Rethinking brand reach in a watching world

By Mark Di Somma

Rethinking brand reach
We need to move on. That’s my take-out from a piece by Tara Walpert Levy – spotted and brought to my attention by the ever-observant Jeremy Dean. We need to move on from a mind-set based on reach and drop-off, and replace it with one centred on engagement and accumulation. “Historically, our media plans have focused more on exposure and broadcasting than engagement and response …,” writes Levy. “We focused on reaching as large an audience as we could and hoped or planned that of that 100%, we would eventually whittle down to the, call it 5%, of people who actually cared and mattered for our brand. We focused on reach because our ability to measure engagement … was lousy.”

Not any more. Instead of opening the jaws of the sales funnel as far as they will go, Levy calls for an engagement pyramid that flips the funnel on its head. Start with what has always been seen as the end of the filter – the 5% who will be most interested – she says, engage them, get them talking and let the growth begin. Her thinking directly echoes that of Joseph Jaffe whose book of that name some years back first drew my attention to the need to pay attention to the “right” end of the funnel and use commitment as the multiplier.

The thing all brands with a social presence need to be paying attention to, Levy says, are the dynamics of Gen C (the content generation). For this tribe, content is the basis of conversation. It’s the prompt everyone in this generation is looking for in order to have something to share. Gen C are using social networks and content platforms to define their sense of self. They are what they see, what they make and what they distribute. Here’s a great insight: “When they share a video or an image, they’re not just sharing the object, they’re sharing the emotional response it creates.”

And they don’t just define their lives this way, they record them as well. This is the selfie generation. One in four upload a video every week and nearly half upload a photo every week. The way I see it that makes almost every Gen C participant a potential media company because so many people are now documentary makers. They are documenting their lives in words, pics, tweets, opinions and shares.

So the future for technology brands, at least in a content world, seems to lie very much in helping that happen or in being a product placement in everyone’s own movie. The future lies in catering to the Gen C question, “What can I tell the world now?”

Levy cites GoPro as a classic example of a brand that has drawn directly on Gen C’s proclivity for content. At first glance, the success of the little sports camera is an enigma. In a world where phones are ubiquitous and Flip failed, how did GoPro go public? The answer, according to this article in Wired, is that GoPro didn’t try to sell technology. Rather, they sold the memories and emotions that GoPro literally captured, and they have flourished because the thrill of capturing those memories talks to everything that Gen-C is about. “GoPro has sold consumers not on the camera, itself, but on something the smartphone can’t easily replace: the experience of using the camera.”

Once captured, of course, experiences must be shared – content – and through sharing, the brand’s reputation has literally been spread. In 2013 alone, according to Wired, GoPro customers uploaded 2.8-years worth of video featuring GoPro in the title and in the first quarter of 2014, people watched over 50 million hours of videos with GoPro somewhere in the title, filename, tag, or description.

My take-out. Scaling is no longer just about expansion, in the sense of adding more and being in more places to reach more people. Scaling, at least for lifestyle brands, is about acquiring a greater and greater sense of identity. But not the identity that brands talk about and know how to do. Rather the identity that consumers have – the sense of self that they gain in seeing progress and achievement for themselves and that they are then motivated to share. GoPro works not so much because of what it does but because of how well it enables people to put more of themselves in the world. They enhance their footprint through the brand; the brand doesn’t enhance its footprint through them. Jawbone Up’s done something similar. Redefined how people document the lives they have and want, using their screens and social media buttons as the playback and sharing mechanisms.

Roll camera. Life … Flipping the funnel is about building brands through granularity, not reach. Start with personal experiences as the critical beach-head. Build small communities. Encourage each of them to grow. Look for ways to knit them together. Rinse and repeat.

Photo of “GoPro Hawaii”, taken by Steven Worster, sourced from Flickr


Brand offering: do you go deep or do you go wide?

By Mark Di Somma

Brand offering - deep or wide

Great piece in AdWeek on the failure of single-item brands is a reminder of a question that comes up a lot: whether to dive deep or go wide. Speciality vs diversity.

Both are attractive. For some brand owners, the opportunity to offer a detailed and nuanced offering within an area is the embodiment of singularity. In a complex and cluttered world, this argument goes, there’s power in being known for one thing. There was a lovely story in The New York Times International recently about Michael Vachon who was writing software until he discovered that there was a real interest in upstart American distilleries in London. Cue Maverick Drinks, catering for a renewed interest in American spirits. It’s a great story based on a growing need. So success, right?

Yes, but as the AdWeek article points out, vulnerability also. A fashionable rush on a specific item is usually followed by an equally unfashionable rush as consumers move onto whatever captures their attention next. That’s the shortfall of being a bright shiny object. At some point you fade. If you’ve expanded resources and footprint in the meantime to meet current and anticipated demand, the sudden departure of consumers in droves quickly leaves you on the rocks. The disappearance of Crumbs was the latest in a long line-up of one-hit brands that have gone the same way.

Diversity can also look very attractive. Here, the attraction is to expand the offering into new markets in order to trade on current equity and to attract new customers. Again, the theory has its merits – capitalise on your reputation and provide your customers with more opportunities to engage with you more often. There comes a point though when brands can expand so far beyond their core business that they either mean nothing to their consumers anymore (because they’re trying to be all things to all people) or they lose sight of where they began. Starbucks, famously, lost sight of its core business of coffee in its bid to establish footprint before self-correcting.

So often, the options are presented as alternative growth strategies. Increasingly though, brands need to build both horizontal and vertical axes into their offerings. There needs to be enough depth in what they do for them to be credible in the area they most want to be known for. Depth brings opportunities for immersion, catering to those who want to explore the subtleties, opportunities and variations to what’s on offer. At the same time, the offering must be wide enough to continue to give people options. As Nancy Kruse points out in the article Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme are all known for one thing but have successfully expanded their offerings to include a wide range of items that are now presented as natural companions.

Mapping how this multi-directional approach plays out on both plains starts with questions that should be informed by purpose, strategy and competitive advantages and measured for effectiveness against growth plans:

1. What do you most want to be known for? And how do you show that you are well-versed in this area? What do you want people to discover more about? Where can the journey take them? (the vertical journey)

2. What else could naturally accompany this? How do these accompanying products/services inform your core product? Why are they a natural “progression” of what you’re known for? How do these extensions add to how people perceive you? How do they contribute to the fulfilment of your purpose? How far should this suite of accompanying products/services extend – and where does it stop? (the horizontal journey)

In an upgrade culture, however, you cannot simply set and forget your offerings on both axes. Rather, brands must continue to evolve what they offer on both axes in an ordered and consistent way. There are ongoing questions that will assist you to do this:

What must stay?
What must we keep and continue to improve?
What should be discontinued?
What could we introduce?
Where can we go next (in terms of markets?)

That simultaneous development of brands and ideas along both axes forms the basis in my view for a sound portfolio strategy. It ensures that your brand builds on what it has and is known for and, at the same time, introduces new ideas and services that complement and add value to your reputation.

Recently Coke bought a stake in Monster, increasing its footprint in the energy drinks market. This week comes news that it will begin testing Coca Cola Life in the US to assuage consumers’ desire for lower-calorie soft drinks. At face value, those strategies are contradictions. In reality, they are a succinct example of a seasoned brand owner testing the market in different directions to determine where it will extent its offering (into the energy drinks market) and where it will deepen (introducing another low-calorie option to its existing line-up).

Photo of “… and I’m so lonely”, taken by Akira Curiosava, sourced from Flickr




Purpose, People or Profits: The tough choices facing brands today

By Mark Di Somma and Hilton Barbour

Purpose, people or profitsThere are those who continue to frame the role of business in purely commercial terms. Business is hard enough, and the demands of shareholders and the markets so insistent, these people say, that companies need to avoid the ‘distractions’ of infusing a moral platform into what they do. They should just get on with making profits. That’s their purpose. After all that’s what shareholders demand and that’s typically what they’re compensated on.

And in that one word, purpose, and its ambiguities, lie the seeds of an increasingly vigorous debate that, to our minds, stems from a confusion of ideas (and priorities).

When you adopt a functional definition of purpose, this is pretty much where most of us land: The purpose of business is to make money. True. Single-minded. And responsible – in the sense that without money, there are no resources to keep people in jobs and to contribute to the economy and the markets.

If however you take an intentional definition of purpose this idea extends one stage further: the purpose of a business is to make money and to do good in the world; or even the purpose of a business is to make money by doing good in the world. Also true, for those of us who believe that there is more to business, and life, than just money. Less single-minded, because there is a linked agenda. Also responsible – but to different things, in the sense that money is a means as well as a resource.

Purpose when it is defined as a function revolves around the immediate and commercial reason for being. The focus tends to skew towards results. In the right hands, this concentration on outcomes energises and drives the business priorities and strategies inside an organisation. Coke became the biggest beverage company in the world because it set its sights on putting a glass of Coke within arm’s reach of every thirsty person on the planet. The pursuit of that result is reflected in its supply chain policies, in its product development, in its distribution and pricing strategies. When it goes too far though, the pure-play pursuit of results (and their attendant incentives) drives an organisation to pursue agendas that are so outcome-focused they can lack humanity and even responsibility. The actions of Enron and GM are cases in point. Both organisations pursued results at the expense of other considerations.

Purpose when it is defined as an intention reflects a more global bias. It frames what the people inside an organisation, and the customers who buy from them, would like to see change (for the better) in the world. In this context, the focus is on shared beliefs and on a shared view of the world that is much more long term. In the right hands, this focus on what’s desirable and altruistically aspirational holds an organisation on a steady morally-focused course. It puts some ideas in-purpose and renders others unacceptable because they do not contribute to the intentional purpose (even if they do contribute to the functional purpose). As Hilton pointed out in this recent post, a strong and clear purpose drives collective comprehension, cohesion and forms the basis for fundamental business choices. It focuses on an agreed worldview that provides people inside an organisation with powerful incentives to come to work and gives consumers reasons to stay loyal to a brand. When it goes too far though, the pursuit of an ideal leads to inefficiencies, lack of operational strategies and the adoption of an aggressive and self-righteous moral high ground that subsumes everything in its path and brooks no dissent or even debate.

Interestingly the ‘grandfather of consultancy’ Peter Drucker held a perspective more in line with the latter view. He once famously said, “Business has one task – to create a customer”. In Drucker’s world profit was a consequence, not an objective. If an organisation successfully “created a customer” – through superb products, artful distribution and an alignment of the views of the organization with the views of the customer – then profits and success were inevitable.

Pursued to extreme, either reading of purpose, functional or intentional, is detrimental. Pursued in a balanced manner, however, the two agendas hold each other in check. They provide the business with a mandate to chase its commercial goals at the same time as they lay down clear guidelines within which that pursuit must take place.

The challenge for Coke today is not whether it should make money or tackle obesity but how it can continue to keep everyone happy by making responsible returns, persuading people to consume less calories through its products and using natural resources like water in sustainable ways.

Back to the example of Coke from above. If Coke’s purpose is ‘Moments of happiness’, then a balanced pursuit of that means finding ways to achieve moments of happiness for all and not at the expense of some. And to do that, Coke’s leadership probably need to be asking themselves at least eight ongoing questions:

  1. How do we define a moment? (is it personal, is it in a group?)
  2. How much is a moment? (is it a gulp, a can or a 2-litre bottle?)
  3. What’s a moment worth? (if there were less moments, for example, could they be worth more? How?)
  4. How is happiness changing across the world? (specific, regional and global trends)
  5. Who must be happy in order for us to achieve our purpose? (how do we judge success and is that how our consumers judge success?)
  6. What makes people happy now and what will make them happy in the future?
  7. Where do the pursuits of happiness fight with each other and how do we resolve them?
  8. Must a moment always include consumption of our products or could/should we enable other moments?

They’re not easy questions – particularly when you’re as global as Coca-Cola and your organisation is a patchwork of owners, distributors, bottlers, franchises and partners like McDonald’s. But they are the questions that leaders need to be asking in our view in order to truly deliver the two sides of purpose. Aligning those entities is another key component because consumers don’t delineate Coke from a vending machine and a Coke poured at the Golden Arches. Let’s come back to that.

For purpose to work to its full potential in organisations, the commercial leadership that most decision makers are comfortable with needs to be balanced by a clear and shared moral leadership.


Hilton BarbourCo-authored with Hilton Barbour, Freelance Strategist & Marketing Provocateur. Hilton has led global assignments ranging from Coca-Cola, IBM, Motorola and Enron to Ernst & Young and Nokia. Working as a freelance strategist allows him to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about business, people and trends. An avid blogger, Hilton’s personal mantra is “Question Everything”. Follow him at @ZimHilton.

We’re committed to a series of posts on this subject. Look for them over the next few weeks. Your feedback, comments and input is appreciated.

Photo of “Levitating Coca Cola/Coke” taken by Chris Nielsen, sourced from Flickr

Brand controversy: how far is too far?

By Mark Di Somma

Brand controversyIf your goal is to get people talking and you deliver thought-provoking advertising and that happens, then you have succeeded. Controversy often works if you’re a challenger brand trying to upset a rival; if you’re a NGO trying to incite action; if you share opinions with your customers and you choose to share those opinions with the world; if you want to poke fun at something that runs contrary to your brand’s values and purpose. There are times, and subjects, where that approach works just fine. You may shock some. But you will reach and appeal to the people who believe in your brand, what it stands for and what it challenges.

But if your marketing plan was to entice customers to think about you in a new way, to charm, to persuade, to engage – and people end up talking about how angry your advertising makes them feel and how it belittles them and seems hateful or that it sends a message that is damaging or dangerous, then your strategy has failed.

You can dress it up however you like – call it humorous, explain that it has “started conversations”, point to the traffic that has made its way to your site, highlight the media attention, say your attention was to achieve cut-through, whatever … the fact is, you’ve turned off the very people you were trying to turn on. And no amount of jingoistic justification of what you intended or the ‘real’ meaning of the approach will change the fact that you have disenfranchised your brand from the very people you were looking to reach and appeal to.

It’s easy for brands in this situation to tell themselves that they’re being edgy and clever when in fact they’re being rude. It’s easy to convince yourselves that your advertising is brave and has chutzpah when in fact it’s dumb and sad and plays to a whole lot of stereotypes. It’s too easy to say that what you’re doing is challenging social attitudes when in fact it’s the customers who have moved on. And it’s far too easy to say that any negativity will blow over, that it was all part of the plan and that any publicity is good … Because it’s not.

Of course, you’ve never going to please everyone. You only have to look at the kinds of complaints that get dealt with by advertising standards regulators to see that there are people with just too much time on their hands, but …

Unless you have an inspiring reason to be a controversial brand, don’t be. Be exciting, be surprising, be interesting, be lateral, be clever, be poignant, be stark, be direct, be funny, be welcoming – and in doing that, be respectful, be smart, be intelligent, be kind, be optimistic, be positive, be insightful, be human. Because pulling that off is hard. It takes skill and judgment and, yes, courage. Controversy in the wrong hands and for the wrong reasons, however, is none of those things. It fails not because of what it is, but because of how it makes your customers (the audience that matter) feel. It’s a true loss leader – it leads to losses – loss of loyalty, loss of reputation, loss of credibility and perhaps most importantly, loss of faith in your judgment and your taste as a brand.

Your brand is about you. But here’s the thing – it’s not just about you.

Photo of “Shsh” taken by Cristian Menghi, sourced from Flickr


Big brand dynamics: the rise of the super-platforms

By Mark Di Somma

Big brfand dynamics - the rise of the super platformsSome thoughtful work by John Hagel in this article in which he suggests that economies are increasingly divided by two dynamics – those sectors that are scaling, and those that are shattering. As those dynamics become more radical, the pressures they exert on businesses are also becoming more extreme.

“If you’re in a part of the economy that’s fragmenting, growth will become increasingly challenging. Ultimately you’ll find yourself trapped in a spiral of shrinking share and eroding economics” he observes. “On the other hand, if you’re in a part of the economy that’s concentrating, growth can be amplified and sustained by riding the waves that are driving concentration.”

Hagel’s observations reinforce findings from McKinsey about large-company growth that I referenced here:
• Top-line growth is vital for survival. A company whose revenue increased more slowly than GDP was five times more likely to succumb to acquisition than a company that expanded more rapidly.
• Company growth is driven largely by market growth in the industry segments where it competes and by the revenues gained through mergers and acquisitions. Together, they account for nearly 80 percent of the growth differences among large companies.
• Market share fluctuations by contrast account for only around 20 percent of growth differences among large companies.

Scaled players will find themselves locked in competitions where the stakes are shifting more and more quickly towards winner-takes-all. The brands that will triumph in these circumstances are those who not only edge other big players out but who, at the same time, can draw into their eco-system more and more of the fragmented players at the other end of the marketplace spectrum.

That will happen because small players in these fragmenting sectors are looking to leverage the big brand’s presence and market strength. Their contributions add not only to the offerings of the large brands but also to its critical mass. They are in effect the new supply chain.

In this interesting study of Amazon’s success formula, Haydn Shaughnessy talks through how companies like Amazon and Apple have harnessed critical shifts to make their size work to their greatest advantage. Big data has enabled these companies to pursue ‘radical adjacency’ – to use their knowledge and deep understanding of customer patterns and priorities to pursue opportunities in what were once seen as separated and divergent markets. By encouraging small players to add their offerings to the mix they have been able to deliver on that adjacency model and retain ownership of the consumer. In so doing, they have created integrated and continually expanding super-platforms that now vie with each other for market domination. The ecosystem of participants that feeds that growth is also a powerful advocacy community because they see it as in their best interests to promote the super-platform. They have been enticed by the huge potential for global market access, fame and unprecedented exposure.

As this race for lifestyle convergence accelerates, cloud computing has also redefined the whole infrastructure of delivery, enabling super-platforms to be more agile and responsive. According to Shaughnessy, “Whereas many other companies are still stuck in an innovation mindset – how can I improve my product or invent a new one – Apple and Amazon are proliferating options and giving themselves the opportunity to respond to fluctuating market conditions.” This new super-platform model re-interprets the portfolio strategy, integrating business rules, participants and devices in ways that redefine how markets work and how people get to market. Success will be decided not just by how big companies proliferate and link their total offering, but when, at what price and to what effect for the consumer.

Is that where it ends? I suspect not. News from another major portfolio player, P&G, this week points to how this accumulation process might evolve. According to P&G Chairman-CEO A.G. Lafley, the company plans to divest, discontinue or merge more than half of its brands globally as it restructures to focus on its top 70 to 80 brands. Those keeper brands account for 90% of company sales and over 95% of profit over the past three years, while the brands that will be shed have seen sales and profits decline and have margins that are less than half the company average.

Some interesting implications can be read into this development if one extrapolates the idea out to the super-platforms. It suggests, for example, that the hunt for critical mass in high growth markets could, in time, give way to a search for critical focus as pressure mounts to increase profitability. In complete contradiction to that desire, Amazon’s push to flatten profits might suggest a quickening of commodity pricing across the offerings of super-platforms in the pursuit of greater volumes. Together those trends suggest a looming rock-and-a-hard-place situation for brands in fragmenting sectors looking to grow via these broader ecosystems.

Whilst I agree wholeheartedly with his reading of the competitive dynamics facing concentrating parts of the economy, Hagel is more optimistic than I am about the future of small brands as they pin their hopes on big platforms. They will continue to proliferate and amplify their value, albeit within limits, he says, providing they focus their capabilities to a point of singularity and are prepared to continue adapting. My view is that will not be enough. Rather these contributor brands will have to balance what others see as incessant efficiency demands for below-average pricing with the need to achieve high volumes and margins in order to avoid being cast as under-performers and relegated. (Remembering of course that relegation can be just a tweak of the algorithm or the removal of a “Buy” button away.)

Key message for small brands looking to tie themselves to big engines: all that beckons is not good for you – because, as Michael Hyatt rightly observed this week in reference to a statement by John McDermott, “Owners make rules, not tenants.” My advice if you’re a small brand with a business strategy focused on a super-platform? Have a plan to grow with them. Have a plan to grow without them. And keep an open mind.

Photo of “Birds on the Amazon”, taken by Chany Crystal, sourced from Flickr

Forget USP. Perhaps what your brand really needs is a unique perspective

By Mark Di Somma

Unique brand perspective

When Rosser Reeves first proposed the Unique Selling Proposition many decades ago now, the world was a very different place. Products still had the potential to actually be different, advertising was largely confined to mainstream channels and brands were, for the most part, identifiers. But with the evolution of best-practice manufacturing, the fragmentation of channels and the increasing development of brands as monikers for consumer lifestyle, I can’t help wondering whether the USP is now redundant.

Clearly I’m not the only person whose had thoughts along these lines. In this lengthy and detailed post, Paul Simister summarises and evaluates the arguments he’s seen advanced by others to replace the USP. Among the suggestions:
• A short statement to differentiate your business based on what you stand against.
• USPs don’t exist in markets where the businesses are more interested in copying each other than in being different.
• Create a Unique Story Proposition that focuses on what matters to the customer and what matters to you

Ironically as the performance pressures on CMOs mount, the onus to achieve differentiation, given the evolution of market dynamics and economics, has never been greater … or harder. I think though that we must now assume that any product that shows any level of distinction will in time be caught, matched and even surpassed by its rivals. So the future doesn’t lie in fashioning competitor-proof products. Nor does it lie in fashioning slogans that capture people’s imagination. It seems to me that too many people are trying to evolve an outdated formula to a landscape that bears no resemblance to the context within which it was fashioned.

For the most part, consumers don’t want to be sold to anymore. So it’s not a Selling Proposition that they’re interested in anyway (was it ever?). Yes, they still want to buy and, increasingly, they assume excellence and upgrades. In a social environment, though, where quality from the middle market up at least can be considered largely a given, consumers want to be excited and involved. They want a say in what happens next. They want the brands they are aligned with to align with their values and their hopes for the world.

In response, brands need to fashion their products round their viewpoints rather than looking to drive preference around their features. And that’s led me to wonder whether, as strategists, our goal is no longer to position brands in relation to function but rather to platform brands as promoters of a worldview, even a world change. In essence, to ditch the Unique Selling Proposition in favour of the Unique Brand Perspective – an outlook on the world, and a hope for the future, that drives everything the brand does.

In a recent interview, Unilever CMO Keith Weed spelt out the frustrations he has had with the way things have been traditionally organised: “the real tension you have in companies is when marketing is in one silo, identifying what consumers need and driving demand, while sustainability is in another trying to reduce environmental impact, while Corporate Social Responsibility is in another working on the company’s social contribution while communications is telling its own, possibly different, story. In a connected world, this kind of internal disconnection is a hindrance not a help … Instead, we wanted CSR to be an integral part of our business, embedded in everything we do, and so activities formerly isolated within CSR became strategic initiatives directed toward nutrition, water, hygiene, health and self-esteem.” Unilever’s decision to combine oversight of marketing and sustainability doesn’t just speak to a new construct for sustainable growth it seems to me. It also points to a broadening of the competitive context – a call to judge brands on what they aspire to for others as much as what they aspire to for themselves.

The temptation is to frame this as purely philanthropic. Some, for example, might see this as the next iteration of CSR. You could also argue it’s where purpose needs to go next – from being about what the company wants to achieve in the world to becoming what can be achieved in the world through the company.

That’s good. But it doesn’t have to be that. Intel have fashioned their business on a unique perspective – Moore’s Law. It continues to drive everything about how Intel works. What I like about the Unique Brand Perspective idea is that it sets up a common narrative between consumers and brands on the future. It doesn’t just ask the parties to imagine, or even to agree – it asks them to pursue not just true north but world north. A world “we” (the brand, the company, the workforce and its whole community of stakeholders) agree with and are agreed on. It’s certainly worked for Intel. As Joel Hruska observed, “It’s important to realize, I think, just how odd semiconductor scaling has been compared to everything else in human history. People often talk about Moore’s law as if it’s the semiconductor equivalent of gravity, but in reality, nothing else we’ve ever discovered has scaled like semiconductor design … we’ve never built a structure that’s thousands of times smaller, thousands of times faster, and thousands of times more power efficient, at the same time, within a handful of decades.”

When you buy Intel, you buy into a world that will go faster. Every purchase becomes a step in that direction globally. More than a donation. Not just a contribution. An investment. And that’s what brands need to be asking their consumers I believe – not what do you want to buy, but what do you want to invest in? What do we all want to see move forward? Maybe that’s the question that links strategy and execution. Maybe that helps answer Tom Asacker’s call for a ‘how’ to match the ‘why’.

Here’s eight questions that could help your brand fashion a Unique Brand Perspective.

  1. What do you want to see change across the world? (not just what do you want to put money into changing?)
  2. Why is it in your business to care? (i.e. where’s the alignment and what level of empowerment do you have as a brand to deliver difference)
  3. What part will you play in that change (beyond sponsorship or inclusion in your CSR programme)?
  4. What part will your customers play? (To reference a New Zealand parlance – how will they help the boat go faster?)
  5. What’s the business case for such change? (How will you make money through championing this change?)
  6. What are your talking points on that change?
  7. How do you report on the change you are making in the world as well as in the market?
  8. Whose thinking adds credence and perspective to your viewpoints?

What else would you ask?

Photo of “Look up” taken by Kevin Dinkel, sourced from Flickr

20 ways to kill dull products

By Mark Di Somma

Let's kill dull products

When Nielsen analysed over 3,400 new consumer product introductions launched in the U.S. market in 2012, it found just 14 managed to generate at least $50 million in sales in their first year and sustain that momentum into their second. Out of some 17,000 new products launched since 2008, just 62 of them have had that kind of success.

According to Taddy Hall, “Breakthrough Winners don’t rely on luck or genius. The hallmark of successful innovation is that they resolve struggles or fulfil aspirations; they perform jobs in consumers’ lives.”

With that in mind, here’s my 20 suggestions on how to arrive at wonderful products.

1. Rethink what’s assumed.
2. Redefine what gets done.
3. Make something much more accessible.
4. Make it so clear.
5. Do something simpler.
6. Bridge a little gap.
7. Add joy.
8. Connect/combine.
9. Startle.
10. Lift what gets paid for.
11. Address the mundane.
12. Individualise to an unprecedented degree.
13. Rebalance.
14. Transform what’s shared.
15. Break a monopoly.
16. Protect the fragile.
17. Steal wisdom from other sectors.
18. End an outrage.
19. Introduce beauty.
20. Change what gets competed for.

Photo of “Color my life” taken by Dennis Skley, sourced from Flickr

Competitive intelligence – capitalising on other brands’ weaknesses

By Mark Di Somma

Competitive intelligence
Every brand has two vulnerabilities from an activity point of view: what it’s doing (because that makes its strategy more visible to its competitors) and what it’s not doing (because in failing to act, it generates opportunities for others to do so). Nothing startling there. But Derrick Daye mentioned something recently that I think we need to pay more attention to: the opportunities for “competitive intelligence” – understanding and responding to the underlying attitudes inside a rival brand and the implications of those dynamics competitively.

Here’s three examples of things to be looking for and some actions you could take.

1. A shift in the priority of marketing. This can manifest itself in the resignation of an individual and their replacement with a person with a different skillset or the restructuring of marketing into/out of the Executive Leadership Team. That in turn can mean a downgrade/upgrade in the marketing spend and/or in a change of suppliers (e.g. new agency).

If the person driving marketing is replaced by someone with a greater orientation towards finance or perhaps tech, that should be a heads-up that the brand is preparing to change direction. With a finance head at the wheel it may become more focused on results for example – leading to a more campaign-focused approach. If the person is more tech focused, that could mean a greater reliance on data as the basis for decisions, a shift to online or more digitally focused advertising or a change in how they are systematised.

News that a brand is preparing to adjust its marketing spend following a new appointment or a restructure could be a sign that marketing is not performing to expectation for the business and the company is preparing to tail off its market presence or take a more front-foot approach with its brands. A change in agency too almost certainly signals a shift in campaigns and a wish to compete with new ideas.

Three actions you can take in response:

Lift your marketing activity while the new person settles in. Use the 90 days it’s probably going to take them to get their heads around what’s going on to make in-roads in terms of market share, to redefine the competitive playbook so that you’re no longer the competitor they thought you were, and to reinforce the stability and consistency of your brand to suppliers and consumers.

Reinforce what you stand for in the minds of the market so that if the other brand is repositioning, they have to work around your re-established presence. That way, they also must declare their hand about the future as they see it. Position yourselves as trustworthy, reliable and consistent, but also fun.

Read a new agency appointment for what it might mean. Why did the new appointment happen? Perhaps the agency have worked with the new exec before (in which case look at the kinds of campaigns they’ve done together in the past) or the agency has a specialist skill (indicating that’s where the rival brand sees its future). If you rate the agency’s work, here’s two of my favourite responses. Pre-empt where they might go. Or, more mischievously, appoint their greatest rivals to prepare a counter-campaign for the work you know is coming. Simply state that the rival agency has been appointed for “special projects” and let the mind-games begin.

2. A change in owner. This can be particularly important if the company gains new shareholders, for example, or if it IPOs. Either way, the shift from privately owned firm to investor-owned firm has implications for the priorities for the company and for the emphasis it may put on marketing.

Almost certainly, a shift to new investors will bring a compression in the timeframes within which results are assessed. Marketers finding themselves facing quarterly reporting may be more inclined to adopt tactical approaches – at least initially. If the reporting is public, that also means much greater visibility potentially on how they are tracking.

A merger or acquisition will also introduce new decision makers. If they are hands-off that may make little or no difference to marketing. If however they are brand-savvy, expect them to make their presence felt soon enough. To get some sense of the direction their influence may take the brand, take a close look at their attitudes, their approach historically, the brands they currently control, how those brands are managed and how they perform, their areas of strength and the wider pressures they may be under in terms of differences of opinion between personalities or the expectations of investors.

Three actions you can take in response:

Make a push for even greater consumer loyalty, either through upgrades to what customers get or by offering them other rewards. Position yourselves as market leading, fresh-thinking and responsive. While your rival plays up their new owners, highlight your commitment to your customers and to suppliers.

Use a combination of short-term and long term approaches to lure your rival into tactical responses at the same time as you layer up your long form story. In particular, look for pressure points in their earnings book and force them to focus their resources on defending. At the same time, lift the longer term resourcing of areas where they would need to make a substantial investment to catch up.

Concentrate on what they have lost by merging. For example, they may no longer be the small firm that everyone loves. They may be more conservative. They may be less local in their approach. Capitalise on these changes by filling the emotive holes that their change in circumstances has created. If they play up size, for example, you may need to highlight one-on-one.

3. Changes in the leadership. Perhaps the strongest sign that the company you’re competing against will change direction comes with new line-ups at executive level. These changes could be motivated by a re-alignment to resource a new business plan, by pressures from the owners for new thinking or by a lack of functionalism in the team itself, or in the wider culture, that has seen one or several senior managers choose to leave.

The new leader/leadership team will want to put their stamp on where the business is going decisively and as quickly as possible. Depending on the personalities involved, those changes could be conservative or more far-reaching. An assessment of the individuals and their track record of change should reveal pretty quickly what to expect.

Three actions you can take in response:

Take the opportunity of your competitor being ‘offline’ to refresh/reposition your own brand to address shortcomings and to attract new interest. Make decisive changes that enforce your leadership status and turn the market’s attention your way. A very powerful way to do this is to change your purpose and ambitions as a brand.

Drive a new conversation on social media and in the wider press. Shift what gets talked about while your competitor is re-grouping, and have a plan in place to shift it again once they are back. Use the first change to absorb their affirmation of their new brand. Use the second shift to tack away from the new way in which they are trying to compete with you.

Establish new alliances/markets that force them to compete with you on a wider front than they have had to previously. Announce this extension of your intentions as soon as possible after the rival’s new management has been announced. This will have two effects all going well – it will change how the market thinks of you, and talks about you. And it will force them to adjust their new strategy on the fly.

Plato once said that all human behaviour stems from three sources: desire; emotion; and knowledge. Try using that as the basis for your next “competitive intelligence” strategy session.

  • What do your rivals want more than anything right now?
  • How are they feeling?
  • What do they know about their competitive advantages and about yours, how will they seek to use that to their advantage and what can you do to stop them?

Photo of “Beach Watch” taken by martin, sourced from Flickr

Brand wonderland – the role of the flagship store

By Mark Di Somma

Flagship store

As the downtown areas of major metropolitans reclaim popularity and no small element of retail cool amongst the citerati, more and more globally scaled brands are scaling up their physical presence with impressive and expensive flagship stores that literally showcase who they are and what they have to offer.

It’s tempting to see these stores as shops. Yes, they often provide a shopping function (which in itself differentiates them from pure-play concept stores) but the best flagships add a new dimension of physicality to a brand. They define in materials, aesthetics and by location how a brand wants to be seen in the world. At some level they complement the expansive digital presences of today’s global brands. They can also be an effective countering strategy in sectors where there is an increasing trend towards direct and/or online channels. They provide a new reason to shop live.

Done well, a flagship store expands on a brand’s experience with an uber-cool environment that is inspiring and relaxing, and that offers distinctive ways to interact that add to the consumer’s visceral understanding. The Starbucks store in Amsterdam for example functions as a “coffee lab”: a place for the brand to introduce and trial new brewing methods and new blends, try out new layouts and host events/launches. The research value of such a venue is obvious. But just as importantly, the store is a statement of Starbucks commitment to coffee – to its customers, to the wider world and of course to its competitors.

As brands increasingly frame themselves as ways of life, flagship stores are the new High Street gathering points; bold environments in high footfall areas where people with similar aspirations and viewpoints can congregate or pass through. In effect, they are a tangible meeting point for a brand’s population to see the brand and see each other. (The social reinforcement of such gathering points is easily played down but it’s important to remember that venues have a powerful effect in defining people’s view of ‘who they run with’.)

Flagship stores are an excellent way for a strong brand to take up presence in a new market and to make an immediate statement. Their very presence – even the announcement of their intended presence – shows confidence, commitment and showmanship. They epitomise Sir Philip Green’s call to “romance your customers”. But the financial implications of establishing such a store are significant and should not be taken lightly. It’s tempting to be swayed by the potential visitation numbers, particularly for a High Street site. But plenty of people who are “just looking” are no different in their bottom-line impact in a flagship environment than any other retail setting. So the flagship needs to work as an efficient and effective retail space alongside its role of being inspirational.

It’s critical that there is clear brand alignment and reinforcement between the flagship store and the other ways that the brand communicates. As I said earlier, a flagship should expand on a brand and provide a new sense of understanding. It must be in keeping with the look and feel of the retail experience and yet elevate that experience to a new level. If the look and feel is not aligned, at least in spirit, it can leave consumers confused or disappointed. Burberry’s Regent Street flagstore isn’t just the largest Burberry store in the world, it’s a place that Burberry itself describes as a meeting of the digital and physical worlds of the brand. The effect is Burberry 360.

Finally, the sheer volume of visitors and the expectations of consumers today for things new and exciting mean these stores require more frequent refreshing to remain interesting and redefining in term of the experiences they deliver. If you are looking at a flagship store, expect to refresh. Soon.

5 things to consider (in deciding whether to proceed with a flagship store)

  1. How important is a flagship to your consumer strategy? What does it add to the understanding of your brand that it doesn’t display already?
  2. How will you use the flagship store? Is the purpose to celebrate what you have to offer, to offer new interactions or to counter the strategies (or presence) of others?
  3. Who will you be targeting? What will they find there? How will that experience work for them?
  4. How does the flagship store fit with/reconcile with your physical and online presences? And where and why is it different?
  5. What will carry over from your flagship store to your other stores? How will that occur?

Photo of the Apple Glass Cube on Fifth Venue, taken by A. Strakey, sourced from Flickr

Does your brand have touchpoints? Really?

By Mark Di Somma

Brand touchpoints

Every brand manager would like to believe that the world will love their brand. Given how much time, energy and experience they pour into trying to make that happen, that seems like a reasonable hope. But, as Douglas Van Praet observes in a recent Fast Company article, consumers are far from inclined to feel that way. “The human truth is no one wants to connect emotionally to your brand … People want to be [led] to a better life not bond with companies.”

We could debate whether people want to be led at all, but there’s little dispute that, in the light of this idea, brand loyalty is probably not what most brand managers have talked themselves into believing it is. If Van Praet is right, consumers are not loyal to a brand. Not really. Buyers are most loyal to the feeling that a brand evokes in them and in those around them. The emotion sways them. Perhaps the company reassures them, but it’s the feeling they keep coming back for.

Loyalty is connected with the hopes people have for their lives, not the companies themselves. People are inclined towards stories and ideas and changes that brands articulate that stimulate them and that attract their interest. All of this flies in the face of how brand managers rationalise what they do: that people identify with the brand; that awareness evokes loyalty and familiarity generates action. The thing is, maybe buyers aren’t really looking for the company when they look for the logo – perhaps they’re looking for a sign that the emotion they treasure is present.

This further suggests that brands that communicate but fail to bond people to ideas may not have achieved anything like the levels of loyalty that they think they have. They may get a response – but if Van Praet is right that response is triggered by other reasons: convenience; price; happenstance … Buyers may be moved by a stimulus to act. That does not mean they are hooked into the brand. Contact, even action, is not persuasion.

A brand can reach. But that doesn’t mean they have touched. Most channels aren’t actually touchpoints at all. They’re reach points.

Hilton Barbour has this equation that says it all: Value = impact. If we apply Van Praet’s observation that must mean: Value (for me) = Impact (for me). Hilton continues – “Contribution is just another word for impact … and impact is another way to measure value”. By extension, brands that don’t contribute to the lives of their customers (through purpose, experiences, story, behaviours) fail to make a lasting impact and therefore cannot have lasting value.

Three questions:

  1. Forget where are you? Ask: why are you? What do you offer to give people who buy from you that they value (emotionally)?
  2. What impact do you have on their lives and the world they care about that other brands don’t?
  3. What’s your greatest hope for them as people? And is it a hope they share?

We’ve tended to see purpose as a directional and ethical compass for companies – the North Star that guides what they aim for, what they consider acceptable, what they judge to be right internally. It’s been associated with the softer, more human side of culture. But perhaps the opportunity for organisations lies in the fact that, increasingly, it’s also the only side with loyalty painted on it; it’s the only part that actually touches consumers. It’s the brands that articulate a view of life and for life that people bond with. Everything else is just messages. Everything else is just stuff from companies.

You can be a big brand, a known brand, a brand that people encounter and have contact with wherever they go. But from Van Praet’s viewpoint, if you think that’s enough, it’s not. Because that’s not what kindles and sustains the relationship. Consumers are not buying your brand just to have something in their life. They’re buying your brand to feel something in their life. The minute you stop contributing to that, you start losing value in their eyes. Yes, you’re still reaching them. But now, they have less and less reasons to stay in touch.

Photo of “Facebook Connections” taken by Michael Coghlan, sourced from Flickr



How to avoid short-selling your brand story

By Mark Di Somma

How to avoid short-selling your story
I’m dismayed by how frequently the conversation around content seems to devolve to quantity and tactics. That’s hardly surprising in some ways because of course the two are quickly linked. When everyone’s using the same tactics, quantity starts to look like the only differentiator.

Too many brands are in love with frequency. But you don’t build a deep and storied brand purely by posting and retweeting with gusto. Roel De Vries summed it up really well in an interview with Jennifer Rooney when he said that the biggest challenge facing marketers in his opinion was getting all the opportunities available to brands to drive up to something bigger. The risk, he says, is that brand managers go after shiny objects and measure them by things that are not important to customers.

Nissan’s countering that temptation, he continues, by setting its storylines, by deciding what it’s not going to talk about as much as what it is, and by adopting a longer term view. “If you go after clever ideas,” he says, “there’s a lot you can do, but it probably won’t lead to anything bigger.”

I agree completely. Story is more than random content. In a world replete with content, what really counts is the content that systematically and insightfully builds your long story.

Photo of “12/2013 The Headline is Hot”, taken by Steven, sourced from Flickr



Why brand management will replace marketing

By Mark Di Somma

Why brand management will replace marketing

P&G’s decision to formally end the era of “marketing” at the company and make the shift to brand management may accelerate what amounts to much more than a title change for marketers generally. To me, it could point to a fundamental re-examination of the role of the people responsible for brands.

While “marketing” and “brand management” are often treated as synonyms, there is an important distinction between the two terms. Marketing focuses on the activities associated with the promotion and distribution of products and services. Brand management has, for many, been historically focused on identity management but is now much more concerned with the active management of the market value and competitive strength of a brand as an (intangible) company asset.

Marketing is about spending money. It’s how brands accumulate value. Brand management should focus on how products continue to wrap story and distinction around what they offer to increase competitiveness and build loyalty. The two are linked – but different. Marketing is the means. Brand management should be the goal.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the break-away from a pure marketing function should come from the company that pioneered brand management itself. According to Eric Schulz, P&G were the first to recognise, and act on, the cannibalisation risk of their own portfolio approach. “By distinguishing the qualities of each brand from all other P&G brands, each would avoid competing with one another by targeting different consumer markets with a different set of benefits,” he explains. “This was especially important in product categories that the company manufactured several competing brands, like laundry detergent.”

P&G is still renowned for its deeply product-centric approach. No surprises. On any given day, around the world, three billion people will interact with a Procter & Gamble brand.

But the decision to now move on from having marketing directors (a term P&G have been using since 1993 and that itself replaced the term “advertising directors”) indicates to me that for a scaled house of brands, the competition to ‘stand for something’ might be increasingly globally rather than regionally driven and that the focus could be shifting away from promoting products to driving up overall perceived value of the brands individually and as a portfolio.

In time that has the potential to shift the criteria for success. Marketing goals are often measured in volume and sales. When you think about brands as assets however, success becomes a broader idea and the focus is less on how they are being managed and much more on why they are being managed – for the contribution they make to the balance sheet.

To me, a future responsibility of the CMO (and a very good reason to improve relations with the finance team) lies in directing how brand managers help to appreciate these assets; how they lift not just topline value through demand generation but also underlying overall corporate value. According to CoreBrand, companies like P&G are only now starting to realise that they are leaving billions of dollars in potential corporate brand value on the table by not directly linking their corporate brand to the collective brand equity value of their portfolios. CEO James Gregory makes the point that, “When done well, corporate branding and product branding should appear seamless. I predict the next ten years will see spectacular combined campaigns from the leading consumer companies. P&G’s “Thanks Mom” campaign … was just the beginning of this trend.” His opinion reinforces my own view that in order to gain the most value from their brands, companies need to tell all their stories.

All of these motivations are conjecture in the case of P&G. I have no way of knowing if any of these agendas is behind their decision. But there are some things that seem much more certain. Total value will overtake revenue as a key driver for brand teams; advertising is still important, but not as singular to the role as it used to be; and collaboration (even some level of integration) with the data and finance teams seems highly likely. Add in mobility … and things at the bottom of the tea cup really start to cloud over. The ripple effects of those changes, and the many others we haven’t even anticipated yet, will in turn evolve how brands are strategised and what and where they communicate.

Here’s the good news. If your current role is in marketing, there’s probably no huge rush to change your business cards. Brand management may be the emerging black, but it still has some way to go in terms of widespread traction. Observes Ad Age, “P&G seems well out in front of the rest of the marketing world — or what used to be known as the marketing world — on this. A search on LinkedIn shows nearly 73,000 marketing directors and associate marketing directors … but only 1,350 brand directors or associate/assistant brand directors.”

Photo of “Another place” taken by Fiona McAllister, sourced from Flickr


Could CMOs be doing more with stories?

By Mark Di Somma

Doing more with storiesMarketers are busy talking up the value of telling the stories of their brands. But why aren’t more organisations structuring their own strategies and issues as stories, and what role are marketers taking in making that happen?

As the lines between disciplines continue to merge and as the demands on CMOs continue to escalate and the timeframes within which they are expected to achieve noticeable change continue to shrink, perhaps we need to step back and evaluate not just what CMOs do, how and when, but what they contribute to the overall strategy that others can’t and why that matters.

In a very enjoyable article, Jack Trout offered his views on what it takes for a CMO to succeed today.

1. The CMO’s role is to understand the competition, where the brand sits in relation to those competitors and what their weaknesses are.
2. Build a strategy on a simple idea that clearly positions the brand and that the brand has earned the right to own.
3. Create campaigns that report to the strategy, not just ideas that win awards and entertain.
4. Convince colleagues, particularly the CEO, to invest in a long story
5. Use all the platforms the brand can afford to tell that story, and tell a version of the story on every platform.

Trout’s five point guide makes great sense, but I was drawn to one particular comment in the piece: “Good marketing is good storytelling.” It got me thinking about the journeys that are used to describe how great stories happen, and in particular CMI’s Brand Hero’s Journey.

If indeed marketing is about storytelling, then brands need to be assessing their own actions within the context of a narrative and not just pushing stories for their brands out into the marketplace. I can’t help feeling that at least part of the role of the CMO today is to storify the organisation’s own strategy.

That might suggest CMOs manage the crafting of two parallel storylines: the narrative surrounding the organisation’s journey (the push element); and the stories that consumers hear from the brand that convinces them to believe in the brand and its competitive value in market (the pull element).

Rather than setting CMOs a set of tasks, it seems to me, brands might be better served setting their CMOs roles in a set of chapters in the journey – to take place over a certain time with agreed outcomes and within a set budget. Essentially this shifts a fundamental question.

From: How will marketing help us achieve our organisational targets?
To: Where are we in our own story, what is likely to happen next and what can marketing do alongside others to help make that happen?

This might also change the role of the CMO from the historic job description of brand overseer and advertising commissioner to one that David Wheldon, head of brand reputation and citizenship at Barclays Group, describes in this article as a mix of “art, science and magic”. Marketing spend becomes the means, not the end. And the role of communication agencies and colleagues is to work with the CMO to help the organisation navigate each chapter.

It also significantly shifts the contribution of the CMO from one of spending money for the strategy to one of reframing the strategy for a wider audience (adapting it if you will). If, as Trout has suggested before, the role of the CEO is to be the chief storyteller, then it follows that the role of the CMO is to be the chief story writer (at least from a brand perspective) – the person who introduces the characters, twists, turns and journeys needed to answer the ongoing question “And then what happens?” Within the organisation. And for the customers.

The reason why this story-ing role should fall to the CMO and not to other parts of the organisation again comes back to Trout’s point about what makes good marketing. No-one in the organisation should be more qualified to understand the nature and structure of powerful stories. But everyone, from HR with their take on people dynamics to operations with their views on how things work can help solve each situation that the organisation finds itself in.

One interesting aside to close. When you frame strategies as stories rather than numbers with commentary, change becomes the most natural thing in the world, because all stories need change, often dramatic change, in order to move them forward.

Photo of “Latticework” taken by Sergei Golyshev, sourced from Flickr

The different scales (and values) of talk

By Mark Di Somma

The different scales of talk
“Everybody’s talking at me. I don’t hear a word they’re saying,” observed Harry Nilsson in 1969. 45 years on, it seems a lot of people are still not listening – but brands should be. New findings from Gallup suggest marketers may be pinning the wrong hopes on social media.

Whilst brand owners and managers continue to view Facebook and Twitter as opportunities to increase visibility and interaction, consumers are much less swayed. In fact, “Social media are not the powerful and persuasive marketing force many companies hoped they would be,” concludes the report, with just 5% of consumers surveyed saying that social media exerts a great deal of influence on them, and a clear majority (62%) saying it has no influence on how or what they buy at all.

Even allowing for the fact that some consumers may refuse to acknowledge, or to realise, that they are ‘swayed’ by media, there’s a clear message here that brands and consumers are operating at cross purposes. Whilst Gallup finds that more than 90% of consumers are connected to a social media channel to connect with family and friends, that connection does not extend to companies and/or their products. And while companies may view social channels as large fishing grounds within which to hook new customers, consumers are neither motivated to switch or to recommend a new brand on the basis of social media presence alone.

I was intrigued by this observation. “Social media entail just a fragment of a consumer’s experience with a company. Customers are much more likely to be active listeners and participants in a brand’s social media community when they have already made an emotional connection with that brand through other experiences.” That finding flies in the face of much of what we hear so often – that social media attracts and draws people into the sales funnel. This suggests that social media functions much more as a channel for those who are already converted, often by interactions elsewhere. It would seem we need to be thinking about a much more nuanced approach to social media where, perhaps, brands take up conversations socially that consumers have already begun amongst themselves offline.

I’ve argued for some time that brands have been looking for the wrong sort of proof in the social media space because they have sought evidence they are comfortable with rather than the reassurances that consumers are looking for. So whilst companies want their ROI to be return on investment, consumers are looking for return on inclusion – what they get back for including these brands in their world.

Content per se is not inclusion. Nor are tweets, promotions, coupons or videos. Nor are they “conversations”. Too much of the time they’re actually more noise. Yet a bit like CSR, organisations have sold themselves a meaning for what they’re doing that is at odds with what the world wants them to do.

The problem as I see it is that brands have confused the context. Just because they are in the same space as consumers and even in the same environment as those interactions does not mean for one moment that they enjoy the same level of familiarity. Most social media advertising activity is still interruption-based, no matter how politely it’s dressed up to try and look like something else. It’s an old model. And an old model, even when it takes place on a modern channel, is still an old model.

While some will no doubt argue about aspects of the report’s findings, Gallup’s conclusion is sobering: “The potential of social media is still being debated … there is potential in social media that is not directly related to sales revenue”. Social media is perhaps more intangible in its effect than how it has been promoted. The numbers may be trackable and accountable, but the numbers may not actually mean anything in terms of subsequent consumer behaviours.

Consumers and brands have been talking past each other socially and I suspect that’s because brands have sought to categorise all discussion and interaction as talk whereas this study seems to affirm my own view that talk operates at different scales and that people react, and interact, with those different scales of talk in different ways and value them quite differently.

I’ve identified three levels (and values) of talk:

  • Smalltalk – the background chatter that takes place around us all day, in our working lives, in our social lives and of course online makes up the bulk of the social media volume according to the report. Increasingly, this traffic is just part of the noise of living so while it’s huge in terms of volume it’s irrelevant in terms of context if you’re a buyer. To a marketer the numbers make this level of talk look very attractive. But the scale is in direct contrast to the propensity for engagement.
  • Rich talk – the valuable and valued conversations that take place between interested parties. There are far fewer of these interactions but they are a positive and conducive atmosphere for brands to liaise with buyers. As the Gallup report suggests though, marketers have a lot more work to do to cement how online and offline channels work together to make this level of talk occur successfully. Critical to success are motivated advocates who promote the brand to people who trust them and encouraging people who love the brand to talk amongst themselves. Ritz-Carlton’s decision to downsize its Facebook community to encourage richer discussion rather than greater reach is an example of this approach in action.
  • Big talk – the “huge” topics of interest that trend across social media globally take in everything from the latest scandal to celebrities to sporting events. Once again, these activities attract huge audiences – even if their attention time varies greatly. There are powerful opportunities for brands in these contexts but they are very different from the rich talk environments above. The opportunities revolve around association and the credibility, particularly for scaled brands, in being seen on a global stage. Disney and the NBA also use the large-scale social media communities that form around their activities to inform their businesses, but in very different ways. Disney tracks likeability. The NBA pushes people towards watching the games and also to check inclination. Importantly, both approaches are checking trends and interest rather than looking to convert.There are also significant traps in seeking to be part of this level of talk. The key trap is one of ego – to believe, once again, that because your brand is present in this context, it is automatically part of, and benefitting from, the surrounding talk. Not so. At worst brands in this context subsidise the real action through their marketing.

8 things to talk about

The temptation is still to believe that presence is participation, and that a presence is better than no presence. I argue that a presence may actually be diluting where a brand should be present and therefore can be counter-productive. Here’s my checklist for deciding whether to talk or walk in situations. Interestingly it applies to a full range of activities – from advertising in social platforms to choosing your sponsorships.

1. Whose talking – and what are they talking about?
2. What level of talk are they engaged in? Is there a place for you here?
3. If you have a place here, how do you add to the conversation?
4. What viewpoint do you bring to the environment that interests the consumer?
5. How are you engaged? Are you talking with, talking to, or talking at?
6. How does what you’re saying add to the overall discussion?
7. How does what you’re saying extend what they’ve already heard about you?
8. What do you want them to do next – and why would they?

Photo of “Exploring the Upper World” taken by Hartwig HKD, sourced from Flickr

Brands and the power of secrets

By Mark Di Somma

The power of secrets

Ten years ago, Don Tapscott and David Ticoll’s book “The Naked Corporation” foresaw a time of transparency in which businesses would find themselves more visible and subject to greater scrutiny. They were on the money. But in an age where everyone is more inclined to talk a lot louder and a lot more frequently, have brands reached a point of “too much information”? Do brands risk being so familiar that people feel they know them too well? Will over-familiarisation work against the marques of tomorrow?

Perhaps we need to bring back a little secrecy … but only to make brands more inviting and exciting. Perhaps more brands should be looking for ways to be intriguing and to offer something that rewards curiosity. That’s not easy in a world where Tapscott and Ticoll’s forecast has proven remarkably accurate. Yet some brands have used secrets to successfully preserve an air of mystery. Three types of “secrets” spring to mind:

Secret formulae – there’s something fascinating about a brand that has something to share with everyone, the basis of which nobody knows. From the Google algorithm to the secret recipes of Coke and KFC, these secrets juxtapose in view/out of view in ways that make the formula even more interesting. Deciphering the decisions of the Google search-gods continues to keep a lot of people in work. Curiously, only brands that have built high trust and high participation are likely to get away with such secrets in these days of food safety and privacy concerns. But secrets work in this context because they add to the mythology of the brand.

Secrets in progress – in an age where “seeding” of products can now start literally years in advance of release day, there’s something to be said for keeping things closer to one’s chest. The ultimate exponent of this approach of course is Apple which has perfected the art of getting everyone to speculate, thus maintaining interest, without revealing what exactly is in development. Again, the Mac rumour mill keeps a lot of people very busy. This approach works when you have in demand brand with huge intrigue factor. While everyone else jostles for space and priority, Cupertino has gone out of its way to be circumspect.

Secret brands – at the other end of the scale game, some cult brands are masters of ‘in the know’ marketing. These are the undergrounds brands that don’t publicise; that you only learn about because someone tells you – and that hold their credibility because they are perceived as authentic, unorthodox and outspoken. They can be so elusive that I sometimes refer to this as “speakeasy” branding. If you don’t knock, you may never know they’re there. It can be a very successful approach if you want to target a specific community or lifestyle because the brand becomes something shared between the few – just like the perfect secret. Think hip hop clothing brands … A word of caution though. These are very hard brands to scale, because the challenge with expanding a secret into a range is that hardcore fans will inevitably accuse you of selling out.

And the future of secrets? What other opportunities might brands have to cultivate fascination in an open world?

Perhaps one avenue lies in the development of secret stories. As storytelling evolves to long story formats, it’s inevitable in my view that brands will segment their storylines to reward loyal consumers with more immersive experiences and greater “access” to intriguing aspects of their narrative. Like the backstage pass, stories will stratify. There will be the public story that everyone hears and gets to know the brand through; and then deeper and more specific aspects of the story that reveal more precious details, rewarding loyal customers with insights that add to their appreciation of the brand’s value and history.

Treasure hunts are another option. Secrets work because of our very human wish to get closer; to know more and have different and more personal experiences than others do. Starbucks Secret Menu is a word-of-mouth initiative intended to add exclusivity through knowledge. As its name suggests, the items are not immediately on offer. Customers must specifically ask for them, and to do that they need to “find” the name of the secret drink.

How to build a secrets strategy

Before you take your brand secret, there’s some things you need to have very clear:

  1. If you’re a brand that the whole world, or at least the world that matters to you, already knows, what can you tell/share with/offer some of your customers that no-one else knows … yet?
  2. Who will you tell/share with/offer? Why would they want to know? (Why don’t they know already?)
  3. Who will they tell – and how will that help your brand?
  4. How long can the secret last? What’s its “go public” date? Who will tell the world then?
  5. What can you not share – ever? How can you make that intriguing (and reassuring?)
  6. What does your secret say about you? (that you do want everyone to talk about)

Photo of “Top Secret” taken by Michelangelo Carrieri, sourced from Flickr






Brand audiences – talking to the people who don’t buy

By Mark Di Somma

Talking to the people who don't buy
Marketers tend to think of their customers only as those people who purchase their brands – and to distinguish them from people who don’t buy any more or who haven’t bought yet. However, in a world where all manner of consumers are connected, it’s important to pay attention to a number of other groups that have influence but may not necessarily be in the aisles.

Let’s start with the unsung heroes. Supporters add critical mass to tacit approval rather than the bottom line. While they may not have their wallets out, they sanction (or at the very least don’t disapprove) of your presence in the market and what your brand represents. Perhaps they visit your site and/or subscribe to your blog. Maybe they read articles about you in the press. They’re out there nodding and agreeing with others who are supportive of your brand. They may come to your defence in the comments section when someone has a go at you … and for the most part, they’re untraceable.

So often I hear marketers talk about a wish to raise awareness but they then look to relate it directly to conversion to sales. It’s tempting to forget that conversion for supporters will not manifest itself that way (at least not yet – and maybe not ever). However, their positive opinion adds to a brand’s overall market credibility and reputation. Supporters bring good-standing that adds authority and respect for your brand. Corporate advertising, sponsorships, philanthropic initiatives and community support are excellent ways to stay in front of these people and to remind them that you remain worthy of their approval.

The second group are less predictable – a foil in many ways to supporters (and a strong reason to have a supportive community on your side). Opinion holders break down into three sub-groups: criticisers; reviewers; and influencers. Criticisers are out to bring you down. Whatever their beef, their determination is to point out your shortfalls at every opportunity. They matter because they spread a lot of negative energy, and while not engaging provides them with free reign, engaging with them the wrong way can easily see you painted as a corporate bully. Reviewers are important because the experiences they share can be so influential, particularly to prospects. Peer-to-peer trust is a rising trend online, with this report indicating that more and more consumers are relying on these sites not just for reviews of goods but even professional services.

Social platforms are the make-or-break channels to communicate with these groups using messages that are fast, clear and specific. I’ve identified several layers of response.

1. Publicly thank those people who are positive about you through social media and use their comments to invite others to experience the brand. This provides endorsers with recognition and puts their good word to work for your brand.

2. Actively moderate comments on your own real estate to filter out trollers, spammers and haters because of the influence that their comments can have and because it makes no sense to provide a platform for unreasonable people to make unreasonable statements. To me, it’s a respect thing and nothing to do with freedom of speech.

3. If someone does criticise your brand, either on your site or elsewhere, I like this advice from the Future Simple blog on when you should respond.
• There was a misunderstanding or error that you can correct;
• You owe someone an apology – in which case, make it public;
• You can help someone else (even a competitor) who is being unfairly targeted (and hope that they’ll do the same for you);
• You can use humour to defuse a situation, share a joke or poke the borax back at someone trying to mock you.

Monitoring and responding to criticisers and reviewers on social channels is not about conversion. It’s about protecting your wider reputation by engaging in honest interaction.

Influencers are the word of mouth channel-du-jour because of the sway they are seen to hold over large social communities but in a thought-provoking article about the 4Ms of influence marketing, Danny Brown argues that we should be rethinking how influencers are identified and viewed. We have tended, he suggests, to see influencers as a filter through which decisions pass in a linear manner. We have judged their importance essentially on their influencer scores. In point of fact, brands should be assessing who the customer speaks to, when and what happens as a result. In other words, influencers should be identified on the basis of what happens, and that is not about what takes place in large forums but rather the much more specific conversations that take place between more immediate social circles.

The approach of targeting influencers is all wrong, Brown concludes. “Public scores and amplified messages may present one way to look at influence; but without action being taken that goes beyond blog posts and social shares … is it really influence or simply a hit and hope tactic?”

If Brown is right, then the influencers that you should be most concerned about are the ones your customers pay attention to rather than those that attract the greatest followings. By finding out what customers are talking to these people about, you may well be able to adjust your buyer-focused communications to make important points directly as well.

The third audience are investors. Many marketers, particularly of consumer goods, don’t think to engage with the people who’ve invested in their stock. They miss out on what Mike Tisdall refers to as a great opportunity to “bond [investors] with the brand”. I think they’re an important audience for two reasons. First of all, their reactions, or anticipated reactions etc can heavily influence the inclinations of executives. Secondly, they are often an untapped buying audience because of course they have a natural motivation for purchasing from the company they have shares in.

My recommendation? Sprinkle consumer messages alongside investor messages to give investors a wider context for retaining shares – for example, include highlights of your latest campaign on the investor website, make them investor-only offers on Facebook, offer them special deals or provide exclusive events at shareholder meetings. The objective here is to widen the halo; to pass some of what makes you competitive as a brand on to the people who fund you to compete.

With the proliferation of channels, there’s no reason to think that the need for interaction will abate. The critical reminder point is that brands must make the effort to hold extended conversations as part of their demand generation strategies – because the conversations they don’t have will, in all likelihood, have a significant effect not just on sales but on reputation and inclination. It’s a key reason why I think marketing, communications, sales and systems also need to group themselves, and perform, as integrated relationship teams (to a range of parties) rather than separate functions.

Photo of “flying people” taken by Martin Fisch, sourced from Flickr

Behind the new shop window: the real online shopping challenge for brands

By Mark Di Somma

Making people more interested in your brand is one challenge. Making them more loyal is quite another.

Shop windowThe widespread availability of plate glass in the second half of the 19th century gave retail store owners the technology required to begin constructing windows that ran the full length of their street-fronts. According to Zada, it didn’t take long for department stores in particular to spot the advantages of showing off what they had inside. In 1874, Macy’s upped the ante by creating a holiday window display featuring porcelain dolls from around the world. As major retailers gravitated to major cities and competition between them increased, the displays in their stores also became more elaborate.

140 years on from that first holiday window display, retailers are still looking for ways to entice people to visit – except now the windows are digital as well as physical and the stores too are just as likely to be online. And in this world of the increasingly mobile consumer, timing is everything according to this new study. Just as display artists sought to stop people in their tracks and to lure them inside, moments-based marketers are using offers to tempt online passers-by their way. The study found that consumers respond to rewards (no surprises there) but the real shift in inclination comes when those rewards arrive at a moment when people are most engaged and receptive. Think of this as an “experience halo” in effect. While you’re here. Using the energy of an experience to propel buyers into making a further commitment in exchange for something that feels good right now.

It sounds like a big data dream. Track the behaviour patterns so that you know where people are likely to be and what they are likely to be doing, then deliver offers, rewards and ideas that ensure everyone gets a little uplift at the time they feel most inclined. Maybe that’s a tactical challenge for marketing in the years ahead. Not just reaching buyers. But connecting with them at a time when they are most impulsive.

There’s little doubt that as brands become more responsive in their approach to an increasingly mobile consumer base, the tactics that have worked so well elsewhere will be further adapted for new marketing use. Expect more moment-focused “specials”, with screens as the time-sensitive revolving shop windows and swipes as the new traffic lanes pulling buyers deeper and deeper into online environments to browse.

But then what? Engaging buyers via rewarding tactics may pull people in, even keep them in, and yield a whole lot of feel-good metrics but for me that should be just the beginning of a much more important and challenging journey – the transit from the shopper as magpie (attracted by shiny little objects) to the person who shops as, and identifies themselves as, a loyal customer.

Unless you have earned loyalty, you are relying on impulse (albeit based on sophisticated patterning via serious number crunching) as your brand’s principal motivator. And the risk there is that in the rush to entice the next behaviour, you forget to get buyers to commit, or you mistake sequential behaviours for commitment. They’re not – and here’s why. Being committed to the brand and enjoying the extra rewards along the way is a very different headspace for a consumer than only enjoying the brand when there are rewards to be had.

Have a pretty window (physical and digital) by all means. Fill it with jewels. Reveal more momentary rewards to keep buyers interested. But don’t stop there. Keep asking “Now where do the brand-crumbs lead?” There’s some nice thinking on this point at the ever-thoughtful Emotive Branding blog.

Photo of “D&G Saigon” taken by @Saigon, sourced from Flickr

Developing a re-liking strategy

By Mark Di Somma

Strategies for unpopular brands
Some brands and some sectors have baggage. They’re seen as bad. Or they have a reputation for behaving badly. Or they are still trying to win back confidence after a disaster. Or they’re part of a sector that people don’t like. Or a segment of the population would like them to go away. For whatever reason they can’t seem to convince their detractors that they have good intentions. Critics love to hate on them. They attack these brands for what they sell, what they support, what they don’t support, what they say or don’t say. They cast doubt on their motivations. They draw attention to their shortfalls … I have no problem with this in one sense. The right to examine and critique is a sign of a robust democracy. So is the right to dissent.

But the receiving end of that negativism is a scary place to be if you’re a CEO or a brand manager and the thought of being in the crossfire, or the expense and impact of the experience itself, has tended to prompt a range of set-plays from brands in ‘sensitive’ sectors.

• Some brands withdraw. In essence, they go offline. Or they restructure their way out of the limelight. Or they push their product brands (that no-one associates with them) further into the market and close out their corporate presence to public view.

• Some brands fight. They throw money and marketing muscle at getting coverage for their side of the story. Stepping forward, they put themselves in the media and duke it out. Or they look to right the “wrong” messages by re-quantifying the impact they have or by pointing out that what they are doing is legal or by highlighting the ramifications if they were not allowed to do what they do or by stating that this is a rights issue.

• Some brands dodge. They hit the opaque button and initiate strategies to confuse, fudge, downplay, delay, avoid, deny and/or frustrate.

• Some sectors redefine. They accuse critics (activists and/or the NGOs) of a beat up and of holding them to reputational ransom. They then look to set standards for their own behaviours that they believe are reasonable and practical, and they point to the economic and wider benefits that their activity bestows. They then report back against the standards that they have set.

I’ve spoken with a number of brand managers about why brands that feel besieged act in these ways, and the response I hear most often is that they feel they need to defend themselves, they need to counter the personal and professional attacks that come their way and that the critics are over-simplifying situations, deliberately misrepresenting actions or simply out to get them. These perceptions quickly lead to a feeling of being put upon and a wish to put the record straight.

Completely understandable from their point of view. But for the most part, none of the reactions above works to change attitudes – in the sense that none of them convinces anyone to alter their view of the brand in question. That’s because often these strategies are based on reputational management rather than reputational disruption – on dealing with kerfuffles and highlighting trivia rather than addressing the dilemmas. Responses, not solutions. Rebuttal, not conversation.

Some of these approaches were more effective when the people who had the media had the floor. Now everyone has platforms, the media are much more fragmented and headlines are the new link bait.

One of the key reasons people are so hostile to brands they’ve decided they don’t like is because they then deem them to be self-serving, greedy, extremist and close-minded. The instinct of every marketer working for these brands is to negate this; to look for ways to turn those attitudes around. To a sceptic, of course, what comes back sounds too good to be true. Or at least to be the whole truth. Because, of course, too much of it is. It’s simply counter-argument.

You don’t fight a reputation for being “bad” by just telling people you’re good. Or that you’ve done good. Or that you will do good. Or by claiming to be less “bad” than the other guy. You fight a reputation for “bad” by revealing that there’s things you’re grappling with, that you’re human, that the issues are complicated, that you are open to suggestions and that you are prepared to be uncomfortably honest and that you are looking for opportunities to make changes where you can.

That prompts three questions:
Who should a brand try to convince?
What should they try to convince them of?
And what are the best ways for them to do so?

Let’s assume for the sake of this post that a brand sincerely wants to do something to improve its relationships with stakeholders and to talk about the issues that people are clearly concerned about. If you’re the manager of such a brand, where do you even start to deal with the ill-feeling that the very mention of your brand name generates? How do you stop people shutting down before you’ve even opened your mouth?

I’d start here. Answer this question honestly: Where’s the hurt? (What gets people so wound up about you?) Is it what you do, what you sell, who you are or who you’ve been? And how do people know that? What are they being told, by whom and why? Hold those answers.

Next, I would look to get agreement internally on three simple principles:

• “Let’s be considerate but not weak. Let’s agree to truly listen and to consider what we are being told with open minds. Let’s weigh up arguments as they are presented to us and do so as impartially and fairly as possible. But let’s also agree that we won’t be swayed by political convenience or ferocity of dissonance into cowering or being insincere because it feels better to do so.”

• “Let’s separate the reasonable from the unreasonable. Let’s get very good at distinguishing signals and noise. And let’s have clear criteria for doing that, that are not self-serving. Let’s be sound critics as well as responsible defenders of our own actions.”

• “Let’s treat objections as opportunities. Let’s look for ways to actually absorb the good points that our critics are making about our sector and our business (not just the ones that we are already tackling or the ones we feel comfortable about) and let’s present those as challenges for our innovation programmes to solve.”

Then I would look to build relationships with those who are open to listening to what the brand has to say, as follows:

1. Find the fundamental point you all agree on. Identifying points of agreement gives people a linking point with you and encourages at least some level of dialogue rather than blank dismissal. This isn’t about spinning. It is what it appears to be – a search for common ground. State that idea as your greatest goal. (Chances are this should also be the basis for your purpose.) Don’t be dismayed if this point seems at a very high level. At least when you find this you have a point of agreement – a starting point for conversation.

2. Internally, negotiate two sets of rules around that fundamental point. First – what your commitment to that point means you will look to do. Second – what you can’t (now) do in good faith because of that commitment.

3. Publish those commitments – and invite discussion. Then listen. Treat the feedback you get as input not criticism. Engage with those groups who are looking for real outcomes (not just a fight) and treat those engagements the way you would negotiations. Raise the challenges you receive with your innovation team. Work with others to find real answers.

4. Set the bar high. Go after the real knotty problems not the easy wins or the things you already have answers for. Identify the elephants in the room, explain the complications, show why these aren’t easy things to solve and talk about why they actually need to be solved, by when and what the ramifications are if they aren’t solved.

5. Report on what you’re doing and where it’s getting you. Don’t just report the good you’re doing. Talk openly about what’s not working and why. Talk through what you are committed to putting right, and how you will do that. Discuss what continues to bother and challenge you. Open a forum for suggestions. Ask for help in solving the issue(s). Specify the stumbling points.

6. Don’t expect miracles. This isn’t a turn-around strategy. It’s a turn-with strategy. It’s a long-term, collaborative, refocusing of how a business or a sector functions in the world. Be prepared to change, really change. That’s not easy. If you’re genuine, this will raise questions that make everyone uncomfortable at some point. It will cause people to pause. It may lead to breakthroughs. It may not. If nothing else, it will make a brand/sector and consumers think more deeply about what is done and what is judged and why those opinions are held – and that’s not a bad thing. It’s certainly a lot better than shouting or ignoring one another.

Photo of “The bridges I burn will light my way home” taken by DieselDemon, sourced from Flickr


Tell all your brand’s stories

By Mark Di Somma

Tell all your brand's storiesMarketers often talk about story as if it is one thing. But brands with multiple stakeholders need to cater for different responses and priorities by streaming a range of stories to a range of audiences at different times. The reason is simple. The things that make a brand attractive in one context are different from what they might be in another context. Inclination changes, sometimes markedly, depending upon what people value.

For example, just because someone will buy from you doesn’t mean they’ll invest with you. And vice versa. Judging these to be very different audiences with very different interests and needs, companies have tended to separate – indeed silo – these stories and how they are told. The investment story has been put in the hands of the investor relations people; the brand story has been managed by the marketing team; culture has been the domain of HR. Each has presented their interpretation of what is important.

But there’s an opportunity here that I think is being missed – brands could leverage their stories more effectively and efficiently to present a more rounded view of who they are and what they offer. They could and should tell all their stories more cohesively. In his 2006 book Balanced Brand, John Foley discusses how companies need to align not just their own corporate values but also those of a significant range of stakeholders. As he rightly points out, bad things can happen to brands and their reputations when stakeholders who have not been adversely affected themselves nevertheless believe their values have been impinged by a brand’s behaviours.

Indeed, if they are to stream all their stories effectively, brands need to not only identify the different story streams (and who they appeal to) but also look for common reference points. Achieving equilibrium requires enough uniformity across the different streams to provide consistency whilst at the same time making each story stream specific and credible in its own right.

I’ve identified six streams of story:

1. Product – the story of what you sell is the story to consumers of why they should love what you offer. This story focuses on desirability and distinction. It explains why your products or services should receive priority of pocket and loyalty over rivals.

2. Leadership – the story of how and where you lead is often circulated through the media and addresses influence, attention and innovation. Brands with strong leadership stories are newsworthy and interesting because they are the opinion makers. These are the brands breaking stories that turn heads their way.

3. Culture – this is the story of how you work. It spells out what all your people agree on and where you are going together. At its best, this story inspires and guides sometimes vast numbers of people spread across huge areas to work together in ways that are galvanising and rewarding.

4. Community – the story of who you choose to interact with and what you choose to converse with them about. Every brand works with a range of communities – through its various sponsorships, philanthropic activities and online – and each community must see within that story aspects that are specific and important to them. The choice of communities and the nature of the interaction speak volumes.

5. Ethics – the story of how you work. Reputation is now dependent on more factors than ever. Ethics has tended to encompass environmental impacts and supply chain integrity, but the criteria are widening to now include diversity and safety. These are important storylines for regulators and government.

6. Investment – this is the story of how you are funded and what you return. The emphasis of the story will depend on how you are owned (publicly listed, private equity, VC, private ownership) because the story needs to revolve around the performance and reporting expectations of investors.

To be fair, there has been greater amalgamation of story streams in recent times. Brands increasingly recognise that they need to tell their story from the inside out – meaning they need to have their culture aligned with their intentions and agreed on behaviours before they make significant changes to their offerings. In the search for talent, brands have also linked their credentials as a good employer to their initiatives as a “good citizen”. Companies are now tending to incorporate more and more community and ethical aspects into the stories they exchange with investors.

But there are greater opportunities I believe to develop strong individual strands and bring these together in differing combinations. It seems to make sense for example to explain to investors how developing ground-breaking opinions (leadership) as a brand can literally pay dividends for them. It also makes sense that investors might want to pay closer attention to how the culture is being motivated to lift performance.

There’s also situations where the overall brand reputation could be upgraded by telling more of the product stories. Those stories could then be sync’d back to provide deeper, more nuanced perspectives for the brand overall.

Finding new and bold ways to connect the competitive, the altruistic, the ambitious, the social, the collective and the financial stories of a brand is really about treating the brand as an interdependent ecosystem; one that is perceptually independent of the way it is organised in terms of corporate structure. Such an approach reconciles and balances the priorities of different stakeholders with potentially very different agendas, providing a wider and richer context for conversation, opinion exchange and decision making. Most interestingly of all, it opens up the opportunity for previously unrelated storylines to work more closely together and therefore for brands to tell fuller stories overall.

Photo of “Meandering” taken by Mike Beauregard, sourced from Flickr



10 ways it pays to be an intermediary brand

By Mark Di Somma

How to succeed as an intermediary

Marketers and business writers have been talking for ages about disintermediation – cutting out the middle man – in a bid to achieve more direct and economically efficient relationships. But the battle between Hachette and Amazon reminds us there are still very powerful players mediating between customer and producer.

So, why in a world where direct contact seems so easy and where brands are so keen to cultivate communities do some intermediaries continue to thrive – and what lessons can others who stand between maker and end buyer learn from these successes?

Surprisingly perhaps, the answers to adding value as a bridging party in the digital age (and therefore not being squeezed out) seem to come down to three critical but very simple factors that still count for a lot: influence; time; and relationships.


1. Be the platform – these powerful intermediaries are aggrandisers. The brands that supply to them are stronger and more credible for being seen in their company than they would be if they went it alone. These intermediaries in essence act as platforms for the brands they support, elevating the value of everything associated with them. But whereas more traditional intermediaries look to stock and supply, these intermediaries treat their brands as assets and in magnifying their perceived value they also increase their worth. In so doing, they establish a ‘virtuous circle’, where the brands are more powerful for being in their company, and the company is famous for offering access – sometimes exclusive access – to these brands. Washington Speakers is a great example of the platform principle in action. If you are part of their stable, such exclusive membership is a credential in its own right.

2. Be the tastemaker – these intermediaries direct traffic often in competitive, crowded sectors. They cater to our very human nature to seek reassurance that we are making good decisions. Their verdicts – often crowd sourced – decide who others decide to go with. The obvious examples are review sites like TripAdvisor for anyone considering a trip. Other successes include those who’ve gathered expertise to provide readers with information they want but can’t easily access – e.g. Open Table for anyone looking to eat out. These intermediaries depend on their accumulated authority and of course the convenience of having many opinions in one place.


3. Be the landing page – these intermediaries act as timesaving destinations, particularly online, bringing people to a single place where they can gain access (and deals) that they could seek out individually but that would take so much more time. Amazon, iTunes, the App Store, Expedia and Ticketek are powerful examples of shortcut channels. On one level, these intermediaries add value through venue. They cut the “search cost” by being the landing page for their sector. More than that though, the intermediaries that are market leaders today often provide an element of curation that consumers are prepared to pay a margin for. There are also offline examples. Buyers swarm to Wholefoods because of the trust that they extend to that brand to ‘forage’ on their behalf for the freshest and most natural produce.


4. Decide what gets decided – through their algorithms, these channels provide the parameters within which millions of people have relationships and make decisions. Google, Facebook, Linked IN, dating sites and others sift through all the variations to present people with more manageable and relevant bases on which to manage aspects of their lives. From PageRank to articles that might interest us to prospective dates, these intermediaries give us a view of the world that presents as a great deal of choice. For those with a technical bent wanting more detail, this fascinating article lists 10 algorithms that have a significant effect on the running of our world.

5. Lead the new charge – intermediaries like Uber and Airbnb are changing how consumers work together to challenge old frameworks. Their role is both functional and emotional. Someone has to bring the new participants together and act as a meeting point. At a more impassioned level, these intermediaries are a rallying point, an inspiration if you will, for new ways of addressing old and frustrating problems. Brands in the collaborative economy exemplify both these roles. They act as collecting points for people and new actions and in so doing build a community of early adopters that has commercial value. Great article here on Uber’s effect on the taxi industry.

OK, I can hear some of you saying, that works well for big brands, but what are the implications for smaller players? How can they apply at least some of these principles to their advantage? Most middle players have now moved on from the interruption model of simply looking to stand between the parties and hand things through. Most have recognised that convenience, price, consolidation and networks are competitive features that will continue to deteriorate in value. Most have also seen that some level of advisory is now expected. So where to from here? Some options:

6. Become an authority in your area, but more than that, like the aggrandisers use those credentials to magnify the worth of what you stock. Look for ways to be a certain kind of what you do. Appeal to a particular and passionate market. Represent a specific interest or lifestyle. Make being in your store a sign that they have ‘made it’ for the supplier and a delight that they have ‘got it’ for the buyer. Don’t just be a destination. Be a status.

7. Guide buyers through busy and/or murky waters. Be the pilot. Present options. Mary Portas makes the excellent point that retail stores for example often focus too much time on stocking and not enough on filtering all the choices into manageable options.

8. Prudently (yet radically) expand your trust boundaries. If you are already known and trusted in a particular area, leverage that to invite customers into an adjunct sector that feels like a natural extension for them. The balance that needs to be struck here is to see past the predictable trends, so that your new offer doesn’t just look like the same ‘more of more’ as everyone else, but at the same time is not so lateral that consumers are left confused or concerned. Getting this right requires real discipline (right extension, right timing, right consumer, right margin) but offers exciting opportunities to reframe your relationships, refresh your value proposition and distance yourself from others.

9. Lead the conversation in new directions. While online has been seen by some as a significant threat to intermediation, there’s little doubt it also offers opportunities for some companies to make an impact with what they have to say. What’s the biggest frustration that consumers or sellers face? How can you reconcile their differences? Or is there distinction (and money) to be made in advocating for one side? If there’s no future in being everything to everyone, can you become everything to someone?

10. Shift the middle – don’t like where you’re positioned at the moment? Move. So many intermediaries don’t give enough thought to what would happen if they put themselves between different parties than those they stand between now. Here’s a counter-intuitive opportunity: look for a way to place yourself between parties that don’t trust each other or where there is low transparency. In such circumstances buyer and seller alike will value a reliable, trusted, accountable, efficient, neutral and updated platform through which they can trade.

In many ways the rules for success as an intermediary brand today are no different than they are for direct brands: deliver consumers things they want or need in interesting and streamlined ways that surpass how they might be accessed otherwise.

Photo of “Squeeze in the middle” taken by Patrick Feller, sourced from Flickr



Who’s your brand story working for?

By Mark Di Somma

Get a reactionSome marketers like to work forwards. Advertisers for example often tell a story and then wait to gauge the reaction they get. Direct marketers on the other hand start by quantifying a reaction (in the form of a return) and then craft a story to generate that response. What I’ve been discussing recently is whether some of the stories brands tell are too focused on what brands want to project about themselves and their world, and not focused enough on first identifying the specific reactions they need to be eliciting from their audience. Working back in other words. Wrapping a story around a response.

There’s no dispute that storytelling is a most effective mechanism for drawing people in. According to this article in Psychology Today, “the reality is that we’re hard-wired to find emotional stories with a strong narrative arc seductive”. In fact, psychologist Dr Uri Hasson and his team at Princeton University have found that when we’re listening to an engaging story, the response patterns in our brains become markedly similar to those of the story-teller’s. “In effect, you’re literally getting on the same wavelength as the narrator …”

So those brands that can encourage buyers to react in ways that feel most ‘right’ for them are likely to be the brands that consumers feel closest to. It’s logical to infer too that those reactions need to carry right through to the brand experiences people receive. In fact experiences should amplify reactions in order to lock in brand loyalty and repeat purchase.

By way of example, Disney tells stories filled with magic in order to generate a palpable feeling of wonder from its audiences. The experiences Disney provides at the box office, at its parks and at its live events then bring that sense of wonder alive. As a result, wonder is the benchmark reaction for Disney. A Disney story, film or experience that does not generate wonder is off-brand.

Here’s the ongoing challenge for Disney. As consumers become more accustomed to seeing and experiencing extraordinary things the bar for what generates wonder continues to rise. What was wonderful in 1955 was a lot less demanding, technically and experientially, than what audiences require today to be wow-ed. Which is why of course brands like Disney need to continue to evolve their stories and their experiences. The reaction may not change – but the requirements to achieve that reaction probably will.

So what sorts of reactions should brands be looking to provoke through their stories today? This recent article by Hazel Barkworth alludes to some of the reactions that consumers are likely to be drawn to in the years ahead:

1. The opportunity to feel involved – according to Barkworth, consumers are moving beyond single touch point experiences towards what she describes as “powerful story worlds with multiple strands of narrative on multiple platforms”.

2. The opportunity to feel efficient and organised – consumers want to feel smarter, that things are going faster and that they are being more responsible. The wish to have more is being replaced by a desire to see that they are getting more – more done, more quickly.

3. The opportunity to be creative – with the advent of technologies like 3D printing, Barkworth says, “Soon everyone will be a manufacturer, able to create what they want, when they want it.”

4. The chance to feel pampered – as the world closes in, and pressures continue to mount, escape will look more and more inviting and luxurious.

5. The opportunity to feel they are doing something meaningful – People want all aspects of their lives to be rich and full. They want to be able to derive depth and meaning from the things they choose to do. Brands, Barkworth says, will compete on their ability to deliver on the intensity of response that consumers crave.

Does your story make people feel one of those ways? Perhaps it provokes a different reaction but one that is just as strong, distinctive and personalised? Because if it doesn’t, what’s it doing?

Photo of “surround sound”, taken by Nathan Umstead, sourced from Flickr

Sustainability: Is your brand asking stakeholders to kiss the frog?

By Mark Di Somma

Sustainability commitments - kissing the frogThis analysis of the top 612 publicly traded companies reveals that while the conversation around responsibility is now in full flight, the words, for the most part, are well ahead of the deeds.

The contrasts speak for themselves.

2/3 companies say they are working to reduce emissions, yet only 1/3 have set any target deadlines and only 32% of companies have formal oversight of their sustainability performance. While 52% of companies are engaging with investors on sustainability (making it an increasingly important part of the investor brand story) and 58% have codes of conduct that address human rights issues, only 14% of companies have formal programmes that invest in and promote sustainable products and services and 33% have established engagement with suppliers on sustainability performance.

This disparity between the commitments companies are articulating and the operational changes they are making to fulfil those commitments suggest that while brands are acting, they are not acting fast enough. If companies were to monitor and deliver on their financial performance this way there would be an outcry in the markets and from shareholders. Yet for the moment at least, this report implies that guidance on responsibility metrics, or rather for many the implied commitment (given the relatively low formal oversight), is distorted.

That in turn points to a wider issue that seems timely to discuss – the critical inter-relationship between trust and proof. In a world where brands feel compelled and/or are increasingly expected to articulate a position on issues that are important to their buyers, it must be tempting to state an intention and wait for the facts to catch up. It must be tempting too to proffer any sign of progress as “proof” that good and worthy work is being done to close historic gaps. In essence, companies want consumers to kiss the frog. (OK, they’re toads in the image, but you get the idea.) Brands are looking for trust that, in the years ahead, they will indeed be as good as their sustainability word. Everything will be beautiful in the end.

Whether one should see this as asking for time or stalling for time is moot.

Proof is often premised on the persuasive power of facts and numbers to indicate progress. Trust is premised on a record of integrity and consistent actions. Proof without trust leaves just data (that can often be manipulated to mean whatever is convenient). Trust without proof results in just hope (based on strategies and reassurances).

Reputation, in perhaps its most simplistic interpretation, is about earning and attaining trust by providing proof that matches intentions. To do that effectively, companies need three things.
• They need to have a stated sustainability goal that is as robust as their financial goals.
• They need to know the levels of trust they want to achieve – which means they need to know who needs to trust them and what those people need to be able to specifically trust them for. (The answer is not “everyone” for “everything”)
• They need to identify and action the proof points that ratify those trust objectives, meaning they need to show not just what is being done but how those actions are being actively managed so that more will be done.

My take-outs from this report are that companies are good on the first point, somewhere between average and confused on the second point, and sadly lacking on the final point.

Photo of “Old World, Meet New World”, taken by Matt Reinbold, sourced from Flickr


20 ways to kill dull communications

By Mark Di Somma
Kill dull communications1. Promote a refreshing viewpoint.
2. Start a different conversation.
3. Shift away from the standard imagery of the industry.
4. Reveal new understanding.
5. Provide new information (that buyers are interested in).
6. Find a new call to action.
7. Set an inspiring goal.
8. Disturb – and then resolve.
9. Astonish.
10. Offer an exciting development.
11. Show an intriguing aspect of your personality.
12. Demand rivals change how they compete (for the sake of consumers).
13. Tune into something everyone recognises (away from your product).
14. Make people smile.
15. Address a widespread bias.
16. Champion a new way of doing things.
17. Redefine what’s being offered.
18. Invent (and then invest in) different language.
19. Marry disparate thoughts.
20. Help people feel wonderful about themselves, others and the world.

Photo of “Colorful Telephones”, taken by Mark Fischer, sourced from Flickr


Branding behaviours not just products

By Mark Di Somma

Brands are about behaviours not just products

Last week at The Un-Conference in Miami, The Blake Project’s Chief Storyteller Dr Gerrard Gibbons shared this wonderful insight: “Every day, brands make bets on human behaviour”. He’s absolutely right – but it’s a confronting thought because, at first airing, it puts so much of what marketers do at risk and beyond our control.

On reflection, the bets themselves vary.

Let’s start with the most obvious one. Every day marketers responsible for growing market share and demand are hoping that what they have to offer can be delivered and sold in sufficient volumes and with the requisite margin to hit CAGR (compound annual growth rate). Standing in their way are not just the obvious tangibles (competitors, logistics, distribution agreements, pricing, timing) but also the many intangibles that govern human behaviour (awareness, perception, distraction, personal priorities, expectations, inclination, loyalty).

Gerrard’s observation explains so much about the speculative nature of what we do. Marketers are continually working to align the tangibles in their favour through a variety of channel mechanisms and, at the same time, looking to counter the intangible initiatives of other brands. These are the competitive bets. They’re based around choice and priority.

That brings us to the second stake. As marketers we look to influence how consumers behave. That, we’ve told ourselves is something we can do effectively through persuasion and engagement. But the inverse is also true: in a connected world, how consumers choose to behave (amongst and between themselves) affects us. These are the consensus bets. They’re based on prediction and reinforcement.

And it’s here of course that big data is creating such a stir. Increasingly, the behaviours that consumers are prompted to make are nowhere near as random as they first appear. As John Naughton points out here, algorithms now drive, or at least, influence many behaviours that consumers probably don’t think twice about. He cites Amazon and Google as examples of how data-focused brands are projecting what they know already into how they believe consumers will behave.

Elsewhere, Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger points out how Target can now calculate not just whether a woman is pregnant but also when she is most likely to give birth, again based on behaviours. Mums-to-be buy lots of unscented lotion at around the third month of pregnancy, and then, a few weeks later they purchase supplements such as magnesium, calcium and zinc. Based on behavioural analysis, Target has been able to identify a range of products that acted as proxies for pregnancy prediction for every customer who paid with a credit card or used a loyalty card or mailed coupons. That level of consumer understanding is both scary and insightful.

To me though we need to treat big data with some caution in terms of its ability to deliver long-term competitive advantage. Predictive tools enable brands to cater specifically and powerfully to consumer habits. They deliver on demand generation through what I call “exciting functionalism” – ideas and technologies that build on what people already do in order to provide them with more of what they know they want. That makes them essentially safe, or at the very least quantified, bets. But in the “upgrade economy” where everyone expects everything to get better, faster and easier, such behaviours have a relatively short half-life in terms of excitement. They can quickly commoditise into expected deliverables and/or they are easily and quickly copied by other competitors using similar technologies – meaning they soon become part of the ‘new normal’.

Our behaviours also change quickly. Think about how we consume information. Once we turned. Then we pointed. Now we swipe. We all swipe.

The third behavioural bet is sectorial. Brands like Uber and airbnb are disrupting staid parts of the travel industry by inviting people to plan and take journeys in different ways. Like the budget airlines, online dating services and bargain sites before them, their quid pro quo is to offer incentives for people to behave in different ways. Xero is asking small business owners to think about their book-keeping in new ways and offering them smart, beautiful accounting in return. Nespresso’s looking to do the same for coffee lovers, enabling them to buy pods where once they would have had to fiddle around with beans. Ultimately these brands will live or die on two things: their ability to shift enough people to these new behaviours; and their ability to introduce extensions or additions to these behaviours that keep them ahead of the copycats, capitalise on brand trust and provide more rewards or new rewards in different areas. Their bet is cumulative. It’s built around mass migrations to new ways of doing things.

The fourth behavioural bet is aspirational. People get to do what they most like doing or what they haven’t been able to do, or felt inclined to do, before. Ultimately these are wagers not on products but on ideas. Red Bull associates itself with exciting behaviours, both as a participant and as a spectator. They’ve aligned their brand with the rush that comes with those behaviours.

That raises another point. Twitter is not the only way to message people. But it’s the one that more people have bonded with. Ultimately, it’s not the best idea that necessarily wins or the one that has the greatest promotion or the one that is most easily available or the best social media support that encourages the greatest behavioural change. In a world where so many are networked together and channels are increasingly fragmented, the brands that will win are the ones that best align with how people want to behave or that best influence how they and others behave together. This explains why ideas that don’t seem earth-shattering on paper can transfix a nation and yet products and ideas that have been worked on by a cast of hundreds and researched to death in focus groups can stall once they are released.

The question that drives out of that is not “what is our brand going to do for our customers?” but rather “what are our customers going to be able to do with our brand?” In other words, “How does our brand help people behave, or enable people to behave together, that is exciting and inspiring and different from the behaviours that other brands inspire?”

That’s the product story more brands need to be telling. And that’s the real bet for brands such as social media mainstays Facebook – how to balance their need for revenue and growth with their customers’ desire for rewarding and tribal association that exceeds the many other networking options they are being presented with.

Ultimately, Gerrard’s “bets on human behaviours” live or die on two questions. First – “What’s the reward for starting?” And then – “What’s the reward for continuing to behave this way?”

Photo of “Ellie: Person drinking Coke” taken by ISB MS Art/Photography, sourced from Flickr


Continuation: Step 6 in building a purposeful culture

By Mark Di Somma

The pursuit of purpose never stopsA culture with purpose doesn’t set and forget all the hard work that got it there in the first place. On the contrary, it continues to build and report on what it has established. Without that impetus, purpose quickly gives way to task and the commitment to deliver change is overtaken by the motivation to just make budget. If you need to convince others in your organisation that the momentum and energy required to stay the course is indeed worth it, consider these observations from Deloitte’s Culture of Purpose 2013 Report.

A strong sense of purpose contributes to long term success (providing of course that sense of purpose is sustained). Cultures with purpose report that their employees are more likely to perform well and experience strong financial performance. They also have a distinct brand, a clearly defined values and belief system, greater customer satisfaction and better employee satisfaction. Fuelling purpose fuels performance.

However, the Deloitte report also highlights that many companies are missing opportunities to integrate purpose-building activities into their core business strategies and operations. I suspect that’s because purpose has been designated as an HR or cultural issue rather than as a guiding principle for every aspect of corporate behaviour.

The need to keep reinforcing and communicating purpose also seems to be being missed. Certainly the Deloitte report would indicate a disparity between how executives believe purpose is communicated and instilled and how employees believe it is being communicated and acted upon on a day to day basis.

Having a positive impact on the lives of employees was seen by staff as a vital component of demonstrating good corporate citizenship. Cultures with purpose were judged on their ability to deliver first to their own people rather than the differences they made beyond their walls.

John Baldoni makes the case well in this article in Forbes: “Purposeful organizations,” he says, “create an atmosphere of open exchange. People know what is expected of them because management is clear in its objectives … People feel connected because they know they are contributing not simply in their function – finance, marketing, logistics, etc. – but to the success of the whole enterprise. When you work in a purposeful organization you know how what you do contributes to the organization’s ability to deliver on its mission.”

With that in mind, here are eight ways your organisation can continue the journey.

8 ways to stay purposeful

  1. Frame everything you do, and aspire to achieve, in terms of how it helps the organisation, and the people within the organisation, advance the purpose. Cause and effect, literally. “This initiative will help [our brand] achieve [our purpose] by …” If you can’t complete that simple sentence then the idea/initiative is off-purpose.
  2. Continue to communicate why your organisation is pursuing the purpose that it is, why it chose to pursue that goal in the first place and how doing so aligns with the company’s core business, values and beliefs.
  3. Show how pursuit of the purpose will positively affect people in the workplace. Align it to things like how you train and develop people, the opportunities you offer them, the support you provide for them to work in the community and so on.
  4. Make the purpose a key part of induction so that new people understand from the get-go what they are joining and what they are expected to contribute to.
  5. Celebrate and highlight those people who contribute most successfully to the purpose. Make them role-models for the commitment that’s expected.
  6. Make contribution to purpose part of your performance reviews.
  7. Invest in your purpose, don’t just talk about it. Take the time, and make the resources available, to advance your organisation’s progress towards its greatest goal.
  8. Report your progress towards your purpose openly and honestly both internally and to external stakeholders and agencies.

Photo of “Chadburns Ships Engine Order Telegraph Great Lakes Naval Museum April 24, 201034” taken by Steven Depolo, sourced from Flickr



For brand’s sake, mind your language

By Mark Di Somma

Mind your brand languageLanguage is one of the most important definers of any organisational culture. The language you choose, the language you don’t choose and the language you choose to replace are a reflection, and in some senses, a definition of your priorities. As the American writer Rita Mae Brown once observed, “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”

Your words are a statement to others, and more importantly, they are a statement to the internal culture – because deliberate choice of language underpins perspective. Your language choice not only reveals how your organisation feels about a matter, it also signals how you might be expected to approach and resolve that matter in the future.

Recently released documents from GM provide disturbing insights into how those within the motoring behemoth seemed to be feeling about the work they were doing in 2008. This article in Time provides the full list of 69 words and phrases employees were asked to avoid:

“always, annihilate, apocalyptic, asphyxiating, bad, Band-Aid, big time, brakes like an “X” car, cataclysmic, catastrophic, Challenger, chaotic, Cobain, condemns, Corvair-like, crippling, critical, dangerous, deathtrap, debilitating, decapitating, defect, defective, detonate, isembowelling, enfeebling, evil, eviscerated, explode, failed, flawed, genocide, ghastly, grenadelike, grisly, gruesome, Hindenburg, Hobbling, Horrific, impaling, inferno, Kevorkianesque, lacerating, life-threatening, maiming, malicious, mangling, maniacal, mutilating, never, potentially-disfiguring, powder keg, problem, rolling sarcophagus (tomb or coffin), safety, safety related, serious, spontaneous combustion, startling, suffocating, suicidal, terrifying, Titanic, unstable, widow-maker, words or phrases with a biblical connotation, you’re toast”

The temptation might be to read the memo as a legal reminder or even as spin-doctoring. But when employees are openly referring to a brand’s products in these ways, the actual words are of course the thing that management should be least concerned about.

If your organisation is struggling with cultural issues right now, a simple and telling way to gauge the real work atmosphere is to pay closer attention to the language that people use to describe their colleagues, other teams, your products and of course customers. What’s being said in meetings and in memos … and what do those words reveal about underlying attitudes?

The goal here of course is not to hamper personal expression or to force people to choose their words more carefully (because that will only further disguise the real emotions at play). What you’re really looking to do is identify and then change the signals that people give each other every day through their communications.

Equally, if you are implementing changes to your brand positioning, think through the new language that your brand will use, both internally and externally, and how the new ways that you articulate who you are, what you strive for, what you value and what you offer will influence attitudes and competitive approaches.

Changes can appear semantic but have implications far beyond the quantity of the words involved. For example, one of the key changes I made in the lexicon at Vodafone some years back was to insist that the company stopped referred to itself as a “mobile phone company” and talked instead about being a “mobile company”. On the face of it, this appeared to be little more than an abbreviation. In reality, it helped mentally switch the emphasis of the company from telephony to flexibility: from being a company that focused on the engineering of mobile phones to one that focused on freedom of movement.

Handled carefully and patiently, new language shifts attitudes. New attitudes shift beliefs. And of course new beliefs invite new actions.

Photo of “El Fauno”, taken by Maria Moreno, sourced from Flickr


The fallacy of frantic

By Mark Di Somma

FranticBeing busy doesn’t make you invincible. It just makes you … busy, for now. Except of course being rude to your customers or not returning their calls or treating them like they’re expendable, or doing the one hundred other things we’re all tempted to do when we’re busy isn’t just a now thing. It’s a lot more permanent.

Part of making hay while the sun shines is ensuring you don’t kill off the whole paddock in the bid to get today’s work out.

Like all feelings, invincibility is powerful … while it lasts. Some time in the future though, one of your competitors will be hard at work. Doing the job that your people gave away today … Because they (and you) didn’t make the time to think about what would happen when things weren’t frantic.

And because, in your bid to get the work out, you didn’t tell them that actually mattered. To them. To the business. To the brand.

Photo of “Frantic sleep”, taken by Ari Bakker, sourced from Flickr


The pursuit of intent

By Mark Di Somma

The pursuit of intentNeed and want are subsets of the real motivation I believe we should all be searching for as marketers – and that is intent.

Intent is about what a customer wants to accomplish rather than simply what they want to purchase. Parents want their children to be happy, to have a great childhood, to learn and absorb, and to enjoy time with their friends. That’s a way bigger agenda than just wanting to buy them the latest Star Wars figure or Playskool set.

Actually, toy manufacturers seem to have this alignment of intent and purchase down to a fine art. But applying that thinking elsewhere could offer new opportunities to meet that intent with offers or rewards that are delightful and distinctive.

Try this. Jot down a 6 – 10 point Statement of Intent that summarises the real things your customers want to see happen when they come to you. Do your offerings and service address and reward those? Really?

Photo of “Statement of Intent”, taken by PhotKing, sourced from Flickr

The (very human) search for reasons

By Mark Di Somma

Looking for reasonsIn a great post Stephen Dubner once wondered aloud why stock markets rise and fall. His point – that every day, observers look to ascribe a cause to what happened over the small window of time that is a trading day. As Dubner points out, newspapers (and the media generally) look to pin a cause on what they’re seeing which may in fact bear little resemblance to the actual forces at play.

We’ve been brought up to look for reasons for things; to find a rational reason why things happen. But often, our viewpoint for that reference is so narrow and so defined that in fact the logic is flawed, deceptive even. That however is far less scary than admitting we have no reason for knowing why a stock, market, group of consumers did what they did today or yesterday or 13 days ago. Because that puts us at the mercy of whim, instinct, impulse and group-behaviour.

Markets have to find volatility, otherwise they couldn’t function as efficient trading platforms. And people have to find reasons to explain that volatility in order to give those markets, and themselves, some (false?) sense of control.

Photo of “The Market” taken by Iman Mosaad, sourced from Flickr


Smart companies expect their customers to complain

By Mark Di Somma

On hold in a world of speedExpect – in the sense that they are ready to act immediately should anything go wrong. They do so with grace, speed and humanity. They apologise when it’s appropriate. They move quickly. They recognise the loyalty opportunity of doing right by people.

By contrast, isn’t it amazing how many companies still believe that if they ignore or belittle your complaint or dispute, your problem will go away? You’ll lose interest or momentum, or you won’t have time, or they’ll just look to sell you something else in the meantime “while we sort this little matter out”.

So they send you a complicated process to keep you busy.

Or they tell you that’s something you’ll have to take up with the sub-sub-contractor.

Or they deny it even happened and ask you to provide written proof.

Or they send you a lawyer’s letter that says nothing but seems threatening and indignant.

Or they wait for you to ring them … and of course, when you do, they’re out or in a meeting or overseas …

Deep down they probably know delays like this kill the relationship. But they’re too busy to care or do anything about it. Why? Because there’s nothing in their performance bonus that recognises being decent to people. And they think doing nothing saves them money. And because they or someone else in the building is trying to find new customers of course. To replace you. That’s their job.

The next time someone contacts your organisation to raise a concern or complaint, do your people know exactly what to do?

Your brand is in every response.

Photo of “Waiting” taken by Petr Dosek, sourced from Flickr


Thinking beyond doing

By Mark Di Somma

Thinking beyond doing

No matter how successful your brand is now, it will probably die. That’s the forecast from Jim Collins in this insightful article about life and death on the Fortune 500. In it he points out that over 2000 companies have appeared on the list since its inception in 1955. But of the 500 that appeared on that first list, only 71 are still going at the time he is writing (2008). That’s an 86% disappearance rate.

Collins’ key point is that making the list actually means nothing, because getting there says nothing, and guarantees nothing, about your ability to survive. Some of the companies that loom large now weren’t even around in 1955 – e.g. all the technology companies – and some, which were lauded and celebrated then, including Scott Paper, Zenith, Rubbermaid, Teledyne, Warner Lambert and Bethlehem Steel are nowhere to be found..

Thirty years ago, Ames Department Stores and Wal-Mart had the same business model and were flourishing. Today, Ames is gone and Wal-Mart is ranked number one.

Near the end of his piece, Collins observes “all products, services, markets, and even specific solutions to social problems eventually become obsolete. But that does not mean that the organizations and societies that produce them must themselves become obsolete and irrelevant.”

Life moves on. A lot of brands don’t. If you tie who you are to what you do and where you operate, you’re a funeral waiting to happen. Your organisation must be about more than those things if you are to survive. The history lesson is that many didn’t think beyond what they did, and as a result they don’t exist now. That’s the price of redundant excellence.

Will your company still be around in 60 years?

Photo of “1959 Comet Oldsmobile Hearse” taken by Alden Jewell, sourced from Flickr


Is it time we called off the hunt for the purple cow?

By Mark Di Somma

The hunt for a Purple CowFor some time now, brands have pursued difference. Spurred on initially by Jack Trout, they’ve positioned, disrupted, innovated … all with that elusive goal in mind. To stand out and stand apart from their competitors. Benefits, positioning, onions, pyramids, strategies … a lot of time and energy has been focused on helping brands achieve difference. Everyone’s been on that quest to become a Purple Cow.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge Seth Godin fan and, inspired by that, the call for difference has been a recurrent theme in my own work, but there’s no denying that for the most part marketers have failed to live up to Godin’s call to recolour the livestock. Nigel Hollis has written previously that less than 1 in 5 brands is seen as distinctive by consumers.

One can of course read that as proof that Godin’s call is as relevant as ever. Or one can take it as meaning that the quest for difference is simply not one that works for the majority of marketers.

Three reasons why remarkable difference might be unattainable:

  • Marketers get tempted into pursuing difference for difference’s sake and take their eye off the very people who buy their brands.
  • Difference isn’t a motivation for consumers. People don’t go to the supermarket to buy what’s different. They buy what they know and what appeals to them. They buy what they remember. Different or not.
  • In a world of product parity, increasing regulation, impatient investors and embedded management orthodoxy, meaningful difference is too hard to achieve. Consider this characteristically provocative statement from Mark Ritson: “[True] repositioning is almost always impossible. No matter how attractive it appears or how commonly we use the term in marketing, the actual business of changing a brand’s DNA and being successful is ridiculous … actually changing a brand from black to white … is a ludicrous notion. Even when you can fool the people into believing the change has occurred … you cannot change the fundamental nature of the way a brand does business.”

So what’s the alternative? Conformity?


Perhaps a little more latitude – and more focus on the human condition.

A moment’s digression please to make a point. Over coffee the other day some of us got talking about the irony of living in a world filled with technology and connections and ideas yet one that, in so many ways and places, remains unexciting for such long stretches. On reflection, so many of the situations we find ourselves in are routine. Catching a plane is boring once you’ve done it a few times. Commuting is boring. Work cultures are uninspiring. Most of the advertising we see is boring. As Susan Ertz once observed, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

You can read that as reality. Or opportunity.

After all, as human beings, we long for things that catch our eye. We will find time to do things that make our hearts beat faster. We live for what makes us feel alive. We want to be inspired by purpose.

Sometimes a brand delivers that. Most of the time it doesn’t – and neither do any of the brands around it. So as Martin Weigel rightly points out in this fantastic two part post: “Rather than spend all that time noodling brand onions and agonizing over the largely irrelevant nuance of ‘difference’ between our brand and the competition, we should be spending far more time thinking about what people are interested in.”

I loved Weigel’s post because it provoked three very simple and interconnected questions:

1. Why can’t life be more interesting?

2. Why can’t brands have a role to play in that?

3. Isn’t that where their real value (for consumers) should lie?

There will be those who say that this is just difference by another name. Perhaps it is. But then if “difference” isn’t working as a motivation, maybe other words are exactly what is needed.

For me, the search for interesting goes wider and deeper:

  • It’s about what fascinates, surprises and delights, which starts with really knowing what people feel now and is prompted by what they would like to feel, not by presenting them with something that contradicts what they know.
  • It’s not just about the product or service, it’s about the environment that it is delivered in, the manner in which it is delivered or what comes with the product or service – in other words, it’s about how the experience augments the offering. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the experience is markedly different.
  • There may be a high level of familiarity and/or conformity that some brands must work to because the channel or regulation rules out divergence, so the point of interest may need to be specific and personal.
  • Interest can be generated in a range of ways beyond what the product/service is or how it’s delivered – by opinion; by story; by association; by controversy (planned or otherwise); by endorsement (think about the power of the Oprah factor); by serendipity.

And what about brands that have little room for differentiation? How do you make tea different? How do you make rocks different? In this article on Copyblogger, Sean D’Souza tackles those very issues and suggests that far from resisting the ordinary, we should look for the points of beauty there. “Look for the mundane”, he suggests, and elevate them. I translate that as – find the smallest way to be interesting.

In fact, keep finding them. Because the secret to being interesting lies in one preceding word – continually. Keep shipping ideas, improvements, tweaks, news, ideas that add to what people get in skips rather than bounds. That to me is the secret to success in today’s upgrade culture. I call this “pleasure streaming”.

Derrick Daye made a great point in a conversation we had over the weekend. “Marketers have got into the habit of just marketing what they have or would like to have. But effective brand strategy isn’t about competing for the existing value created by others, it’s about finding ways to create a new sense of value.”

And perhaps, in the light of the lack of Purple Cows, that’s about making differences that are more manageable, tangible and practical. Perhaps we should stop looking for epic and dramatic “big bang” difference. More companies should call off the search for their Blue Ocean Strategy – because they’re never going to get through the paperwork to make it happen. Instead, they could direct their energies to finding and delivering small moments of interest wherever and whenever they can; moments of interest that create wonderful little changes.

In the world. In cultures. For customers.

Imagine how competitive your brand would be, and how much more interesting the world might become during the lulls that make so much of life routine might become, if your senior leadership operated from this simple mantra. Kill something dull every day.

I certainly think it’s possible to create value, and indeed meaningful change, with this question. “What are we doing today to be more interesting [to our people and our buyers] than we were yesterday?”

Photo of “Purple Cow” taken by Richard Elzey, sourced from Flickr










Rethinking brand growth

By Mark Di Somma

Rethinking brand growthOne of my favourite questions when a brand leader tells me how much they intend to grow over the next 12 months is to ask them how much they think the market itself will grow. In other words, how much organic growth can they expect the market to give them just for participating versus how much do they think they’re going to have to “find” somewhere else?

If a sector is growing at 3 percent and the brand intends to grow at 20 percent, that 17 percent difference is going to have to come from somewhere, probably a competitor. How, I ask, do you intend to win that 17 percent and who do you intend taking it off?

Some back-reading from McKinsey turns up some interesting findings:

  • Top-line growth is vital for survival. A company whose revenue increased more slowly than GDP was five times more likely to succumb to acquisition than a company that expanded more rapidly.
  • Timing is everything. The companies that compete in the right places at the right times achieved strong revenue growth and high shareholder returns and are more likely to be active acquirers of other businesses.
  • Company growth is driven largely by market growth in the industry segments where it competes and by the revenues gained through mergers and acquisitions. Together, they account for nearly 80 percent of the growth differences among large companies.
  • Market share fluctuations by contrast account for only around 20 percent of growth differences among large companies.

“Seeking growth is rarely about changing industries—a risky proposition at best for most companies,” the authors conclude. “It is more about focusing time and resources on faster-growing segments where companies have the capabilities, assets, and market insights needed for profitable growth.”

So … three growth strategies. How do they fit together? To make sense of how to organise and co-ordinate these ideas, we need to rethink our very understanding of growth. Growth is not about expansion – at least not directly, I would suggest. Sustained brand growth is premised on increasing the value for customers, which in turn lifts revenue and demand. So each of the strategies identified by McKinsey needs to be analysed in the light of how customers benefit rather than what the brand gets out of it.

Let’s start with current market growth. A brand cannot afford to pull back from business as usual in order to refocus because doing so makes it vulnerable to acquisition. It must instead continue to at least pursue stable growth in its current markets. Presence gives a brand constancy and helps strengthen its reputation. It sustains present value.

At the same time brands need to be allocating resources to pursue emerging opportunities in areas of opportunity – in different countries, with new customers, with new or improved products. That in turn means that the brand must be flexible enough to incorporate participation in these areas of opportunity into its DNA. And it must find the resources and the energy to move within the faster-growing segments it has identified to procure footprint and top of mind, again without losing sight of what makes the brand distinctive from its competitors. Expanded market participation focuses on giving customers more than they expect right now through the introduction of products and ideas that build on buyers’ understanding. It expands current value.

Because M&A is such an effective growth tool, brands must also look for other companies to acquire that are similar enough to them to appear a natural fit and yet sufficiently divergent from the core brand to redefine the merged brand as a whole and open up new market opportunities. From a brand point of view, M&A injects new ideas, footprint and customers into a brand’s equity. Done well, that injection grows more than access. It lifts what customers think of the company and introduces new skills and ideas that broaden the offering. To me, that’s the central premise of M&A. What’s there after the M&A that isn’t there before? (So often it’s just size and efficiencies which work for investors but add no resonant value for customers at all.) It shape-shifts value.

While brand managers tend to fixate on the third strategy – taking market share off competitors – it’s no surprise that this is the least effective growth strategy overall. Grabbing market share is, in reality, a fight among incumbents to offer business as usual. It counts less for growth because it doesn’t increase anything. Yes, it removes weak players from the market but it can also set off price wars that can seriously undermine pricing and do nothing to cement loyalty. Brands focus on this because their current competitors are the brands they compete against each day.

Three out-takes for me from the McKinsey findings:

  • Focus on building customers and alliances rather than beating competitors.
  • Scaleable brands are underpinned by scaleable ideas.
  • Growth is more specific than speculative. Less “move and see”. More “see and move”.

Photo of “Growth” taken by Rebecca Barray, sourced from Flickr





Declaration: Step 5 in building a purposeful culture

By Mark Di Somma

Declaration - going public with your purpose

At some point, a culture that is serious about what it intends must put those intentions in writing. That’s about a lot more than documentation. Declaring what you come to work for collectively amounts to a commitment. So many companies squander this opportunity in my view. They market what is happening rather than explaining it. They expand on what it means for the company rather than how it benefits the individual. They paint a process and not a picture.

Declaration should be the culmination of a journey that has taken people through a range of steps and emotions: from why change is needed and the opportunity that change could generate to the information that explains how decisions were reached and the incentives to push through reluctance. I love this explanation of storytelling from Christopher Maier, “Every time I tell a story, I am putting out a call to community. A story presumes a community of listeners who will recognize some experience that they have lived or can imagine living in the narrative. It is a call and response …” because it frames the articulation and the response to that declaration together. You receive what you get a response to.

Declaration is not broadcast in this context. It’s verification of decisions made. It’s the check-in with the culture that the business is good to go on this, and that for those who are not on board perhaps it’s time to leave. But as Shawn Callahan observes in this post, don’t call your declaration a “story” because in many cultures, people will interpret that as fiction. Instead Callahan suggests declare the relevance of your intentions. And follow that up quickly with the plausibility of such a view.

Don’t stop there. Go public. Stating your intentions around where and how you want to see change in the world puts your culture on notice that your purpose is an open agenda not a closed one. It brings your customers onboard. It aligns what you’re saying internally with your public position. It gives you talking points. It should drive your editorial approach to content.

Get this right and as Hilton Barbour observes, “Brand purpose becomes a pivotal touchstone for customers and employees giving them a reason to say “this is why I choose this brand” and “this is why I choose to work here”. Purpose is why consumers will find a way to bring your brand into their lives. It’s certainly a deeper motivator than the functional, or even emotional, benefits we tend to cajole them with … Ultimately, today’s proliferation of me-too brands and fickle customers affords no marketing and brand leader the luxury of being without purpose.”

5 ways to declare

1. Stand for something the world needs a stance on and that you are in a position to influence, address, challenge or advocate for.
2. Connect what you compete for with what you believe.
3. Give your people clear roles in realising your purpose. State those connections overtly rather than leaving it to individuals or teams to work out how they fit.
4. Celebrate every advancement of your purpose internally.
5. Revolve your CSR around your purpose. Take ownership of closing the gap between where the world is now with this and where the world needs to get to. Report on you’ve got done and the impacts it has had. State what you are looking to change, when, by how much and where.

Photo of “The reburials: trumpet” taken by shinosan, sourced from Flickr






Why are you rebranding?

By Mark Di Somma

Why are you rebranding

Brad VanAuken made this excellent observation about rebrands. “Identity systems are designed to encode and decode brand information to and from people’s brains,” he said. “If you change the system, the associations may be lost and will take a long time to rebuild.”

Always that dichotomy. People like what they know. And we live in a changing world. While brand managers often struggle with the timing and implementation of an identity change, I’m far more interested in the specific motivations behind why brands choose to change how they visually express who they are – because that’s where I believe things can really go askew.

If the motivation is wrong, then the rebranding will be wrong. By way of proof, a great article from Business Insider examines recent rebrands that have hit the wall at speed. Two clear principles emerge:

• Be clear about who you are and stay true to that. The very essence of identity I would have thought but it’s amazing how many companies still think they can convince people they’re something they’re not by changing their brand identity. No amount of focus-grouping with the youth-set (or anyone else for that matter) is going to make your brand something it just isn’t. Same goes for changing the name to make it more street. If you’re not a street brand, you’ll just ring hollow.

• Don’t cover up. An identity that seeks to hide the truth isn’t a rebrand, it’s a revisionist attempt to hoodwink investors and consumers. Might have worked before we were all connected and had digital memories. Doesn’t work anywhere near as well now.

So how should brands go about choosing to rework their identities? My cardinal rule: before you make any changes, think about the consumer. Change your branding only if it will make the identity more fascinating and relevant for them (not because the marketing team is bored or a competitor has changed so it’s time to follow suit).

10 reasons why you would change a brand identity:

1. To make it friendlier
2. To make it cleaner
3. To make it simpler
4. To make it feel more modern and therefore relevant
5. To better capture who you are (and what customers love you for)
6. To signal who you are becoming (that customers will love you for being)
7. To show your business has changed or is changing (in ways that customers will welcome)
8. To be bolder (and therefore more visible), particularly in busy markets
9. To highlight an aspect of your character that has been missed
10. To correct a misconception that is holding you back or putting off the very people you are looking to attract.

Above all – what consumers see must align with how they feel or how you want them to feel not just with what the marketing team or the agency or the senior leadership wants to express. An identity without affinity is just graphics.

Before you sign off your next identity change, please ask one question: “How does this changed our buyers’ understanding of our brand for the better?” If you don’t know, neither will they.

Photo of “Pencil Parade”, taken by Mike Tungate, sourced from Flickr




Setting responsible goals

By Mark Di Somma

Setting responsible goals

Far from increasing the daylight between itself and another brand, companies that are fixated on achieving an objective can do themselves, their brands and their reputations serious harm. Pushing the wrong boundaries can push a brand over the edge. This is of course anathema to conventional management theory which has preached for some time that pushing people to excel brings out the best in them.

But take the case of the Ford Pinto, where senior management’s insistence on a car that weighed less than 2,000 pounds and sold for under $2,000 led to a vehicle that could go up in flames if it was rear-ended. At Enron, the decision to reward salespeople based on revenue volume rather than whether the trades were sound or profitable, contributed to one of the most famous implosions in American corporate history. Indeed one could well argue that the GFC sprang directly from financial institutions pursuing goals that made no sense but that those on the selling side were generously incentivised to pursue at any cost.

According to this research, goals that are too specific often lead employees to develop such a narrow focus that they fail to recognise obvious problems unrelated to the target. They become fixated with beating one another and/or “the other guy”. Quality loses out to completion as workers, pressured by specific and ambitious targets, risk everything in order to meet the goals they have been set. That situation doubles down when participants are rewarded with money or prestige for hitting a number.

The clear takeout is that bad things happen when goals are quantitatively and not qualitatively driven. A goal that is just a number is a bad goal – because as my favourite renegade accountant Hamish Edwards puts it, “numbers are just there to keep score”. When the score becomes the goal, there’s enormous temptation to rig the game in order to keep winning, at least in the short term.

The mighty challenge with goal setting it seems to me is not setting the goals themselves, but understanding the nature of the goals that are best set. Brands that set low goals undersell their capacity. Brands that over-reach set themselves up for disappointment and/or bad behaviours. Perhaps not surprisingly, goal setting itself often defies sense. Senior decision makers will their brands to do what they want them to do rather than working through what they would be best to do. They stretch when they should be stabilising, and constrain when they should stretching. In a work entitled “The Paradox of Stretch Goals: Organizations in Pursuit of the Seemingly Impossible”, Sim Sitkin, Kelly See, Chet Miller, Michael Lawless and Andrew Carton observe that “whereas weak organizations might pursue stretch goals out of desperation and make their dire circumstances worse, those with the capabilities to truly benefit from stretch goals typically fail to do so because the same characteristics that make them well positioned to benefit from stretch goals also limit their inclination to actually pursue them.”

The learning for me from this is simple. Be careful what you ask your people to aim for. A target for a brand is also a signal to its culture and the collateral damage from ambitious targets based on the wrong context or intention may be far-reaching and unexpected. Machiavelli was a prince and not a CEO for a reason.

Photo of “Long Jump” by Hermitianta Prasetya Putra, sourced from Flickr

An unnatural state of work

By Mark Di Somma

Fitting in at workIt continues to fascinate me how little some businesses still seem to understand their human factors as opposed to their people model. They know how their workforce is organised. They understand where they’re allocated. They know what they cost. They have processes for everything they do. But they still seem to lack the anthropological understanding of how they actually can and need to get on and interact.

They see the shape, but they don’t appreciate the fabric.

It comes back to a point I make often in my purpose workshops – that we tend to treat organisations as “natural gatherings” because it is convenient to do so, and therefore we expect businesses to behave in that way because they are meant to be bound together by culture.

In point of fact, unprompted cohesiveness is probably a strange assumption.

So perhaps we should really be addressing organisations as quite the opposite – unnatural structures, that need to be encouraged and stimulated to stay together and function effectively.

Instead of trying to think about why some people don’t fit in, and therefore what is odd about them, we should start from the premise that everyone is naturally inclined not to fit in, and focus on what we can agree on, and instigate, to cement enough commonality to counter that.

Photo of “School of fish in my reef tank”, taken by Chris Favero, sourced from Flickr

Grappling with pushback

By Mark Di Somma

The pushback patternWhen you’re hard at work on ambitious projects, it’s a given that the team is pushing the boundaries of what would have been considered sensible. I choose those words carefully – “would have”, because these projects are always about ways forward but are often judged on references back; and “sensible” because that’s the filter that so many people put across the recommendations they get.

Do they seem sensible – to them? Which means, in reality, do they feel comfortable? Which means, how much do the measures being proposed feel like what has occurred historically?

Pushback follows an equally predictable line of escalation. “That’s interesting” will be followed by “but”. In time, this will probably become “We have some concerns”.

Then it will go one of these ways. The first will be “We need to do more research to ensure this will work” (that’s actually the positive line), or else “We’re not sure we’re ready for this”. Or there will be a request to “tone things down a little”.

Pushback is a flattener. It’s demoralising, it’s trivialising and it often feels petty given what’s being picked up on vs the issues that are being tackled.

The temptation of course is just to offer up airline-meal quality work in the first place because you can’t be bothered fighting and lobbying. (It’s their company after all.) But then you have to live with the fact that you simply have not done your best by your client or yourself.

To embrace a new idea, people must abandon what they previously held as true. Here’s a gorgeous quote from Nancy Duarte for those days when giving it your all might not seem worth it. “Some [people] will oppose your ideas or look for holes in your argument because if they don’t, they’re either forced to live with the contradiction between their old perspective and the new one you’ve “sold” them, or opt to change.” In other words, they’re pushing back because it’s easier for them than pushing forward.

The way I like to look at it is this. If you don’t show every client the sea, they have no reason to admit, even to themselves, that they’re actually scared of the water. And on the odd occasion, you might just be able to tempt them to take a plunge, albeit between the flags.

Photo of “Push back to the 30s” taken by Michael Clark, sourced from Flickr



The next era of brand conversations

By Mark Di Somma

The next era of brand conversations

Too many brands continue to fail at convincingly placing what they have to offer inside the lives of the people they are trying to reach. A lot of that seems to come down to a simple mis-alignment of priorities: whilst marketing teams ponder data and speak earnestly about really understanding their buyers as individuals, those interests are not reflected as clearly as they should be in what they end up saying.

Brands often seem most interested in talking about:
• Who they are
• What they sell
• What it retails for
• Their size and geographical spread
• Their ownership
• Who their customers are (usually in demographic terms)
• Their financial performance
• Their innovations/news
• Their CSR and what they sponsor
• Their social media/content marketing initiatives

Contrast that with the priorities that play on the minds of consumers:
• Is the brand desirable both aesthetically and functionally?
• Does the brand’s image and reputation fit with who they are? Is this a brand they will be proud to be seen with?
• Is the brand well made?
• Is it well supported across a range of channels? Can it be easily accessed? Does it respond?
• Is it made by a company that behaves ethically?
• Is the brand interesting? Is it in the news? Do people talk about it?
• Who’s the brand associated with? Who speaks for the brand? Are they someone the buyer admires?
• Is the brand consistent? Do consumers get what they think they’re getting?
• Is it easy to find? Is the choice set manageable and not overly-complicated?
• Is it priced right?

So while companies focus on what they are doing and think about that quantitatively and in terms of deliverables (because that is how they are judged internally), consumers focus on how the brand makes them feel and which of the many brand options available to them feels most like them (because that’s how they make their decisions).

The contrast between marketer and marketed also reveals itself in how consumers feel about brand intrusion into social channels. In an article in Forbes, Avi Dan quotes research from Altimeter stating that 42% of companies considered social media monitoring one of their top three priorities last year. Yet research from JD Power shows that 64% of consumers insist that they don’t want companies to step in and respond to social comments unprompted but rather only when spoken to.

In short, too many brands are trying too hard to be friendly. The result is an uncomfortable over-familiarity.

The onus in my view is on brands to make a shift to a more human level of interaction with their buyers. It’s not enough for companies to listen and respond to what their research tells them, because in the hands of a major brand that simply becomes another intrusion. To be truly responsive, and not just processive, brands need to find ways of talking to their consumers that are more natural sounding, more personality based, more give-and-take, more intuitive, more versatile. They need to put in place Relationships teams whose role is not to slavishly respond to the analytics but rather to swim deftly in the social tide.

I suspect that’s the real role of social media going forward and that brands will devolve to using social media this way once they have worked through their instinctive need to sell or talk about themselves. Doing so will require marketers to intrinsically change not just the nature but the speed of relationships. Alongside carefully crafted campaigns designed to instil image over years brands will need to engage in very short response programmes that take place in real time as ideas and mentions ebb and flow as trends. Different conversations, some scheduled, many not, taking place at different times across a finite range of topics.

Interestingly, some brands have chosen never to engage. As Lakshmipathy Bhat observes over at bhatnaturally, Apple has gone out of its way not to engage with consumers in one-on-one conversations. Instead it has fostered affinity by doing the exact opposite – raising mystique by keeping the walls up. The George Clooney strategy. It’s a reminder that there is room in every market for one player at least to pursue the absolute opposite of what everyone else is fighting about. In a world of clamour, Apple have chosen to shut up, and their customers love them all the more for doing so.

Photo of “Starbucks love” taken by rekre89, sourced from Flickr


Business models as tensions

By Mark Di Somma

Mixing finance, space and brandInterbrand’s Jez Frampton once summarised great retailing as the perfect mix of finance, space and brand. I find that such an excellent crystallisation of the inherent tensions in that sector – the need to pack enough of the right branded product into an environment displacing the right number of square feet to deliver customers a great experience and achieve the requisite return.

Fascinating to take that trio idea and apply it to other sectors, especially if you believe that every business is about money and therefore finance should always be one aspect and brand/reputation is an inherent value-maker within most sectors and therefore it, or an expression of it, will always be the third factor. The airline industry embodies Frampton’s format unchanged. Fashion combines finance, beauty and brand. Consulting might be a combination of time (finance), insights and reputation (brand).

Personally I’m a huge fan of this sort of arrangement because it gives a concept limits (not too much one way or another) and perspectives (combinations of emotion/value).

What would the three tensions in your sector be?

Photo of “Southwest Airlines” taken by Kevin Dooley, sourced from Flickr


By Mark Di Somma


Paul Marsden’s piece on “Thinking Fast and Slow” (thanks Hilton Barbour) raised some great marketing implications from Daniel Kahneman’s work that are well worth reading.

I loved the thinking about experiences versus memories, and the observation that our “remembered self” is the one that matters because that’s what motivates us. In the piece, Marsden discusses Kahneman’s theory of “fast thinking”, which is the non-logical thinking that powers consumer decision making. It reminded me of some notes I made some time back whilst re-reading Malcom Gladwell’s Blink.

This was the question I scribbled in the margin. “If blink is the phenomenon of knowing before you know – then what is your brand’s blinkpoint?” In other words, what is the subconcious association you want consumers to have the next moment they encounter your brand before they even recognise how the brand makes them feel? What will they know before they even know it’s the brand?

Gladwell fans will also get the reference to “tipping point” in this blinkpoint idea because that associative memory of a brand and its meaning is something that I’d like to suggest accumulates and accelerates over time. The memories we have of a brand reach a critical point where, from then on, they drive the experiences we anticipate.

But if buyers have a bad experience, three things happen:
• The experience we are having and our memory of what we expected to happen disconnect. The pattern breaks.
• Our overall and accumulated memory of the brand also changes – and that affects how we think about the brand going forward. The anticipation changes.
• The speed of association between a brand and an emotion slows down and we are more tempted to take a moment and consider other options.

Don’t market your brand on what your consumers are going to get. Market your brand on what your consumers are going to increasingly and rapidly remember. Invest in building and delivering on mass memories rather than mass awareness because if your brand doesn’t happen at that speed, it’s in danger of being overlooked.

Blink – or they’ll miss it.

Photo of “a long blink” taken by Phing, sourced from Flickr

Building a better business case for brand internally with CFOs

By Mark Di Somma

Persuading marketing and finance to talkIt’s an old bias but a telling one. Finance people accuse marketers of only spending money. Marketers accuse finance teams of only counting it. It’s another re-run of the analytical versus emotive debate yet it has the potential to carry deep bias into decision-making. As Brad VanAuken observed in this article, “I have found that many scientists, engineers and finance and operations professionals view marketing as a soft skill that lacks the rigor of other disciplines and that it deserves less attention and investment.”

While marketers will scoff at that idea, they cannot escape the accusation that marketers are generally the worst marketers of marketing. Frankly, they have in many cases failed to sell the value equation of what they do internally and they have failed to engage with and convince key audiences of the need to change their view.

It would be convenient to dismiss the tussle between finance and marketing as “politics”. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more serious than just difference of opinion or even outlook. Because of how they have tended to behave towards each other, both parties have ensured that potentially, huge amounts of money are being left on the table because neither party is fully using their skills to grow the brand to the greatest benefit of the company.

For CFOs, who must account to their shareholders for the company’s financial performance, marketing often looks mercurial, tangential and irresponsible. The lack of consistent standards within which to measure brand performance only exacerbate this bias. Marketers push back, arguing that financiers don’t understand people, that life is not a spreadsheet and that pulling the legs off the marketing budget is petty and self defeating.

No one action or process will change this impasse in our view. Rather a range of initiatives are needed to get both parties talking to each other and valuing the other’s contributions.

Start with Brad’s excellent checklist for assessing your company’s appetite to build brands. It’s vital that the company as a whole and senior decision makers in particular recognise the value and advantages of investing in brands. Capitalise on those areas where the answer is “Yes”. Address the areas where the answers are “No”.

Secondly ensure that the management of your brands is threaded throughout your culture by working with HR to implement a framework where specific roles and responsibilities are put in place to ensure brand management is actively and successfully implemented. These roles can range from Chief Brand Champion (who we argue should always be the CEO) through brand management to identity oversight. This isn’t about creating new roles necessarily but rather broadening the overview of specific roles within the organisation to take account of brand.

Thirdly, change how the budgets are fixed. The key problem, says Mark Ritson, is that marketing budgets have been decided on a top-down approach that is “non-strategic, takes no account of new initiatives within the company and ignores changes in the market. It also involves estimating how much a firm expects to sell before making any decision on marketing spend, thus inferring that marketing is an inconsequential expense, rather than integral investment.”

To rectify this, Ritson advocates a 7 step process:

1. Convene marketing for a one-day meeting.
2. Review lessons from the previous year and discuss the strategic goals for the coming year.
3. Agree strategic objectives
4. Break each one down into the practical, tactical challenges that need to be met next year.
5. Works with service providers to economically price each challenge.
6. Set realistic metrics around what constitutes success.
7. Present findings back to senior management, emphasising can be achieved if senior management provide the investment requested.

Finally, build some bridges. As Jean-Hugues Monier, Jonathan Gordon and Philip Ogren note in this article, the key to building strong CMO/CFO partnerships revolves around five actions:

1. Use consistent language across departments – and within them.
CMOs need to start building this relationship by having a clear understanding of what CFOs expect. CMOs have typically found it hard to say what the actual marketing spend is (by product, by market, by strategic intent), how much is spent on customer-facing (creative) initiatives and how much is spent on enabling (IT); how much is focused on different parts of the consumer decision journey; what is the spend on digital and social media (and what is it worth); and how much is spent on non-advertising activities (sponsorship, promotions, trade events). Quantifying these initiatives helps CFOs understand where and how value is being gained or lost, which makes budgeting discussions much more productive.

2. Focus on the metrics that matter.
Shareholders don’t care about fans or followers unless those numbers can be tied to profit. In order to talk meaningfully with CFOs about the audience that matters to them, CMOs must focus on key performance indicators that are important for shareholder value such as strong cash flow, cost of capital, return on capital, and operating margin. Marketing KPIs that don’t directly address shareholder value and the company’s objectives don’t tell the CMO or the CFO where marketing efforts are having the most impact.

3. Help CFOs focus on the long term.
As a long-term asset, the brand has a critical role to play in generating superior growth and return on invested capital over the long term. Over the past decade, for example, the total return to shareholders of companies with strong brands has consistently exceeded benchmarks by 31 percent. Too often, the brand is perceived as a “fuzzy” asset that’s hard to quantify. CMOs need to work with CFOs to help them understand how critical the brand is to financial impact by providing estimates of brand worth and investment proposals that build the brand based on hard data.

4. Get more for the money
Marketing could certainly take a long hard look at its procurement. The writers cite the case of a consumer packaged goods company where strong brands had evolved in separate silos, which meant total marketing spend was very inefficient. By analyzing costs more closely, the company came to understand that it was spending three times the industry benchmark on coupons and spending 50 percent more than the industry average on research and over-testing TV commercials without improving them. It was also using more than 50 market research companies to conduct similar tasks.

5. Ask for the CFO’s help.
As obvious as it may seem, CMOs should invite finance to participate in marketing’s planning process to build bridges and to benefit from financial expertise. As the writers conclude, “An analytical approach to marketing doesn’t mean an end to the creativity required to touch people’s emotions. It only means using data to better define when and where marketers should target audiences with which messages—and to demonstrate the value in doing so. This may not mean an end to difficult CMO-CFO conversations. But we believe it will mean the beginning of a powerful alliance based on trust and a shared understanding of marketing’s role in driving real business value.”

Photo of “Not Talking” taken by Manish Bansal, sourced from Flickr

That seems like a bright idea

By Mark Di Somma

Bright shiny actionsHilton Barbour’s glorious post on Bright Shiny Object strategy played out for real for me this week as a group of marketers who should have known better decided that the strategy to help get them out of the quandry they are in was “just going to be too slow”.

The solution? Facebook of course. Questions about what exactly they were going to be doing on Facebook and whether Facebook was an appropriate channel for a serious B2B endeavour were dismissed as “blackhatting”. The most important thing I was told was to ditch the work that had been done to date (involving months of research and analysis), put up a website (content to be decided) and print something for the sales people to take with them to their appointments.

Sadly, I fear Hilton’s Bright Shiny Object Syndrome is a subset of a deeper and even more disappointing temptation – “Bright Shiny Actions”. The wish to do something, anything, right now … on the grounds that some action is better than no action.

The dilemma for strategists is always that strategy seems to take so much time, whereas actions can start now. Actions keep people occupied. It gives them something to do with their hands. Sadly, as marketers have become more and more responsible for demand generation, they have also allowed themselves to be lulled into a belief that thinking busy is more important than busy thinking. And the proliferation of media has fed that perception that ‘we just need to get out there’. The problem for many brands though is that once they get on the tactical merry-go-round it’s very hard to get off. The money may come in at least initially, but over time the brand erodes and margin dies out of sight and out of mind because everyone’s too busy to notice. Think of the number of companies you know that were/are busy going bankrupt.

Faced with the pressure to do something now, here are three questions that may help slow impulsiveness and give everyone a context within which to make more considered decisions.

How long till the money runs out? This is important because it may well be that some stop-gap tactics need to be used to boost earnings. However, if you are going to use such tactics, be very clear about where, when and how they will be used, how they will be monitored and how they will correlate with where the company needs to get to. If you’re using tactics to buy time, it’s vital you know exactly how much time you need to be buying … and to work to that timeframe.

How long till the goodwill runs out? What’s got the company in the slump it’s in right now? Because more of the same is simply going to accelerate decay not fix it. To borrow a thought from the Heath Brothers, what are the small wins you can put in place right now that will convince consumers things are changing for the better? While most companies focus on the money, I actually think this aspect is equally important. If people are not inclined to like you, they’re not going to enjoy more of you and they’re not going to believe, or be interested in finding out more, about what’s going on over at your brand.

How long till the market runs out? If you’re in a market with strong organic growth, you’ll have some leeway around action time. Often companies aren’t in such a market of course. By the time they recognise something needs to be done, too much has already happened. I’m always amazed at how suddenly people come to this realisation. Their immediate reaction of course is to match the urgency of their realisation with rapidity of reaction. In reality, few markets break in my experience. They evolve, they decline – but they seldom just stop. Strategy is critical to understanding where your brand needs to get to in order to hit the new on-ramp. The question for “now” is how can you better meet changing market demand and how you can prepare customers for changes that lie ahead?

“How long have we got to change?” is a much more important consideration than “What else can we do right now?”

Photo of “Glinting Boulder” taken by Kevin Teague, sourced from Flickr

Coffee to go

By Mark Di Somma

coffee to goI walked into one of my favourite haunts and they were busy – OK, frantic. Waiting staff were running everywhere trying to get things done, serving people they didn’t know, trying to make a good impression.

I got my coffee – and nothing else. No hello, no eye contact, no sign of recognition. Just my usual flat white and cake. Almost dumped at my table. They were too busy dealing with the new people to go through the pleasantries with me. There was no need to smile. I’d become part of the furniture, another regular … This wasn’t the first time this has happened. But it was the last.

I finished my drink, quietly settled the bill, closed the door behind me, and said goodbye.

I’m going somewhere new, where people I don’t know yet will try to make a good impression.

It’s easy to offend your most loyal customers. Much easier than you think. And it will happen much more quickly than the new people you’re trying to form a good impression with. Because your loyal customers know you. They’ve dealt with you. They’ve experienced the warmth and the welcome, the interest and the engagement. They miss it when it’s gone.

Every day, you start again. Every impression counts. No-one will continue to pay once they realise they’ve been downgraded to décor.

Photo of “Coffee”, taken by Moyan Brenn, sourced from Flickr

Brand ROIs (and why they differ)

By Mark Di Somma

Different rates of return

Analytics have changed not just what marketers measure but how brands now appraise success. The temptation is to see all the metrics we have access to as correlated and, by inference, of similar and perhaps even related measurable value. We look at one analytic and wonder what its impact will be on another and on the bottom line.

There’s no doubt that with so many media opportunities, every brand has to invest more to get more. They have to invest more widely, they have to invest more resources, they have to pay attention to a lot more factors. And that’s confused a lot of people about what constitutes return on investment – because the temptation is to summarily assign money to the value side of the equation.

But is that an appropriate assumption?

Take a look though at how the next generation of buyers, millennials, appraise brands. According to this research done by Pew Research Center:
• They are low on social trust compared with Gen Xers and baby boomers.
• They are highly brand aware, but cynical—and not brand loyal. Companies basically must compete for loyalty with each purchase.
• They’re tech savvy and require more brand interaction opportunities than just advertising
• They have a significant footprint in Facebook
• They are very much a word of mouth generation – their research takes place on social media

For these consumers, no one aspect clinches the deal. Instead, loyalty is earned on a decision by decision basis and it’s based on factors ranging from advertising through to social buzz and peer acceptance. You can dismiss this as the peculiar behaviours of a particular generation if you want to – but if you do, I’m confident you’ll find yourself on the wrong side of a changing value equation. Where the millenials are going with this is where we’re all heading.

Marketing is no longer about making one investment, but increasingly many investments to consumers. And within this “portfolio”, every investment delivers different returns. That’s why the early social media monetisation models that predicted awareness would generate cash were wrong. The crossover from “Like” to buy didn’t happen as predicted because it was never going to happen. But it was expected by so many because it was the only return on investment model many knew how to apply.

The same rules apply to emerging investments such as content marketing. There are returns. But they need to be appraised contextually not singularly. When people talk about monetising their content marketing for example, they do so on the presumption that their content marketing needs to generate revenue in order to be successful, and that it is not doing what it is supposed to until it does that. (Just like they once used to put their media spend into TV and it would deliver them returns.) But the challenge doesn’t lie there, because, as we’re seeing via the millenials, that’s not how buyers view content. They don’t buy from a channel or even as the result of a singular activity. Instead consumers decide on overall bias based on many influencers, of which content may be one.

Here are some examples of the new investment-return framework I see emerging:

Invest in your brand – get recognition.

Invest in your story – build a narrative.

Invest in the community – get respect.

Invest in product development – keep interest.

Invest in assets – get earning capacity, presence and efficiencies.

Invest in news – develop traffic and profile.

Different investments. Different returns. All needing to be deftly judged and balanced.

Once we talked about integrated marketing communications as marketing that combined below the line and above the line activities. This “portfolio” approach redimensionalises that concept. In fact, what’s clear to me from the research is not only that any distinction between above and below the line is dated to the point of quaint, but that we can no longer separate tangible and intangible contributions to loyalty. Consumers are increasingly reacting to the cumulative effect of what is presented to them, and their reaction to any one aspect is not necessarily immediate nor is it always expressed in money.

So the real challenge lies in getting the optimum mix of activities (for want of a better word) to work for your brand, so that you are generating inclination, turnover and margin in ways that balance with your corporate structure and investor expectations.

Get it right, and you’ll deliver the recognition, narrative, respect and profile people are interested in, in sufficient quantities through the right channels to warrant consideration. This isn’t easy and the delicacies and subtleties around judgments and balances will only increase. So will the urgency for brands to come to grips with this portfolio approach. Furthermore, my view is that there will be repercussions for those that don’t opt in or decide to focus on a limited number of aspects. As with any investment, an enormous amount of energy, time, money and resource can be wasted if the portfolio is weighted incorrectly.

Photo of “Avalanche” taken by Wetsun, sourced from Flickr

Brands and the power of joy

By Mark Di Somma

Brands and the power of joyFrom a marketer’s point of view, numbers don’t drive recessions. They may start them. They may justify them. But they don’t actually make them happen. What drives recession in a consumer economy is very much the same thing that drives boom: emotion. When enough people believe in it, it will happen – and that’s because there will be enough people acting in a recessive way for the mindset to become embedded, and for the behaviours to seem logical, sensible, responsible, unavoidable.

Commoditisation works in much the same way. As something becomes more commonplace, as the standards rise and the costs of production fall, the expectations that all the products are the same also increases and people become more motivated to look for the cheapest option. It makes sense. It’s the obvious thing to do.

As consumers, the less we enjoy something, the less it surprises us or motivates us, the less that it elates us, the less we are happy to pay. The more people who feel less, the greater the loss of value (because then the effect shifts from being individually-sensed to being collectively endorsed)

We can monitor that fall-off in value now to a high degree of granularity. Data and algorithms drive so much of how brands do business today. Businesses take comfort in that because it delivers patterns and predictability. But it also brings with it a shift in emphasis. More and more brands find themselves focusing on what the numbers are doing. And that’s a dangerous reference point for a marketer – because the focus moves away from the human drivers of why people buy (and what generates value) towards the non-human drivers of what is being bought (and what most companies value themselves). In time, customers become an expression of the numbers, not the other way round.

That atmosphere can soon foster critical assumptions. One is that the emphasis must be on driving down cost in order to bolster the balance sheet and feed the numbers. That’s not a bad thing. But then, in response to calls for even greater returns and greater efficiencies, the numbers people can look to drive every ounce of delight out of the brand experience (because it can’t be quantified). They justify doing so as cutting costs, acting responsibly, doing the right thing, sweating the assets. At the same time, they’ll often look to drop prices in an effort to appear more attractive, be more “competitive”, boost the top line and the volume data. From a brand standpoint, such decisions go to a bad place: more companies peddling more vigorously in greater misery for lower returns and less loyal customers.

Marketers need to be able to advocate and quantify the effect of joy. And I suspect that the way to be doing that is to keep asking “What do we need to be introducing into our product range for our prices to stay stable or even increase?” The resurgence of Lego is a classic example of what can happen when a company focuses on the ‘emotional profit’ of its customers.

Ironically, cost cutting wasn’t the problem at Lego – in fact, quite the opposite – but the effect had been equally telling. Lego had basically let the designers run wild, according to this article in Businessweek, and the brand had stopped resonating with its constituency – in a market where buyers are beseiged with options.

Designers had indulged their creative streaks with increasingly complex models that required more and more new components. By 2004 the number of components had exploded, climbing from about 7,000 to 12,400, and supply costs had done the same. And while adults and the designers themselves loved what was being created, kids hated it. Their Lego wasn’t a joy to play with anymore. It was frustrating and complex.

Lego fought its way back, not by cutting costs directly but by holding its designers to account. By making its customers its priority and focusing on what worked for them, the company was able to slash the number of components to those that were most used, most loved – and to scrap the rest. It then brought creative and noncreative people together and used their combined insights to produce products that the market loves, that were practical to make and that were realistically costed. By celebrating creativity, but focusing it within agreed parameters, the company was able to restore profitability and retake hearts.

The key learning for marketers from Lego’s success is to focus on the buyer’s delight and make the money work, don’t compromise the joy to get the equations to work. And the second learning is equally salient – don’t expect that equation to be figured out by one group. Instead, bring people with different mindsets and emphases together, put the customer at the centre of the problem, and start talking.

If your products are struggling right now, slashing the delight to make the numbers work may temporarily alleviate the economic pain but it won’t address the key brand need. Find a way to inject joy into what you offer. Make your customers smile … and the money will follow.

Photo of “joy flights” taken by Mark Roy, sourced from Flickr

A simple value equation

By Mark Di Somma

Simple value equation

Marketers put a price on something and call that its value. They arrive at that amount through a bunch of internal references – cost, margin, goodwill, disbursements … Then they talk about that value as if it is real. It isn’t of course. Value is simply an ongoing judgment call based on this equation:

Value = Perception divided by price.

When a consumer judges something as over-valued, the perception of what it is worth is less than the price being asked for it. And when something is seen as undervalued, the perception of what it is worth is more than the price being asked for it.

The mechanics of determining an asking price are exactly that. The questions marketers need to keep answering to determine value are different. They are also disarmingly simple.

“Why should I buy this from you?” and

“Why should I feel it’s worth what you’re asking for it?”

Photo of “A world of catchy colors” taken by Florent Lannoy, sourced from Flickr

Getting singular: building an effectively focused brand

By Mark Di Somma

Getting singular - building a focused brandThe fracas over at Pepsico as to whether the company should continue to operate a diversified platform or free the snacks division to pursue its goals independently is a reminder of the ongoing debate over diversification vs focus.

It’s not hard to see why diversification has its advocates. Operational synergies make for a more efficient organisation potentially while diversification into other categories, particularly related categories, allows consumers to get more of and from a brand than was available previously. That’s clearly Indra Nooyi’s view. Snacks and drinks belong together.

Diversification also spreads risks, allowing brands to absorb downturns in one area without putting everyone into a tailspin. Again, that strategy appears to be working for Pepsico with the Frito-Lay division helping to maintain company performance in the face of a sustained hammering from arch-rival Coke and a general downturn in the carbonated drinks sector in the developed world over growing health concerns.

But is the age of the single minded brand (with its single minded proposition) over? What’s the brand case for being singular – and what does it take to get it to work well? Here’s five reasons why I believe some brands should still look to lean this way:

No distractions – Focusing on one category in fast-changing markets allows brands to keep their eye on the one rapidly ricocheting ball. Coke continues to move deftly and confidently in response to significant changes in beverage demands because the beverage markets and soda drinkers are the centre of their attention. According to this article in Forbes, Coca-Cola derives more than 70% of its revenues from sparkling beverages, whereas PepsiCo generates more than half its revenues, and more than 60% of company value, from its snacks business. Coke can channel resources in one direction and use past learnings in other markets to model expansion and receptivity.

To work though, especially for scaled brands, the focused brand must cater to a big need – and to do that effectively, the brand itself must be locked into delivering on an idea that has universal appeal. Twitter is as focused as it gets. It works because it’s now ubiquitous with something the whole world loves. Chatting.

Deep rather than wide – Focused brands have the opportunity to explore all the nuances and possibilities of their sector and to tune their in-depth knowledge to delivering products that click with what customers are looking for. Those insights can give them a real edge over their more generalist competitors. They have the potential to tap and develop the market they know so well and may even have helped define. Starbucks is synonymous with coffee (and it got into huge trouble when it forgot that). Red Bull has huge share-of-mind in the energy drinks market. Both use their knowledge of their area to clear advantage. That knowledge establishes these brands as synonymous associations in the minds of many consumers and gives them the ability to combine single-mindedness with footprint to combat convergence. Their singular platform also gives them a strong and clear sense of purpose. Red Bull chases excitement in everything it does.

Simple’s back. According to a report by Siegel and Gale, consumers are willing to spend at least 5% more for brands they perceive as simpler, and 75% of people are more likely to recommend a brand because it provides simpler experiences. This correlates well with research showing that customers are looking for effortless rather than wow! In a world filled with choices and options, there’s a big swing to straight-forward. And a single brand in a single category with a singular point of view is as simple as it gets.

Greater urgency – Higher risk impels focused brands to act more quickly to correct mistakes and maximise opportunities, in theory anyway, because there is no fallback position and no outside support. They thrive and die on what they do. (Equally though, they can be more vulnerable because they don’t have a multi-layered, multi-offer structure around them.) I don’t necessarily buy the argument put up by some that cutting a brand free means it will automatically be more agile but I do think that, with the right leadership, it can encourage the independence and individuality that some brand cultures need to act more assertively than they have whilst sheltered beneath the wings of the mother-ship.

A better ability to handle complexity within set channels – Richard Webster of Bain & Company is quoted here as saying that focus works best in big, developed markets that have complex categories and a finite number of retailers, presumably because there is a mix of scale and defined channels that corral people effectively into looking for the brand. In less-developed countries with fragmented retailing, he says, it makes more sense to have a broad product range and a big sales force. Less disciplined and/or developed markets require a wider net.

A focused brand is not an easy choice. It demands responsiveness and a deep engagement with, and understanding of, consumers. It means faster improvement to stay ahead and great channels to retain presence. It requires the discipline to stay simple and the persistence to retain top of mind. But in a world where more and more brands want to sell more and more in more and more places, there’s certainly a case to be made for concentrating everything you have on doing one thing, and variations of one thing, amazingly well.

Photo of “one”, taken by andrechinn, sourced from Flickr

In a flap

By Mark Di Somma

qantas in a flapI’m always fascinated when companies blame market conditions or competitor behaviour for their own misfortune. Fascinated – because, dig a little deeper and often their dilemma is a result of their own intransigence.

I’ve been told on a number of occasions by senior decision makers at companies with serious brand health issues that they still believe their long term brand strategy is right, it’s just the market conditions that are not conducive. That always strikes me as odd, because if a brand is not responding to a shifting market but rather waiting for the shifts to realign in its favour, that’s hardly a strategy. It’s closer to bingo.

Across the Tasman, nothing that is happening at Qantas right now should be surprising them. The airline hasn’t suddenly hit unexpected turbulence. On the contrary this situation seems to have been developing for years. But with the latest results, the pressure is on to pick a new flightplan. It certainly doesn’t appear to be a situation that will resolve itself. Nevertheless, my reading of developments is very much that Qantas is a company waiting and hoping rather than leading. Waiting for the price war with Virgin to somehow run its course. Waiting for regulators to find in its favour. Maybe even waiting for the same strategies that worked at budget airline Jetstar to work more magic in the full-service sector.

Branding though is not a waiting game, at least not in the longer term, and certainly not in the volatile and unforgiving world of aviation. And it’s not a replication game either. Things can go decidedly pear-shaped when brand owners attempt to wait out a proactive competitor or apply a strategy that has worked elsewhere or in another part of the same sector to the brand they are in charge of now.

This statement warrants comment. “There is nothing anybody in Qantas has done that has caused this issue.” I tend to agree, but perhaps not in the way that the CEO intended. Nothing (or at least not enough) seems to have been done to respond to the actions of competitors and/or changing dynamics in the market – and that is precisely why Australia’s national carrier finds itself in the position it does. Brands don’t decay by accident. But they can deteriorate – quickly – when they operate from the back foot.

Photo of “Qantas 747” taken by Simon_sees, sourced from Flickr

9 ways to get others to welcome your ideas

By Mark Di Somma

Getting others to welcome your ideas
This article in the New Yorker recently revealed that the iconic Got Milk? campaign actually failed to reverse declining milk consumption and has now been all but scrapped. It’s a reminder to all of us who create and promote ideas that awareness (to the point of ubiquity), even for an idea that’s good for us and makes sense, is no guarantee of success.

So how should we frame ideas to encourage take-up? Inspired by another New Yorker article on why innovations do or do not spread (hat-tip Alex for bringing it to my attention), here’s nine suggestions I hope you find useful in getting others to embrace and act on your thinking:

1. Provide a compelling motive to accept a new idea by making the problem it answers urgent and real. Present the problem in ways that people can actually see or experience rather than imagine or process. Give them a reason for change.

2. Connect the answer (idea) with the problem. Seeing really is believing. Show people what happens for the better, not just how the idea works.

3. Work with people’s inclinations not against them. Understand why they believe and behave the way they do. Leverage as much of that as you can by giving people enough of what they recognise for them to speculate on the remainder.

4. Make take-up easy. Solve their problem, not yours. Create a new and better normality that people can start to live with.

5. Prep the dip. “The dip” is Seth Godin’s term for the hard yards that precede success. If your idea is going to hit bricks before it reaches bouquets, tell people what to expect, and why.

6. Identify and quantify the rewards. Make sure the emotion of what the new idea will deliver is greater than the emotion people derive from the way things are now. Make the answer warrant the effort of take-up.

7. People, not technology, training or even logic, encourage the diffusion of ideas. People follow the lead of others. As the New Yorker observes, “effort is a social process”. Therefore if you want an idea to spread, form conversations around it. Give people things to talk about with others who like and trust them.

8. Find common ground first between you as the idea creator and your audience as the idea receipients. People accept ideas more readily from people they like; people they come to believe are a lot like them.

9. Give people ways not just to welcome the idea but then to work with you to help develop it. That way it becomes their idea as well. Now make their championing of the idea a way for them to enhance their social or communal standing or, at the very least, make sure that doing so doesn’t risk them looking or feeling foolish.

Good luck …

Photo of “Dandelion”, taken by Anderson Mancini, sourced from Flickr