?  Do you think there are really people weighing up the pros and cons of a Macbook versus a Dell? Competition is the price of a poorly written and executed purpose; not an inevitability of market.

Next, and where most brands really trip up, a good purpose must be objective. That means it mustn’t make any value judgement over whether what the business does is good or bad; it should simply state the facts, and let the public be the judge.

This is because value judgements are ways of wriggling out of having anything specific to say.

Take American Express. They say “we work hard every day to make American Express the world’s most respected service brand”. Does this really tell us anything? In essence it says: “we try to be good”. They haven’t carved out a role for themselves there, nor have they given themselves a platform for innovation and differentiation. That’s because they’ve leaned on value judgements rather than teasing out what it really is that makes them a great business.

Connected to this point, we can also see that a good purpose must be falsifiable. It must hold the business to account. It should be possible to fail.

Look at Patagonia, a brand that’s great at both the “worthy” and true forms of purpose. Part of theirs is “cause no unnecessary harm”. That is superb because they can screw it up. You could catch them causing unnecessary harm and they’d have to change to avoid being dishonest.

Now that is a purpose. Could you say the same about American Express? No, because they will always be able to claim they’re “working hard”. Their purpose can never be disproven and thus it can never really be proven either.

What you can see here is that a great purpose is not line a tagline; it’s not a snappy piece of copy to make your business sound good. It’s an existential statement that provides a blueprint for how your whole business works. If you have a good blueprint, then everything from culture to innovation to marketing becomes easy. You stand alone.

But without it, you’re just another brand cutting costs, cutting prices and scrapping in the dirt for slivers of market share.  And it’s going to take more than an inflated CSR policy to climb out of that.

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Are you clear on your purpose?  If not, congratulations, you’re totally normal – but you might want to get it fixed.  Email us at contact@basicarts.org.

KFC complaints show us that advertising is not an exercise in wish fulfilment

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This piece first appeared in The Drum.

Haven’t our mothers always told us that the best way to get people to like us is simply to be ourselves?

The wisdom of this old cliché can take a long time to dawn on us, but at some point in our lives we tend to wake up to the fact that nothing is less attractive than trying to be something we’re not; and any type of person can be cool so long as they occupy that type wholly and with integrity.

It seems, however, that no matter how old brands get, this realisation never quite hits them; even if they have their very own Mother advising them, as is the case with KFC.

The fried chicken titan is currently witnessing its ‘Whole Chicken’ ad rack up complaints for a hodgepodge of reasons, chief among which seems to be a belief that the ad, which touts food quality and provenance credentials, isn’t an accurate reflection of who the brand really is. It’s not so much that it’s offensive in a Protein World kind of way; it’s more like a teenager ordering a martini or your dad calling something ‘jokes’… void of authenticity.

It’s easy to see how it ended up here, as it’s a trick attempted by countless brands, and it is perhaps just KFC’s bad fortune that it seems to be getting burned for it when most offenders pass under the radar.

Essentially what happens is that an otherwise successful company identifies a chink in their armour – say a particular negative perception people have, or an audience they lack penetration with – and sets out to remedy it with an ad. In KFC’s case, clearly it realised that people don’t think the company uses high quality chicken, and it figured that by fixing this it would open itself up to a whole new (more discerning) audience.

Seems to make sense right? The problem with this approach, this belief that a brand can be all things to all people if it just covers all the bases in its comms, is that it flies directly in the face of reality. Every brand has specific strengths and weaknesses, which serve a particular market purpose, often with the weaknesses being essential compromises to make the strengths more powerful. Trying to “have it all” and shrug off those weaknesses is wishful thinking, and makes you end up looking foolish.

Imagine for instance if some bright spark working for Cosmopolitan suddenly said: “Hey, guys, I just realised that we currently only cater to 50% of the market, but if we target our next ad at men then we’ll capture 100%!”. Pretty dumb right? And yet that’s kind of what KFC and hundreds of other brands try to do every day: build their brand on the one thing that they are, categorically, not good at.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure KFC has good food quality for its category. Do KFC chickens have better welfare than those of the average chicken shop? Probably. But that’s not much of a platform for a major brand campaign is it? This is evidenced by the fairly meagre promise that it only uses chicken in its products. I doubt the majority of people think KFC uses raccoons and asbestos in its chicken.

Thus we are left with the bizarre marketing scenario of a brand putting its worst foot forward to try and remedy an issue that essentially doesn’t matter to its real target market. It’s an unappetising brief to give an agency, and yet agencies are subjected to these briefs every day, briefs that ignore the realities of the product in a cynical attempt to gobble up more market share without earning it first.

What’s the alternative?

The smart approach – but a rare one outside of the most enlightened of brands – is to clearly identify what you are for, and in doing so come to terms with what you are not.

KFC ultimately sells cheap chicken. Its cheapness is an absolutely essential attribute of what makes the company successful. The compromise is that its chicken is never going to be the highest quality. Consumers who like buying cheap chicken know this and live with it. Consumers who want quality, well, they don’t eat at KFC. And that’s just fine, let them be. Ironically, KFC is currently running a parallel campaign that mocks food provenance purists and the wider clean eating trend in a way that actually feels very right for the brand. But it sits very strangely with the ‘Whole Chicken’ campaign.

If that doesn’t sound appealing, there is one final option. Don’t like something about your brand? Change it – for real. Brands aren’t primarily built by advertising, they’re build by fact. If you want to change your positioning, then you have to change your business, not your messaging. If KFC pivoted to be all about chicken welfare then naturally it could take some pretty radical steps to prove it, just as if Cosmo wanted to attract blokes it could start writing stuff they want to read.

Of course, it would ruin its current brand position. But hey, it can always run an ad to fix that, right?

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”.

When it comes to selling, facts are good, emotions are better – but emotional facts are dynamite

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Essentially there are two ways that most brands approach advertising.

First we have the “rational” approach, the approach which seeks to sell with a reasoned argument using the features and benefits of the product. Probably the purest form of this advertising is the infomercial – so called because it peddles in, yup, information. When Joy Mangano (yes the Jennifer Lawrence Joy) pitched her new mop design to the public, she drew attention to the facts. Its hands-free squeezing mechanism. Its machine-washable head. Stuff like that. And because the facts were great the product was a huge success.

The problem with this approach however is that it requires really compelling facts to sell a product. Most businesses simply aren’t selling something that innovative, something where you see it and go “gee, I’ve got to get me one of those”. That’s why the infomercial is the home of unique (to the point of wacky) products alone.

For most brands the better course of action is the emotional sell. In this game you know you’re selling something that isn’t truly unique, and truth be told people could go to another supplier to scratch their itch just as easily. Therefore it’s all about how you sell it, and that means trying to touch people deeply.

Think about the John Lewis Christmas ads – for instance the most famous one with the kid who waited anxiously for the big day not so he could receive a gift, but so he could give one. It was a smash. People talk about it to this day. And John Lewis shifted a ton of product. But what actual fact was it communicating? “Gifts you can’t wait to give”. In other words, we’ve got lots of nice stuff. Not exactly a washable mop head is it? The truth is that basically everything you can buy in John Lewis you can buy elsewhere, but that didn’t matter because their emotion was stronger – way stronger – than anyone else’s.

Thus it would appear your path is pretty clear. If your product has killer facts sell with them. If it doesn’t, sell with emotion.

However there is a third path.

How do ad agencies manage to pull on those heart strings? Well essentially it’s a two step process. First they get an insight about people – in this case that people look forward to giving gifts more than getting them in many cases. Then they convert that insight into an idea – in this case the kid watching the clock. If it’s true, and it’s creative, it’s a hit.

So what if you apply that process to a business itself, where instead of creating an ad you create a product innovation? Or even an entire business? You then have something that doesn’t only have unique facts – they’re emotionally charged too. This best-of-all-worlds scenario is what links the greatest brands of the era.

Take Airbnb. What’s their insight? That today, in an era of package holidays and antipodean backpackers, where travel is no longer exotic and exciting in and of itself, people crave to not be tourists but “locals” when they go abroad. That’s pretty solid, and indeed could have been used for a superficial ad of a hotel chain or travel agent in other circumstances. But in the case of Airbnb it feeds their unique product – letting people stay in houses, like a normal person, when they visit somewhere. Thus their product is essentially an ad campaign, where its unique facts are the creative idea.

And it doesn’t stop there. They use that insight to drive innovation too. Just as in an ad agency, where one insight can yield many creative ideas, so too can it yield many business ideas. Thus they start offering meals in people’s houses, tours hanging out with normal locals, unique experiences, you name it – anything to make people feel at home.

This is the recipe for an iconic business – one where the most exciting thing about it isn’t some fantasy video another business created, but simply what they do.

But what if you’re an established business? Well you can play this game too. You just need to identify the core insight that you already “sort of” answer, and then innovate to answer it more strongly. In time your business can transform into something equally exciting, but still maintain the core identity it had all along.

Finding this insight and activating it is what we call “basic”.  If it rings true with you then follow us on Twitter or Medium.  And if you want to start your own transformation, drop us a mail: contact@basicarts.org.

A business should be a creative brief

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A creative brief – for those lucky enough to have never worked in marketing – is a document that advertising agencies give to their creative teams to prompt them to create exciting, on-message ideas. As you can imagine, it’s something that’s pretty important to get right. Get it wrong and not only is it hard to come up with impactful ideas for ads, but the ideas that you do come up with might communicate something completely divergent from what you want to get across.

Get it right however, and magic can happen.

Now you know pretty quickly when you have a good creative brief on your hands. Firstly it’s very simple. it only points in one direction, which means that it’s hard for the creatives to go off track. Secondly it’s surprising. The thing that it wants to communicate is at least vaguely interesting. It makes you think, “hmm, I never thought of it that way”. But above all the most important attribute for a creative brief is that it’s easy. It should be a piece of stimulus that anyone – not just a supposed “creative” – can come up with ideas for instantly. If you, Joe or Joan Bloggs, don’t look at a creative brief and immediately have a couple of rough ideas that get you excited, it’s not a good one, simple as that.

The funny thing about creative briefs however, is that they only really exist in advertising. The reason this is funny is because “ideas” don’t just exist in advertising, they exist everywhere. Every business is, in itself, an idea, and within it are a huge collection of other ideas that knit together to make the whole. And these ideas can be judged in exactly the same way as an advertising idea is – are they good, are they interesting, and do they communicate what we want them to communicate? If the answer to all these things is yes, then hey presto, your business is a piece of advertising. Every time it’s talked about (which will be often), its message will carry through.

And yet most businesses aren’t their own advertising. Most businesses are actually pretty bland, pretty generic, and pretty incoherent if you look at them in isolation. That’s why they do advertising. To put an interesting and meaningful skin over something that’s boring and meaningless. Notice what advertising has but businesses don’t? A creative brief.

Every business should have a creative brief at its heart. And indeed almost all of them do. They call them tag lines, purposes, missions, strategies, propositions, and many more things besides. But because they don’t construct them and judge them as creative briefs, they’re useless. They aren’t conducive to creating new ideas. They don’t act as guides for innovation. They don’t help you make decisions. They’re just words.

Amazing businesses, however – the ones that are like walking ad concepts, with all the intrigue and clarity that entails – they do have creative briefs. Take Patagonia. At its core, Patagonia’s proposition is nothing particularly unique – an “eco-friendly” outdoor clothing brand. There are plenty of them. And if they’d written that proposition in a typical way – let’s say “eco-friendly clothing” – it would have made for a pretty poor creative brief. Does that give you any exciting ideas? Does that sound different? Probably not.

But they don’t say that. Instead their founder Yves Chouinard had an insight (something that lies at the heart of every creative brief). He realised that no matter what they did, or how hard they tried, they would always harm the environment so long as they manufactured something. The only way not to damage the environment in reality would be to not exist at all. So this meant he framed their proposition differently: “cause no unnecessary harm”. Essentially this is pretty similar to “eco-friendly clothing”, and yet it isn’t, because this is a creative brief. It invites the business to look at itself, identify every piece of potential harm its doing, and come up with an idea to eradicate it. Indeed if they don’t do that, then the sentence is meaningless. Suddenly ideas become easy. This is what led them to radical acts such as offering unlimited free repairs on their clothes for life. To being the first company to abandon superfluous packaging for underwear. To use all organic cotton. To stand against Black Friday sales. And to do all sorts of other interesting things which have acted as pieces of “advertising” for them throughout the years.

Look at any business that is truly capturing the world’s imagination today, and you’ll find a creative brief. Red Bull’s “giving wings to people and ideas”. Airbnb’s “belong anywhere”. Sometimes it won’t be written in a pithy line, but it’s there anyway in the background, like Tesla, Lush, Apple, Google. By the same token look at any business that seems to be losing its way, and you won’t find a creative brief. How do you work with “I’m lovin’ it”? Or “Theyyy’re grrrrrreat!”? Or “power to you”? These are not creative briefs – they’re pieces of creative. They’re an end, not a beginning.

If your business is a walking talking creative brief, you’ll never need to hire an agency again. Of if you do, you’ll have made their job way easier.  Your people will be inspired. Your customers will “get” you. And, with barely any effort, your business will become a dazzling piece of “creative”.

That’s what creative briefs are for.

How to write a tagline that transforms a business

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The formula for creating a business that will succeed in today’s post-advertising marketing is pretty simple. Firstly establish a coherent purpose for your business (and contrary to popular wisdom this doesn’t have to be anything particularly worthy, it just needs to be reasonably exciting and unique). Secondly take that purpose and use it to develop your business in interesting ways that live up to it. Whatever you say you’re all about, be all about it, the way that Patagonia “cause no unnecessary harm” by fixing all the clothes they sell for free, or the way that Airbnb help people “belong anywhere” not only by allowing the public to offer beds to travellers, but meals and tours too. When you have a clear reason to exist like these guys do, and then you go overboard in an imaginative way to fulfil it, your business becomes its own advertising, and people won’t be able to help communicating your message every time they talk about you.

The thing is though, this kind of clarity and focus is easier said that done. The fact is that most businesses aren’t really particularly clear what exactly they’re here for, and every person they employ works for a different company in their own mind. Sound familiar? With this kind of confusion no innovation can grow – and if your own employees can’t align around a central point then the wider public have no chance. What they need is a central thought, a thought so clear and usable like the examples mentioned above that it essentially acts a “creative brief” to every person in the business, allowing them all to do their day job in a slightly differentiated way – which combined together will add up to a remarkable and inspiring business.

Now many brands do have a central thought like this – it’s their tagline. Whilst often denigrated as a piece of marketing fluff, a tagline (when you think about it), is actually the central existential statement of a business. “This is what we’re about”. “This is what we’re here for”. So given that your tagline “is” you, you’d think that it would be a pretty important thing to get right, right? The problem is most businesses get it deeply wrong. Rather than being the nucleus of a business from which everything else flows, helping guide every decision and radiating through every pore, it simply becomes a platitude – something that’s more likely to deliver eye rolls than solutions to the employees that sit under it.

If this sounds like you then you have no hope of ever becoming a business that catches the 21st century public’s imagination, because without this guiding star you’ll never be aligned enough to innovate and have people understand you and thus, talk about you.

But it is fixable.

There are some simple rules you can apply to a tag line – perhaps even the tag line that you have now – that can turn it from fluff into a business driver. That can transform scorn into inspiration. Let’s take a look using Red Bull and McDonald’s as our examples…

Rule 1 – It must be ownable, not generic

OK, this one isn’t really anything new, but it is important. Quite simply you need to offer something reasonably unique to you, because if you don’t, then why would anyone be motivated to pick you, and how can you transform into something that attracts attention? If we look at Red Bull and their line “giving wings to people and ideas”, we can see that this is something they’ve resolutely made their own. No other brand would dare touch the “giving wings” / “throwing people up into the air” space, and the more they double down on it the truer it becomes. If we look at McDonald’s on the other hand, what do we see? “I’m lovin’ it”. Let’s translate that. Essentially beneath the nice copy, it means “it is good”. This is not only unownable in their category, I’d say it’s unownable in business full stop. What business couldn’t employ this line? “Nike: I’m lovin’ it”. Yeah, sort of works right? This lack of uniqueness already means you’re going to struggle to create something different, before we’ve even got down to the real problems…

Rule 2 – It must be practical, not attitudinal

Right, the meat of the matter. The key attribute of “giving wings to people and ideas” is that it’s practical, not attitudinal. What I mean by that is that it actually describes “doing” something, it doesn’t just describe a feeling, or an emotion. The reason this is important is because if your purpose describes an action then it’s easy for your employees and your business as a whole to extend simply by taking that action in lots of little ways. Go into a pub and ask a guy “give me an idea for giving people wings like Red Bull do” and he’ll give you ten, because it’s so easy as a creative brief. But what about “I’m loving it”? Give the same guy the brief “come up with an idea that delivers ‘I’m lovin’ it’”, and he’ll be at a loss. It merely describes a feeling, not an action, and as such is impossible to replicate with action.

Rule 3 – It must be objective, not subjective

One thing you’ll notice about “giving wings”, is that it doesn’t take a stance on whether the giving of wings is a good or a bad thing. It’s simply something they do. By the same token when Patagonia say they “cause no unnecessary harm”, whilst we can clearly see that this is a good thing, they don’t spell that out for us, they simply deliver the purpose in a very matter-of-fact kind of way. For most brands however, their tag line is little more than a brag, a way of saying “we are good”. “I’m lovin’ it” would be a typical such example, and it’s something that businesses tend to default to when they have nothing interesting to say. You offer no useful information if you say we’re the “best” this, or the “tastiest” that – it may be true, but it’s in the eye of the beholder. If you have a truly useful purpose you will be able to say it without using superlatives of value judgements. If you can’t, then chances are you have nothing at all.

Rule 4 – It must be holistic, not external

Typically brands actually don’t have one tag line, they have two. They have the consumer-facing one, the one we traditionally recognise as a tag line, and they have an internally facing one, generally with a different name like “mission statement” or “corporate values”. The weird thing is that these things tend to be different. The consumer one is fun, imaginative, and seeks to really describe the business. The internal one tends to be resolutely generic, something more along the lines of “we endeavour to serve our customers better and better every day”. My question is, why would these things be any different? I can tell you that for Red Bull, for Patagonia, for Airbnb they are not. They all exist to deliver one thing, and naturally they make it clear to their employees that that’s what they’re there to do. Only when your creative purpose is applied internally can the business become something creative. Brands like McDonalds who separate the internal and external ensure that the reality of the business will never match the advertising fantasy. It’s a weird logic, and one that needs to be remedied asap to make a better brand.

Rule 5 – It must be permanent, not transient

Finally, I leave you with the question: why would it ever change? Once you’ve figured out the core value that your business provides, so long as it’s not something that is tied to temporary piece of technology like “we repair pagers”, then why would that ever change? Sure, the way you deliver this value might change but the core value should be timeless. Red Bull have never changed their commitment to give wings, and doubtless never will. There will never be a moment where that’s not relevant. McDonald’s on the other hand – and indeed the vast majority of brands – change tag lines like changing shirts. The only conclusion that the public (and employees) can be left with is this: they can’t possibly mean any of them. The shaping of your business by its existential purpose is going to be something gradual, and deeply entrenched in its fabric. You aren’t going to want to go ripping up that purpose – and thus the business itself – every few years are you?

So there you have it. Perhaps the difference between great businesses isn’t really product, talent, effort, or intention. Perhaps it’s just grammar. Seems like a pretty easy thing to change at any rate, so why not put it to the test?