PostBrand Thinking

I came back to the notes for this piece recently and as I thought about some of the things I have been asked to do, I wondered, Are Tech Companies bad at ‘brand’, or rather, have they forgotten that they have already smashed down the old battlements of what brands were…

The Persistence of the Ancien Regime

It scares me the extent to which modern companies, often “tech” companies mimic the old. Like the 19th Century industrialist, who after making themselves rich through disruptive production and facilitating rapid urbanisation, builds a grand country house, pastiching an older style. Here they play the part of the country Lord, clothing themselves in the fabric of the past – literally and metaphorically.  These wealthy arrivistes saw the old ways as both respectable and aspirational. At the same time as the very way in which they created their wealth, the rapid innovation, disruptive technologies and scant regard for regulation (and in this case, child labour) made that old world and it ways anachronistic. Vanity and the weight of history however play their part. Their desire to ape the past, for the legitimacy it confers is as illogical as it is understandable.

What was a brand

In the case of 21st century’s techno-industrialists, the retrograde vanity comes in the form of ‘brand’. A brief historical detour. Brands, or rather ‘branding’ in it’s modern form, was conceived in the mid 20th Century as a reaction to what Rob Walker in Buying In calls “the very good problem”. Previously, product alone made a difference; one thing was almost certainly better than another. But rapidly production techniques improved and costs fell and the reality was from Soap Powder to Cigarettes, almost everything was better than people needed or could tell apart; everything became “very good”.

When quality can’t differentiate, in steps brand, intentionally created distinct value to defend against ‘functional parity’. In an era of mass one-way communication, this proved a hugely effective way of shaping what people thought about and associated with your product. This was ‘branding and advertising’ as most still understand it. Communications across touchpoints (the “5Ps” product, price, place, pack & promotion) were all designed to give an impression, or rather a cluster of impressions that formed some tags – emotional metadata – around a product to help tell them apart. There is of course functional data there too – what is it good for, when should I use it, but for many categories (disinfectant, running shoes) this is pretty similar – a reductive, functional shorthand in a flat media world. Pepsi was Now, Nike was Achievement,  Newport was (infamously) Empowerment.But we’ve come a long way, baby….

The problem is that this is reliant on a one-way-world, where there are few channels to control, no feedback loop beyond sales, and messages can be simplistic and reductive. The reality of the landscape that has been created by the FANG companies and they ilk is that it is no longer possible to be so reductive. A fragmented and individually ‘curated’ consumer and media landscape means that we can look behind, under and inside the ‘brand’, rather than just at it. We can pick it up, throw it against the wall, see what others think of it. This has implication for how we communicate and interact as marketers and how we think about the idea of a (Post)Brand. More below.

New Titans

New technology companies were instrumental in creating this new reality. They both gave the tools and channels through which people could look at, interact with and talk about companies in 3d. That is not to say that people spend most of their time talking about your business – if they spend 5 seconds in a day you are one of the lucky, famous few, but it does mean the ways in which they hear, and what they hear are increasingly diffuse. Rather than a world of Brands, which are reductive, we are entering a time of PostBrands which are expansive.

These tech titans should be best place for this reality, they created it and they are also some of the few companies selling products that aren’t cursed by the ‘very good problem’ – The experience of Facebook through is size, functionality and reach is different to another platform. YouTube excels when compared to Daily Motion in both content and delivery. And if you have ever tried a Bing search, you’ll know…

Yet like the 19th Century Mill owners, my experience of these companies as a consultant has been that they have focussed on old vanity metrics, have talked about values, love and positioning like a soap-powder and looked at their 3D world in a 2D way. They aspire to be loved brands in a world where they have been instrumental in exploding the anachronistic myth of Brand Love

PostBrand Thinking

Ironically, it has been many of the old guard who have been forced to adapt and change. Unlike the arrivistes, the 20th century’s biggest brands have adapted faster to becoming PostBrands because they have not had the luxury of near-monopoly positions, or heavily functionally differentiated disruptive offerings.

Companies trump Brands

A PostBrand doesn’t fabricate a flat emotional backstory, it explains and dramatises the one it has. It makes the company easy to grasp, rather than hides the company inside a ‘brand’ – Google’s use of the Doodle on their homepage embodies this beautifully, but more broadly, this idea that “Companies>Brands” informs the next four points that follow

Augment Equity, don’t write positionings

Positionings are useless. Seriously. As an aspiration they have a use internally, but really they are a purpose statement. And be damn sure it draws on your equity. To both butcher and invert Austen; Positioning is what we would think of ourselves, Equity what we would have others think of us. Positioning is irrelevant if it doesn’t shape equity, and purpose has to align with equity… and where it doesn’t it’s a long journey… Imagine moving Coke from ‘happiness’ and ‘refreshment’ to ‘Sporty Health’ – product is part of this, but equally Mountain Dew aligns with some sporty and active elements – along with a healthy dose of sugary, high-caffeine rebellion.

Apple would struggle with ruthless efficiency too…despite making computers

Think & Act Purpose

Internally, externally, in product, comms, pack. It’s trendy to point out TOMS here, but I would rather talk about the much less sexy 1990s Tesco – the UK supermarket who decided that ‘Every Little Helps’ was going to be their guiding principle. Open a new till when there was more than two people in front, empower store staff to help and inform, bring out own brand ranges of great value essentials from canned soup to school clothes. And this was the 90s. Of course, it slowly descended into distress discounting. Then 2008 and Lidl happened. But the point is Purpose does not have to mean ‘Social Purpose’ (which also isn’t CSR, but that for another blog…)

Build meaning, don’t ‘message’

All of the touch points through which we communicate about our company’s layer towards this idea of PostBrand. It’s impressionistic, layers of fuzzy paint and chiaroscuro, not a photograph and a map. This is liberating – there is no such thing as ‘on message’ or ‘on brand in the narrow sense. Rather you need to be in the right area, helping add to the right association, the right ‘tags’. It also means that what people working on brands find repetitive isn’t. We live this stuff, whereas people live their lives instead

Storytelling, but no Navel-gazing

So naturally, this means tell stories, tell stories about your company and your product and process, but be realistic and be respectful. Start from the assumption of ‘why should anyone give a shit’. Not in a confrontational way (unless you are my employer in certain geographies…!) but because people need to see you as resonant in their lives – and ideally a product that is useful.

And I say resonant here, rather than relevant for good reason. Relevant in a comms brief ends up with audience mirroring in ads. And no-one really wants to look at themselves for that long if at all…

The Myth of Ostentation

Rob Walker, New York Times Marketing correspondent, in his book ‘Buying In’ outlines an interesting thesis. His book focuses on the dialogue between individuals and the things they buy. One of his ore ideas is that one of the most important factors for people in deciding what brands they ‘buy into’ is not what these items say to other people about us, but what they say to us about ourselves- think of the middle-manager with the MacBook, assuring himself that he is in some ways creative, more than just an Excel Sheet drone…

Now clearly every product, service or company has a network of associations within culture that effect its brand, and it is the commonality in these that people buy into, which of course means that this isn’t a pure one-to-one dialogue between buyer and brand. (I would actually argue that, a brand ONLY exists in culture- marketers do not position a brand, they shepherd, nudge and cajole a living web of values and equities that inhabit the space between the company & product and the people who buy or use it- as well as those that don’t, but that perhaps is for another time…) However, far too much emphasis is placed on what people are telegraphing to others with their choice of symbols and artifacts that they surround themselves with. Without this reflexive side to the dialogue, how else would we explain designer underwear? (low-slung urban jeans-wearers aside).

Many jaded Brand professionals are particularly quick to criticize the newly rich, and aspirant emerging middle-classes in fast growing emerging economies for their love of branded bling. Often the logos and the Louis, are dismissed simply as a new-world Nouveau Riche display. If we try and see these purchases (legitimate or imitation) through the lens of that reflexive narrative, then it takes on a rather different character. As opposed to a gauche display of new wealth, a keeping up with the Nguyens, da Silvas or Patels, we can read this as a quest for markers and means of finding and understanding ones place in this world.

Newly mass-affluent populations are, in many cases, in uncharted territory. Previous generations may never have had the opportunities to achieve their material comfort that they now possess. Many of these rapidly growing markets were even closed societies that did not afford the opportunity to engage in these consumer interactions. Many of the aspirant individuals we speak to at Flamingo are planning ahead. Saving for homes, marking out milestones, experts at delayed gratification earning and waiting patiently to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Not really the kind of person who is indulging in ostentation for its own sake. What these brands can say to them ( as opposed to telegraph to others) is that, I am doing okay. They can make you feel modern, they provide signposts and markers on this newly trodden path. They can tell the purchaser that they are progressing. Less about ‘I am doing better than you’, much more about ‘I am better than I was before’.  This is not to say there isn’t an element of display involved, but there is also internal dialogue. We must understand that in many ways, Luxury is a necessity.

Brands as Intersections

Whoever decided that the job should be called ‘Brand Manager’ has a lot to answer for.

It perpetuates the idea of a direct relationship between a brand and the company that seeks to control it, as if you can calibrate its every nuance, direct its every move. ‘Positioning’ doesn’t help either- conjuring images of pieces being shuffled round on tactical maps in some fusty operations room, as if you can just move a brand out of one territory and into another like a corporation-sized game of risk.

Brand Positionings, as a set of values in a presentation, a manifesto on a page, or layers of an onion are a key part of our trade. These models give us a common language to understand what we want a product or business to mean as well as a way to communicate these aspirations to our partners, both agencies and other brands. But what is important to remember is that they are just that- models; a way of explaining and describing a thing, but not the thing itself.

September 2014 saw Flamingo gather in Istanbul for its inaugural Expo, focused on the theme of ‘intersections’, Cultural, Geographic, Narrative and Commercial. The intention of this piece is to argue why we must see brands themselves as intersections, ones that encompass all four of these areas in their breadth; that is, brands are not ‘owned’, ‘managed’ or ‘positioned’ by the companies that gave birth to them, but exist as a negotiated space, a conversation between the company, product or service and the consumer and their cultural context.

The idea of brands as a psychological and social crossroads, as shared liminal spaces, may fill many Brand Stewards with dread, but in reality, they have always been a joint undertaking by the companies that produce and the people that consume, whether we have been aware of it or not. Simply put, a brand is what people think and feel in about a product, rather than what they are told they ought to think and feel. All of our outputs are simply inputs to this thing that we call a ‘brand’.

The intersections metaphor is apt here. Influences come from multiple directions, like vehicles speeding towards a neural junction. Product experience, others people’s opinions, packaging, cultural associations, socio-historical context and the artifacts that a Brand manager may put into the mix (the brand’s Comms) all combine to affect what a brand is. A newly launched challenger may have lighter traffic on their roads, but it’s never a one-way-street. The relatively recent proliferation of 2-way channels has made this more apparent, but we must remember brands have been ‘social’ since long before ‘Social Media’.

What this means is that a positioning is an evolving set of ideas, a conversation, and that brand ‘values’ or ‘essences’ are at once both true and also questionable; valid hypotheses rather than proved theorems. It means what we capture on a page or in a PowerPoint is a snapshot of something bigger, markers put down at a rough median between marketing aspiration and consumer reality, with the distance between those two poles roughly reflecting the how successfully that brand is doing ‘in the wild’.

If this all sounds a little bit hopeless, its not meant to. Acknowledging this has a profound influence on how we think about brands. Firstly it means brands are far more powerful than ‘positioning’ or ‘management’ gives them credit for. They are forces of nature that have powerful connections with people and exert their influence in culture. Now that has to be more exciting than words on a page. As ‘Brand Influencers,’ we get to play a kind of ‘cultural judo’ (NEW WORD?) with them, deftly using their weight and momentum to shape those negotiated spaces. It also means Brand Influences shouldn’t try and ‘fight’ or deny them. A ‘repositioning’ that denies a brand’s long heritage or scale is destined to fail through dissonance as one vehicle comes hurtling head-on into the juggernaut of history, habit or culture. Acting and thinking like a challenger brand is powerful for a big company, but to deny ones own baggage and nature will almost always fail.

So why is this so important now? Where previously we sent the marketing mix into this negotiated space and waited hopefully to see second-order results through sales and share, the mass proliferation of digital and social has allowed us to close the loop. People have always been involved in this dialectic, but now they can be heard. This increases the appetite for brands that are ‘open’, where they can see their own inputs and influence played back. This means that the ‘positioning’ is a start point and a wish-list rather than the end-goal. Rather than feeling like a tightly defined, reductive thing, we need to aspire to shape brands that have clarity but at the same time have texture and layers within that clarity, elements clustered round an agreed shared space and meaning. Rather than everything needing exactly the same voice, it now just needs to feel that it is in the same register. This is hugely liberating for brand influencers, it gives us freedom to try things, to stretch brands at the margins and play at the periphery, as well as offering alternative viewpoints on their core. This means not only engaging in discussion with consumers, but also between different elements of your media plan. Encourage conversation, in the broadest sense rather than put up a roadblock’; have your brand ask questions rather than answer them.

Or we can continue to try and simply ‘manage’… But ultimately this liminal space will continue to be negotiated and renegotiated whether we are there or not.

Data as Creativity

Recently, I saw a banner online for a debate at last weeks Cannes Lions titled ‘Is Data Killing Creativity?’. Reading the tweets and the blog posts following it, it seems there was a lot of ‘its great because it pisses me off’ and ‘I grudgingly accept it because it gives me the terms of engagement’. Looking at the arguments though, it seems that they all miss the flaw in the question.

Data is creativity, certainly for business. Perhaps there are a few too many frustrated artists in the ad industry (though personally this is something I have never come across…) but unless you are a lone wolf, out there, trying to substantiate the Vasarian myth (in which case you may want to hand back the 6-figure salary, Mister Chief Creative Officer), you ‘art’ is that of selling. And no matter how many Lions you may tame, the real measure is ROI, however indirect, long-term or circuitous. The best way to do this is very often through something art-like, and creativity often aligns closely with effectiveness. But lose sight of that effectiveness comms becomes and indulged art-student on an executives wage, leaving itself justly open to all the criticism it receives.

So how is data creativity? Data- be in quant, qual, cultural, psychological or commercial- is the map of the emotional and rational pressure points, a marketers reflexology diagram of where to push and it is also the ‘how’. In the numbers, or the verbatims or sector reports are the real building blocks for insight. Data is creativity as wine is grapes. The idea that data could kill creativity, to pose the two in opposition to each other is absurd

What the hell should we sell now?

This thought may need re-visiting. I feel like it is ¾ of an idea that I haven’t puzzled out fully, but keen to get some input, to try and talk this out (and I am lacking an effective foil in the office…)

Some time back, I attempted an analysis of what it is exactly I do, working in advertising, and more specifically, as a planner. My very bad Marxist analysis essentially saw my function as the cholesterol-clogged, hardened artery-ed heart of the late capitalist industrial system, creating desires that means that people continue to buy things, keeping money circulating in the system.

Now I expect to be picked up on this by my economist friends, but despite financial hacks and politicians obsessing about growth or ‘economic output’, the rate of circulation is equally important. MV=PY indicates that amount of cash(M) times how fast it moves (V) is equal to economic output (Y) multiplied by price index (P). I also expect that glibly flitting over this rather fundamental equation may leave me open to further attacks, so maybe we may just take the above as an acknowledgment that I know what an ‘economy’ is and leave it at that. As far as this is relevant to my point, if the money moves faster, people feel richer, people need the money to be moving so that it can come to them, so that they can spend it. Belief that more money will come their way ( and yes… I know I am trying to draw analogous lines between the micro and the macro) means that they will spend more- consumer confidence- a crucial ingredient for the ‘confidence trick’ that is the market.

Society also has a hand in this, making us feel that we need to buy to self actualise- ‘keeping up with the Jones,’ the very idea of ‘status symbols’. So we exploit that, we leverage that toehold- people feel rich so they spend themselves poor to look rich. Products collaborate with business ( they, after all designed them), televisions break after 2 years with alarming alacrity, and the media are complicit to make sure that the next ‘new’ is always being dangled in front of us. What was wrong with the iPhone 3 anyway, what functionality does the 4 have that is going to seriously improve my quality of life, was it really what I had been missing? And for that matter, when is the 5 coming out!

This was something to think about as we spent our time still convincing people to enter into the same Faustian pact, it is after all their own rapaciousness that is giving them the ability to be so rapacious. But this is no longer in any way a sustainable model. Now we are aware of the resources that we were blinding squandering, we must be more careful. The repurchase cycle that sees us buy a new something on a rolling 1- or 2- or 3- year cycle for high ticket items is one that seems to be accelerating the Earths decline. We can produce items that last a lifetime, but that is economic suicide for the current system, and like all robust economic beasts, its self-preservation instinct is what has made it so pervasively successful. Even closed -loop recycling is energy intensive, and very little of our energy is currently clean. ‘Upcycling’ is nice for a pair of shoes made out of car tyres, but what do you do with the car’s in-built CPU- it isn’t going to become the beating heart of the next gen Playstation 4…

So this is the planner railing against buying things? Not really, just how we buy. This century’s successful and enduring brands will be the ones that seek to separate the reasons we buy products from the products themselves. The old mantra that if it ‘floats, flies or f*cks- rent it’ (sorry to be crude) will extend to more and more. I am not quite sure what this means for the widescreen TV (rolling upgrades to the same unit? designing products that can be optimised through software upgrade? purchase a contract for hardware uprating with the set itself?) , but for the car, we can see it in ZipCars; for the DVD, in Netflix- brands which establish an ongoing repurchase cycle without there ever having to be a purchase on the first place. We ‘have’ (buy things) in order to ‘do’ (be), we need to think about how we can supply that desire to ‘do’ without encouraging our outmoded and unsustainable 20th century acquisitiveness.

An Open Letter to Damien Hirst

Dear Damien Hirst

Could you please start an advertising agency?

Art has such a fundamental role in defining how people interpret society, in establishing norms, in tearing down idols and reinforcing status quos, an Ad agency wouldn’t even be something new. at the very moment when the idea of artist as lone genius was invented, the renaissance master was the head, the Creative Director, of great studios working on epic commissions – briefs – for their key clients. Think about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. ‘So Mike, could you throw something together that reinforces the power of the Papacy against internal threats within the priesthood and Vatican, that glorifies God while terrifying the lay populace, and delivers verifiable ROI in the collection plates.’

More chillingly of course could be the Neo-Classical modernist architecture of Otto March’s Berlin Olympiastadion, or the films of Leni Riefehnstahl, or the sculpture of Arno Brecker, which embodied the classical yet timeless, powerful and pure ethos that the Third Reich was trying to spread. So much art is created to an agenda. Jumping back to the renaissance we can see it even in some of the more humble Florentine family portraits where contracts were drawn up to specify the exact amount of gld to be used and how much of which grades of blue were to be used in which areas and also what the purpose of the painting was- its audience and its use.

Why you, Mr. Hirst? Because better than any current artist, you understand this, and you use this. Many ‘get it’, but at the same time cling to the Vasarian myth around their creations. Your own factory set-up picks up from Warhol’s one good idea, playing with the nature of creation and celebrity, and crafts a far more fascinating, nuanced argument. You use your own brand, what people will pay for what they believe is created by you, at least conceptually. You elevate objects created by your army of  assistants to high art from near-commodity, through the personal  mythos in which you wrap them. It’s Warhol spliced with the renaissance for a post-Thatcher/Reagan world.

And just as the unipolar moment of the 90s and 00s begins to unravel, just as people start to question the value of things which you had been undermining with the sheer amount that you had people pay for you own work, as you took the money that through this strange personality cult you had created, as you managed to defy economics increasing the price and the value, giving an impression of scarcity as you flooded the market and washed away the very foundations that supported the fallacy, you sold out. And I don’t meant that in a bad way, I mean that in such a prescient fashion you cashed out the chips from that table, and sold the lot. New work at an auction. On the day that Lehman bros crashed. Now I don’t think you’re good enough to have got that down to the day, but that is a poetic piece of timing on your part that underlines how in touch you were with what was happening.

So you were quoted as saying you wanted to move to something more introspective. Why not apply your natural talent as an Executive Creative Director to advertising. People give you large cheques for you to tell them what to do to sell their brands. You want something a little more grown up, quieter. It’s so brilliantly subversive and would be yet another twist in the game of slight of hand that you have been playing with the art world, value and the market. You go from false prophet to Shamen.

Its genius, and For the Love of God, let me know where to send my CV….