Do marketing departments stand in the way of great marketing?


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.

Panel announced for “Make interesting companies” event


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

Dan Kieran – Unbound

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

Joan Murphy – Frame

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

Charlie Hoare – Tapped

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

Charlie met his co-founder, Paul Lederer whilst working at Innocent Drinks and together they took TAPPED from nothing to a business with RSV of £250,000 in its first year. They are building the tree water category, educating consumers about alternative sources of healthy hydration, whilst creating value for retailers. Charlie still cycles to work.

Each of these businesses have something teach us about how to win fans through execution, product, originality, and industry disruption – so it will be fascinating to hear what they have to say.

For tickets, please click here.

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

Oxford St shop 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For tickets please go here.

To request a copy of the report when available please email 

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?

Video cassette tape isolated on white.

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.

Basic Arts speaking at Shoreditch House


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

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

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

Basic Arts to speak at the Marketing Forum


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

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

Why tomorrow’s CEO will come from marketing


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


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

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 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.

Why brands struggle with ‘purpose’


This piece first appeared on CIM Exchange.

There’s only one thing more common than brands talking purpose these days, and that’s brands without one.

Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever, made an impassioned call in The Guardian recently for brands to place purpose “at the core of the brand, driving everything it does”. But those of us who work with brands (or indeed, live with them) will know how far that ideal is from reality across the marketplace.

His piece gave us a clue as to why that might be. He advised that any brand thinking about this issue should simply go for it, saying “you won’t know exactly how it’s going to go at first, but don’t be scared to learn along the way”. Now I agree, that’s an admirable sentiment. But it’s not the kind of advice that security-minded marketing directors are likely to base their 2017 strategy around. The truth is that authentic purpose remains nebulous, the kind of ‘you’ve either got it or you haven’t’ magic reserved for Jobs-like visionaries rather than something a generic brand can simply buy.

A central reason for this is that true purpose tends to come from within, whilst most brands outsource their identity to agencies. Patagonia never had to hire a consultant to tell them who they are, and that’s why they get purpose; the average brand has no idea and their agencies can’t change that. This isn’t to say that agencies are incapable, it’s just that internal change is never part of their remit. And if it’s not internal and integral to the brand’s operations, then it’s not purpose.

So what can we do to change this?

We can’t rely on every brand to do it themselves, for every CMO to become a mini Steve Jobs, orienting their whole business around their vision. We have to come to a solution which works within the current paradigm of brands and agencies working together – where the output is not ads, but business change.

The way to do this is to speak the language of the industry and create a new discipline. This means identifying what, on a practical level, creates ‘purpose’, and then allowing this to be sold as a product like social or shopper marketing.

The ingredients of the discipline would be simple – brand identity manifested through internal company change, rather external campaigns. The creation of an interesting business, rather than interesting ads. It would need a name, as only then could it get traction in the market the way ‘social’ has over the last decade or so. I would suggest ‘basic’, implying the crucial truth of this approach: that it’s something fundamental – something that should be nailed before other types of marketing, not an afterthought.

This crucial service could spawn specialist agencies, budget lines, award categories, even trade bodies. In this world, a sound purpose could be as accessible to a brand as a Facebook page, only far more important for both the brand and the world around them.

Powerful voices like Keith Weed and others like him have the ability to align and create this new reality. Only then will purposeful brands become the norm, not the exception.