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 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
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…
Playing the ‘generation’ game
The current generational model that many pop-sociologists, newspaper columnists and marketers cling to may be a convenient framework, but it is one that is not fit for purpose in an ever shrinking and ever fracturing and more complex world. The most robust academic work in the field, the grandly titled Strauss-Howe generational model is, even to its champions, an Anglo-American-centric tool for historical framing and to its critics, a vast generalization with little empirical evidence to support its core thesis. As appetizing as an academic deep-dive on this may be, I shall limit this to thinking about recent generations and their utility (or otherwise) as a tool for understanding people, cultures from a brand perspective
The idea of these 20-year monocultural blocks in human time was born out of the post war baby-boom, particularly in the united states and were the beneficiaries of the post-war American high, rapid growth of mass culture and mass consumerism as well as a marked increase in living standards and leisure time. They were also the first group to be dissected from the outside by marketers, and in many respects it the reinforcing messages made the idea of a ‘generation’ and its particular spirit and outlook a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That the ‘boomers’ and then after, the Gen-Xer, in the US were the two most convincingly coherent cohorts and that may be no coincidence, not just because they were researched, written about and sold to in a way that molded them into a coherent whole, but also, economically speaking, in the west, they were more ‘whole’. On the ‘soft side’ you have a golden age of mass broadcast media and on the hard side you have, what is in the long history of pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial capitalism an anomaly – a decrease in inequality. Now, not to get all Piketty about it, but with good working class wages and earnings doing better than assets, there was a chance for people of the same age across a broadly similar cultural backdrop to have similar experiences, and similar possibilities open to them, socially, professionally, educationally. Historically, this is a aberration, as the young country squire and the young peasant would have never felt part of a similar generational identity, but with decreasingly inequality, relative prosperity, mass media and a world that still felt big and un-PC enough to forget about those defined as the ‘other’ – non-capitalist, non-white, non-EU/US, we could lull ourselves into thinking that this was a world where neat 20-year blocks of people could be in it together.
Of course if we had of take a global view in the 70s when the idea of the ‘boomer’ the first marketable generation was being popularized we may have seen the fallacy of that, but we didn’t, it stuck and now in an ever shrinking world we can somehow post-rationalize the theory because we all have smartphones. Of course, we cant, and in fact, everyone doesn’t have a smartphone at all. The world is smaller for those who can afford to shrink it, which is a self-selecting and self-confirming sample. The reality is, birth year is a very poor proxy. A 24 year old urban Jakartan vs. a 24 year old in an agricultural area of Sumatra will be very different. The Jakartan may have a lot in common with a 24 year old in downtown Sao Paulo, but likewise he may have with a digitally saavy 53 year old in Berlin. Likewise the our son or daughter of the soil in Sumatra might have more in common with a middle aged Bavarian farmer.
An age based- monocultural theory works in a monoculture, as the post-war US was to a large extent ( god forbid anyone do anything as pluralistic as declare themselves a socialist, or be black and ask for rights, for that matter) but so the what was age acting as a proxy for in that self-selecting blinkered process. What are some of the key axes, the indicators that can allow us to start forming some useful cohorts, that we can map against populations?
Urban vs Rural
A key indicator, which has a huge bearing on your views, outlook and interaction with the world – shapes the kind of influences that you are expose to, the amount of risk and reward available to you and the kind of stimulus you have to shape your view. A rapidly urbanizing world offers us a dangerous confirmation bias to the idea of homogenous aged-based international cohorts…
Which itself acts as a proxy for many things, including affluence and even more strongly, political inclination – the higher your educational attainment, generally the more liberal you lean, at least within the normative framework for your cultures political spectrum
Key Life stage Markers
Another where Age was a useful proxy, but longer, less linear lives and changes in aspiration (when it comes to kids and settling down) and hard headed reality, especially when it comes to urban housing mean that it is not an accurate or useful global proxy any more)
Marriage, parenthood and Home/property ownership are all massive deciding factors shaping someone outlook and view. Where many of the western-centric generalizations about Millennials fall down in Asia is that it fails to remember how much younger people still have children and that, particularly in less equal, more patriarchal skewed set-ups, as 24 year old without a child is more different to a 24 year old with than she is to a 40 year old without
One that,, if Google and many over tech utopians have their way, will eventually disappear as a discerning factor, but the reality is that globally we are not yet at a stage when this can be disregarded. Access is uneven, can be patchy and often for many as a proportion of income (another key factor) too expensive to be ‘always on’
Optimistics vs. pessimistic
How do you see our future? How do you see the world? Naturally this will be influenced by any number of things, but it is important to take into account. There are many with huge advantages in developed nations who are negative in their worldview, and the converse is true in many more difficult to live in cultures and situations. The importance of outlook should not be overlooked
Of course, taking a mapping based on these, you would expect to see age, driving certain clusters in certain countries, but interesting to see is how that matched up against other groups else way. A Vietnamese urban 20-something might really tally with an affluent, upbeat suburban boomer on America’s east coast…!
Of course the danger here is veering in the opposite direction, but the point is we must realize that time and age are a poor proxy and no guarantee of some kind of universal human generational experience
Thailand as a Psychosocial Construct
A few weeks ago, I was in Thailand to race my bicycle. Now, that sounds like an exotic, alluring and indulgent confession. Or worse still, a blog that starts with a #humblebrag. It’s not, it is the opener for another rant on my part. Which probably makes this even more indulgent. But bear with me, there is sense to this seeming self-indulgence; that ‘Thailand’ doesn’t exist, and Thailand is a pretty mediocre holiday destination. It is the gold standard of mediocrity ( in the category of holiday-making at least) in a world that is increasingly tending towards an inoffensive, palatable median. And if you don’t already agree with me, then it’s likely that you may already be part of this profitable collective delusion that it is not….
‘Thailand’ (as opposed to Thailand), is an incredible collective folk legend in which many are invested. Say ‘Thailand’ to anyone in a major global city, or anywhere in a temperate, developed (post-/) industrial nation, and it instantly evokes paradise island idylls. It’s backpacker adventures, away-from-it-all-Luxury, freedom and exploration, endless massages, being waited on hand and foot by lithe young men and women and raging undertones of, primarily sexual, domination of the other. These ideas of escape, freedom and power; underpinned by assumed economic leverage and cultural superiority, are the product we are being sold. Fascinatingly, this is not longer just a Western Orientalist fantasy, it’s an Eastern Orientalist fantasy too. Ask any middle-aged, middle-class dentist or desk-jockey in Singapore, Shenzhen or Seoul… Thailand is to escapism what Paris is to High Culture. It is a totem. THE totem And like Paris has its very own Syndrome, brought about by the gaping abyss between the idea and the reality, ‘Thailand’ Syndrome is a clear and present danger.
Simply put, for all the imagined allure, the reality of Thailand is that it is a tourist conveyor belt. An early Asian entrant into the global tourist industry, it became synonymous with the West’s orientalist fantasies, as captured in Alex Garland’s The Beach, and most sinisterly evoked in Houlbecq’s Platform. And now in an economically multipolar, globalised world has continued to sell these on to any bidder. It positioned itself as a passive, untrammelled territory ready to be ‘discovered’ by any white tourist daring enough to get on a commercial airliner. Ever-cheapening global air-travel has democratised the Thailand ideal, not just to these new colonialists, but also Asia burgeoning middle class. I do not resent the democratisation of travel, but as a destination, it trades off the illusion of distance, of carefully manicured exoticism and ‘eastern promise’.
When you travel halfway round the world and spend half a month’s wages to get a piece of this illusion you are already invested. You’ve bought the idea before you bought the ticket. You have too much emotionally riding on that expense to see anything over than what you want to see; it is white sands, drinks in coconuts and sex under palm trees. But deep down, you know the reality is just another commoditised destination. You feel it as soon as you step of the plane to get your transfer bus, or if you kid yourself that you are somehow ‘roughing it’, to haggle with your cut-throat, small-C capitalist cabbie. Every overpriced bottle of mineral water or lacklustre excursion, plays on you subconscious intuitive awareness that you are simply an optimised asset class in a global game. But you tell yourself that it’s a ‘A Holiday of a Lifetime™’ and you take the pictures, instagram the illusion and Facebook the fallacy. And that is how the mythology becomes a kind of cultural Ponzi scheme; as long as we all keep paying in, none of us need to face up to the middling holiday that we just shelled out for. None of us need to face that Thailand is in fact like any other heavily developed tourist destination, selling Made-in-China (or rather now, Vietnam) tourist tat, with half-scruffy beaches lined with umbrella bars, drunk spring-breakers, confused Japanese tourists, pink-drunk Brits and local hustlers. It’s the Costa del Sol via Edward Said.
There are undoubtedly undiscovered corners, hidden beaches and empty vistas, but during your ‘Seven days in the Sun’, you will be funnelled to any one of a number of hotspots with other sunburnt globe-skippers such as yourself who are kidding themselves that they have come to somewhere otherworldly. More than anywhere else, Thailand represents how modern tourism sells ideas rather than places or cultures. It markets the idea of travel in a reality that is ever more touristified, commoditised and homogenised
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.