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?

Do marketing departments stand in the way of great marketing?

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This piece first appeared in Management Today.

Type Coca-Cola into Google and you get 160 million results. Being extremely charitable, Coke probably didn’t create more than 1% of that information, meaning that the genuine life of the brand exists entire out of its hands. As Jeff Bezos said, your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room, meaning that if the other 99% of information floating around about you is positive, the 1% that you control – your advertising and marketing messages – wouldn’t necessarily matter that much.

This is certainly the way the public feel. In a new piece of research from Basic Arts, people are starting to express a belief that a truly outstanding business wouldn’t need to “do advertising” at all, because all of the impartial information now available through the internet and connected networks would allow the cream to rise to the top organically. They are all familiar with a new generation of brands such as Lush and GoPro who they feel earned their place at the top rather than buying it, and are now on the lookout for other brands adopting the same behaviours. The source of information they claim to use to do this is “journalism, reviews, news, and other impartial coverage”, followed by the opinions of friends, colleagues and family, with brand-created messages (including everything from traditional ads to social channels) languishing at the bottom of the pile.

Such cynicism towards advertising is nothing new – and neither is the observation that the increasing democratisation of information is allowing people to bypass “approved’ messages. The question is, how are brands responding? Who exactly is responsible for making sure that the 99% of impartial information is saying the right thing about the business?

It is, of course, our marketing departments. We employ them to transmit the right messages that will make people feel positive about us. They are there to set the conversational agenda. This is all fine in principle – someone needs to be thinking about this stuff – the problem is the narrowness with with they operate. Marketing and advertising have become far too synonymous, with marketing departments busying themselves primarily with creative media outputs whilst the rest of the business just gets on with the “real work” – manufacturing, customer service, distribution, and so on. The issue here is the subject matter of all those independent conversations – “the 99%” – are not your marketing output; they’re your real work.

People primarily don’t talk about advertising, they talk about businesses. How is the product to use? How was the service? Where was the outlet? How was a problem dealt with? Who works there? In the past all these fact based conversations didn’t really matter, as they died with the couple of people who were having them – they had nowhere to travel, they couldn’t grow. In those days 99% of the information readily available about a brand probably was created by the marketing department, as information needed money to spread. Now it doesn’t. What this suddenly means is that everything you do has the potential to be marketing. Every single movement and moment of your business could make you or break you. Your company is being judged holistically, but you are only applying good marketing thinking to your media output.

Now this is not the fault of marketers per se. They are doing thing right thing, they’ve just been given a very limited canvas to do it on. By making marketing a department, you imply that the other areas of the business – the ones doing the real work – are free from having to operate in a joined-up, strategic, and creative way. How often have we heard that marketing is the “fluffy stuff”? Well far from marketing needing to become less “fluffy”, the real solution is that the rest of the business needs to become more. If you apply a consistent and unique message (the kind marketing is meant to create) to all of your actions, then they will start to become more unique, connected, and interesting. Suddenly, you’re giving people something to talk about.

It is this holistic approach to brand building, where marketing is distributed throughout a business rather than being a “department”, that creates businesses people go crazy about. It is what connects the likes of Patagonia, Airbnb, Tesla, GoPro, Lush, Monster and more. Those last three actually operate a “no advertising” policy as a matter of course, and yet their marketing envied (Lush were voted the UK’s most admired brand in Basic Arts’ research, and Monster are the “most tattooed brand in the world”). What does a marketer do in a business who refuse to spend money on media? They turn their attention to the business itself.

How then can you apply this same approach to your business? The crucial insight is to change the way you see marketing, away from a department, and towards more of a whole business approach. This might mean making marketing an umbrella department which sits over and advises all other parts of the business. Or it might be scratching your marketing department all together, and instead placing one “brand thinker” in every team in the business, who’s only responsibility is to make sure that each one acts in a connected and interesting way.

To become a business which makes the connected world work for you is not easy, and is not quick or tactical. That’s because ultimately all people are looking for now is brilliant businesses, businesses which bring something unique to the world, which are authentic, and which are clear – and there’s no shortcut for that. A new view of marketing is simply the place to start.

How do you predict trends after one of the most unpredictable years?

BURLINGTON, IA - OCTOBER 21: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests at a campaign rally at Burlington Memorial Auditorium on October 21, 2015 in Burlington, Iowa. Trump leads most polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This piece first appeared in Campaign.

So, that was 2016. Not exactly a great year for fans of the status quo. Chances are you saw a few things you regarded as unimpeachable fact burned to the ground, with no sacred cow spared the abattoir, and no emperor left fully clothed.

Perhaps, at the very peak of our hubris, the lessons of 2016 were timely. A wise observer of the year’s events will be left looking to the future with a renewed sense of humility, less sure of the veracity of their opinions and the permanence of the institutions that surround them.

If you shrugged off the unexpected success of Protein World in 2015, perhaps you’ll find it a little harder to ignore that of Trump in 2016. So, with that in mind, let’s take an axe to the things we think we know.

Taking a fresh look at our industry, what are the things we take for granted that, on closer inspection, might not be as indestructible as we once thought?

The death of insight
First up for the chop is insight. By this I mean that magic dust that planners and creatives use to unlock a brief. The eureka moment that finally shows us a way to flog this product we’ve been scratching our heads over.
Re-examining this process, something troubling emerges… why should we need clever thinking to sell something at all? Often we find that that the better the advertising insight, chances are the worse the product. Brilliant insights make themselves the star, and the product tries to sneak in under their wing.

Look to the brands you really admire, the ones we all wish we had as clients and what do you see? Not an insight to rub between them – at least, not in their advertising.

Often we find that that the better the advertising insight, chances are the worse the product.
Brands like Apple, Red Bull, Lego, and so on have a very matter of fact approach to their advertising because their insights lie where they really belong – within the products themselves. We want them as our clients because, frankly, selling them is easy, the hard work’s been done for us.

Others even bolder players like Monster and Tesla don’t even bother with advertising at all.

If you find yourself trying to “unlock a brief” with insight, then chances are the brand has already lost. At that very moment consumers will already be making their own minds up, circumnavigating your work to make their decisions based on the raw source material, which they can learn about quite happily without your involvement.

It’s in the facts where the insights belong, all else is spin.

The death of ROI
Many brands expect to be able to measure a direct payback from their marketing spend. This seems pretty reasonable, and is something we’re all used to. But there’s a problem with this. You see, in the real world, it’s very difficult to draw a line of cause and effect between an action and its reward.

For instance, if you see an old lady standing by the side of the road what course of action has a better ROI, helping her across the street, or mugging her?

If we were making all of our decisions based on some Excel-based ROMI model then the answer would be clear. Watch out grandma. And yet somehow, as people, we instinctively “get” that the person who helps her across the street is much more likely to be successful in life than the mugger.

This is because, ultimately, the more value you provide in life the more value you’re likely to receive in return. You might not be able to put it on a spreadsheet, but the model works – and it works for businesses too.

When Yves Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, learned about the environmental cost of cotton in 1994, he immediately decided to switch his entire product line to organic cotton instead. He didn’t make this decision based on ROI – far from it, given the immense cost and complexity of the change – he did it because he simply reasoned that in the big picture it would make his company better, having faith in the simple logic that the better the business is, the more rewards it shall receive.

The more value you provide in life the more value you’re likely to receive in return. You might not be able to put it on a spreadsheet, but the model works – and it works for businesses too.
The rest is history, as the brand exploded into the outdoor giant we know today.

Steve Jobs, a man famously hostile to the concept of ROI, managed to created the world’s most profitable company by ignoring such “sound business logic”. He too only wanted to make his business better, and had faith that somehow, indirectly, better ends up winning.

If you make decisions based on direct-payback ROI, you will never take an action that makes your business better, or that provides more value to an increasingly fickle public. Your rewards, sadly, will reflect this.

The death of marketing
Finally, what does this mean for marketers themselves? We are now starting to see a slow but growing trickle of brands that don’t have a marketing department at all – at least, not in the traditional sense.

This is because the very idea of a “marketing department” is, in and of itself, somewhat flawed. What it implies is that “marketing” and “brand” and “customer outreach” and all these kinds of things are the responsibility of a kind of satellite team who make campaigns and comms which are external to the “real business”, which carries on regardless, as if this kind of fluffy stuff isn’t their problem.

The problem with this is that it’s the “real business” which does all the “real stuff”, which provides the value, which creates the products, the customer experiences, the big picture strategic agenda. Today it is in these facts that the “brand” lies – and nobody is looking after it.

Marketing, therefore, should no longer be a separate department that sits alongside HR, distribution, manufacturing, finance, and so on. Instead if anything it should be an umbrella department, that ensures that every one of these things is operating in a unified and distinctive manner.

Or it should be an internal role within each and every other department – so there should be a “finance brand person”, a “distribution brand person”, and so on, who are responsible for the way these areas operate. Only then will authentic brands be able to truly flourish.

But maybe this is all wrong
Even in an end of year trends list, hopefully we can now all agree that we can’t predict the future. The only safe bet? That nothing is safe any longer. Good luck for 2017.

Has the internet made advertising redundant?

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This piece first appeared in Campaign.

Type Coca-Cola into Google and you get 160 million results. Being extremely charitable, Coke probably didn’t create more than 1% of that information, meaning that the genuine life of the brand exists entire out of its hands. As Jeff Bezos said, your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room, meaning that if that other 99% of information floating around about you is positive, the 1% that you control – your advertising – might be redundant.

Now a new piece of research from Basic Arts has revealed for the first time that this understanding is flourishing amongst the general public, calling into question the way businesses choose to build their brands, and the future of the advertising industry that supports them.

Out of a nationally representative cross section of UK 18-35 year olds, only 5% believed that it was necessary for “good brands” to spend money on advertising in order to become successful, since the plethora of impartial information now available online would see the cream rise to the top. Advertising messages which the brand itself controls – including not only traditional “ads”, but also brand-owned social and other modern approaches – were rated as the least influential form of information for people when forming their opinions, whilst the most influential was seen as “journalism, reviews, news, and other impartial coverage”, outstripping even the opinions of friends which placed second.

This news begs the question of how a brand can seek to control that swell of information that it doesn’t control. Well, the implication is clear right? A brand – in news which shouldn’t really be news at all – has to be actually good to succeed in todays market; to provide genuine value not already provided amply elsewhere. This is easy to understand, since we all have brands who we admire for non-advertising-driven reasons. Indeed there is even growing collective of brands such as Lush, Monster, and GoPro who operate a “no advertising” policy as a matter of course. What all these brands share is a clear value-provision mindset, coupled with internal creativity and differentiation.

Now if this sounds obvious it shouldn’t, because it certainly isn’t obvious to the public. When exploring whether they believed today’s brands capable of succeeding in this environment, they were roundly pessimistic.

Only 2% believe most brands to be driven by a desire to provide value to the world, instead seeing them as motivated purely by value extraction. The difficulty of this mindset – as anyone who’s had to contend with a simplistic ROMI model will know – is that it severely hampers the ability to make bold choices and do anything which doesn’t have mountains of precedent. This plays into another reservation, with 69% believing that the majority of brands bring no unique value to the world, and with an even higher number – 79% – thinking that most don’t need to exist as a result. As a damning final statement, 69% went so far as to label most brands simply as “pointless”.

So where does this leave brands and advertising in general? Respondents made that very clear, revealing driving factor which makes them admire the brands they do being simply, “what I know about what they do”. They also displayed a strong preference towards brands who display transparency, with 4 times as many believing this to be important as unimportant. What this means is that the canvas to which commercial creativity needs to be applied has shifted – away from media, and into the heart of businesses themselves.

We could summarise this as brands being implored to focus on making interesting businesses, instead of interesting advertising. The admired brands people referenced in the research all shared this core characteristic – what the company did was at its heart more interesting and creative than what their agencies did… an inversion of what we’ve come to expect in the traditional model. Named examples included usual suspects such as Apple and Google, along with smaller brands such as Patagonia, Vans, and Monki; however it was telling that the most named brand of all in the survey was actually Lush – the aforementioned “anti-advertising” cosmetics company.

The challenging but exciting news for the brands themselves is that the creative onus has now been heavily shifted back on to them, and away from their agencies. How they choose to handle this is open for debate, but we might seen an explosion of internal creative directors (an approach taken by brands such as Airbnb), or even a spread of “brand thinkers” throughout the business outside of the traditional silo of the marketing department.

As for agencies, the challenge is a little more severe. As people’s tastes evolve away from an appetite for insightful and clever arguments for products to a more “just the facts ma’am” approach, it would seem that their skills will be left without a home. However the fact remains that clear creative thinking still often comes best from an outside source, regardless of the medium to which it is applied. Therefore this doesn’t have to represent the death of advertising; instead it can represent the birth of a new discipline, a discipline of applying the same thinking to the internal structure of clients, rather than transient bits of media. This “basic”, foundational, elemental approach can yield a renaissance for agencies – and give them a mission to be proud of as well.

Why tomorrow’s CEO will come from marketing

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This piece first appeared in Management Today.

Marketing and finance are generally seen to sit at opposite ends of a spectrum. From the substantive to the shallow. The vital to the optional. The intelligent to the facile. The wise to the foolish. The big-picture to the small. Basically, the grown-ups to the kids.

There’s no need to spell out which sits where is there? Heck, I work in marketing and I agree with you. Every marketer has had the humbling experience of exposing their work to the common sense scrutiny of a non-marketing observer – finance director, CEO, or just the man on the street – revealing the general triviality of what we do every day. Meanwhile, the real business carries on regardless. Let the marketers have their fun. We’ve got a company to run.

Set against this backdrop, it’s little wonder that marketers rarely rise to the very top of an organisation. They account for just 8% of FTSE 100 CEOs. They are somehow just too detached, too isolated in their own spacey little world. They rarely muddy their hands in the other less glamorous parts of the business – the supply chain, the manufacturing, the distribution, the personnel, the property, heaven forbid the finance – leaving them ill- equipped to take on roles that claim responsibility for all these and more.

The money men and women, on the other hand, they need to know this stuff. The bottom line is affected by everything, so they need to ‘get’ everything. It is this attribute that gives those with a financial background the advantage when going for the top job. They aren’t just prudent, they’re knowledgeable. They can make a wise call on, say, forklift inventory, as it’s not completely foreign territory to them; just another place where they’ve had to cast a watchful eye. That’s why they account for 52% of CEOs, not 8%.

How is it then that marketing could be set to flip these numbers on their head?

Let’s stop and think about what marketing really is for a moment. Every company exists in the context of the wider world, the world to which it provides value in some way or other. If the value it provides is desirable, economically viable and in some way unique (at least within its local market), then essentially the company will be successful. Customers will flow to it, almost more by natural design than by brute force. It will be doing something worthwhile, and will reap its rewards.

This is real marketing – simply making a company worthwhile. It is the defining of what a company ‘is’; knowing that if you get that right then all else flows from there.

This understanding is very different from the way people often see marketing today –i.e. defining what a company ‘says’ rather than what it ‘is’. This is the side-effect of 50 years of mass media, which has allowed floods of generic businesses to create ‘pretend’ differentiation in the form of hollow statements and slogans.

This model is now starting to crack, as the internet and democratised communication begin to reveal the vacuum behind the slogans. For the first time since the 1960s, the businesses that are winning are those that deserve to; those that do marketing by having an interesting, unique, and worthwhile business, not those that shout loudest.

The effect this shift promises to have on marketing as a discipline will be seismic. It is already changing advertising where a technique called ‘basic’ is emerging to work on the insides of companies, not just campaigns. Beyond this, if marketing is now about ensuring a business fulfils its purpose, then that means its voice will become relevant in every part

of it. Imagine for instance marketing not as an isolated department, but rather as a role within every other department. They would be there to ensure that as well as running effectively, each element would also run in harmony with the organisation’s unique mission. This would produce, quite simply, better companies with genuinely meaningful brands, for which increasing transparency would be a weapon, not a threat.

There’s nothing more integral within a business – not even finance – than simply knowing who you are and what you’re here for. It is by becoming masters of that simple idea that marketing will move from the periphery to the heart of business, and from the cubicle to the boardroom table.

An introduction to basic

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This meaty read is a great place to start to exploring basic, the process of creating interesting companies for a post-advertising age.  It is an extended version of a piece that first appeared on WARC.com.

The secret behind the world’s best brands

What is it that connects the great brands of the internet age? The brands that are constantly referenced by marketers as benchmarks of performance. The inspirational usual suspects from Red Bull, to Apple, to Google, and beyond. What is the behaviour they all share – no matter their market or position in it – that allows them to capture public imagination and escape cynicism and indifference?

Put simply these great brands don’t win fans by creating interesting advertising; they win fans by being interesting companies, full stop. People don’t admire their campaigns, they admire them. They admire the boldness of Google’s HR policies, and their future-building experiments. They admire Apple’s lack of compromise, innovation, and the vision of their founder. They admire Red Bull’s commitment to pushing human limits more than pushing their actual product.

In essence all the things that most brands use advertising campaigns for – creativity, differentiation, insight, and fun – they actually have built into their fabric. If and when they do choose to run a traditional advertising campaign, it comes across more as a reflection of their business than an embellishment on it – the very essence of authenticity.

When we recognise this characteristic, we can see that advertising in its current form is not well placed to assist brands which fall short of this standard. It has found itself creating external proxies of brands, rather than simply improving them and amplifying the facts, and as such is not equipped to replicate the success of the very best – no matter how creative or brave the work may be.

In order to address this issue we need to create an accessible path which will allow brands and agencies alike to replicate this behaviour on a mass scale. In short: we need a new discipline.

Basic

Basic is defined as the technique of brand building through altering or extending the internal elements of a business, rather creating external campaigns. It uses the identical strategic approach employed for traditional creative advertising – the identification of an ownable and desirable position for a brand to promote to its customers – but simply activates it through creative amendments to the business itself, rather abstract media ideas. Having undergone this process a business should be inherently more interesting and differentiated than it was before, allowing itself to be promoted and amplified in an authentic manner.

Defining this process as a discipline, giving it a name and some rigour, is essential for it to gain industry-wide traction. Only then will briefs for this kind of work begin to flow, as currently it is very rare for agencies to be granted an internal remit with their clients. This is why almost all examples of this practise to date are generated in-house – limiting it only to those brands with the most visionary of leaders. If brands are able to outsource this thinking to agencies, then it will become far more accessible.

The path for basic as a discipline could be rather similar to that of “social”, which upon becoming a standardised approach spawned a flood of briefs, and a rapid development in agency expertise – having been a rare and experimental practise only a few months before.

Let’s look at an example of how the discipline might work in practise.

In Amsterdam there is a well known hair salon called Bubblekid. They, like any other business, have a proposition to differentiate themselves – in this case “In Creation We Trust”. The idea behind this is essentially for consumers give themselves over completely to the creativity of their stylists, to trust them, and let them do what they will with their hair. With this proposition in place the question they had to answer, like all brands, was how do we bring this to life?

If they’d been like any other business they would have probably thought about some local advertising, perhaps some social media outreach – leaving the proposition as essentially a piece of colourful posturing slapped over a fairly generic salon.

Instead they looked internally, and asked themselves if they way they operate their business was really in accordance with this idea. The result? They removed all the mirrors in their salon. Now, if you go for a haircut at Bubblekid, you will sit opposite another client, have a chat, and not see the stylists work until they are finished. Through this they inherently communicate the nature of their salon, without even needing to say it.

Just like Apple, Google, or Red Bull, their brand and business became synonymous.

A step by step guide

Let’s explore how to activate basic in a bit more detail.

Step 1 – Purpose Identification

This step is simply the creation of a strong brand strategy. What is it that only you offer that people want? What exactly is the point of your business? Equally you could call this “proposition”, “message”, “brand strategy” – there are many acceptable ways to define it – however the strength of “purpose” is that it implies concrete action, rather than simply communication.

Broadly this step is one which the industry is already comfortable with within the traditional model, however there are a couple of additional points to consider when applying it to basic.

The first is that there should be no distinction between an internal purpose and a consumer facing purpose. This is common sense if you want your internal business to act as an external draw. It might be that your internal one is a little more clunky for extra clarity (for instance Red Bull’s is “giving wings to people and ideas”) but the thrust of the two must be identical. This will make ideas flow more easily, and increase your overall clarity.

The second point to consider is whether the purpose is practical. That it sounds like it “does” something. This is where a key distinction can be drawn between a modern “purpose” and an old fashioned “tag line”. For instance Finisterre, a UK apparel brand is known as a “cold water surfing company”. This identity is clearly very practical, and gives you a strong idea of how the business may be adapted to serve that purpose better. If we compare that to a more traditional brand tag line (e.g. Coca-Cola’s “Taste The Feeling” or L’Oreal’s “Because Your Worth It”) we can see that these are relatively hard to work with because they are more emotional than actionable – they do not allow so clearly for business differentiation and innovation. This is fine for such established brands, but would be a weakness for more contemporary challengers seeking to make an impact with basic.

Step 2 – Business Alteration

When armed with a strong purpose, a business can then conduct an audit to check if everything they do is aligned with it. We already explored one example of this process with Bubblekid. These tweaks can be anything from small (even quite superficial) up to a wholesale rethinking of the core product. For a small example we might look to the US clothing brand Patagonia, who run a policy known as “Let My People Go Surfing” time – essentially flexible hours so that if the surf’s good, employees can come into the office late. This rather small innovation caught the imagination to such an extent as that it was the title of founder Yvon Chouinard’s book.

A more dramatic internalisation of purpose can be seen in the German supermarket chain, Original Unverpackt. They, like many other retailers before them, sought to own the space of “green shopping”. They realised that for many stores this was in reality a rather hollow claim, because of all the packaging waste they produced. Therefore they built their supermarket to feature no packaged goods at all. Shoppers must bring their own containers for everything right through to cereal and ketchup, meaning that whilst their purpose is rather unoriginal they were able to undercut their competitors through living it more authentically.

Naturally the extent to which changes can be made at a business vary wildly depending on its individual circumstances, however often the things that really bring a purpose to life can be quite non-invasive, easy to create, or even simply a spin on an existing practise such that of Patagonia.

Step 3 – Business Extension

As well as tweaking existing business operations, basic can also be employed to extend them. This is the technique most commonly employed by Red Bull, who constantly branch out into different relevant spaces, leaving their core drink operations relatively untouched.

The question to ask here is simply “if our purpose is x, what else should we be doing to achieve it?”. The answers to this question can be activated without too much encroachment into existing business functions, and as such may represent an easier entry into basic for traditional brand than business alteration.

For instance when Pedigree in New Zealand created their lost dog app “Found”, it appeared that rather than doing an advertising campaign they had in fact produced a business innovation to better serve their purpose to “make the world a better place for dogs”. In truth the model was closer to that of an ad campaign, but the feeling was different – a simulation of basic that carried with it an air of authenticity.

For more ambitious brands, business extension around their purpose can mean more than great marketing; it can mean new business models. Airbnb for instance revolve all of their marketing and innovation around their purpose to help people “belong anywhere”. This allows them to branch out well beyond the bed-rental space into areas such as dining at people’s houses, using locals as tour guides, and more – blurring the line between marketing stunts and new business lines expertly. Quite simply they are seeking to live up to their purpose, so every action they take is inherently marketing – the very core of basic.

In summary whether you are tweaking your existing business or adding to it, the result is the same – namely a new, more interesting company that reflects its advertising strategy inside and out.

Where to from here

These are early days for an idea which has the potential to make marketing a more integral and constructive process within business and wider culture. Should the industry (brands, agencies, intermediaries) start to align their conversations around this shared language, then opportunities will start to arise in the shape of new budget streams, briefs, awards, trade bodies – but above all better, more authentic, more worthwhile businesses.