Hooked on brands: A (Short) Virtual Coffee™ with Nir Eyal

By Mark Di Somma

The Hook Model

Nir Eyal spent years in the video gaming and advertising industries. I first became aware of his work through his articles (his work can be found in Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic and TechCrunch) and his blog. Recently he released the book “Hooked” in which he promulgates a process that he says successful brands can embed in their products and communication approaches to subtly encourage shifts in customer behaviour.

Habits are one of those subjects that intrigue marketers. How do we get our brands onto the “to do” lists of busy people with short attention spans and access to extensive choice? Then, having got their attention and their loyalty, how do we keep them? According to Eyal, “Forming habits is imperative for the survival of many products. As infinite distractions compete for our attention, companies are learning to master novel tactics to stay relevant in users’ minds. Amassing millions of users is no longer good enough. Companies increasingly find that their economic value is a function of the strength of the habits they create.”

Absolutely agree. Share of mind (and potentially market) is increasingly dictated by share of day. But knowing that and achieving it are two different things. And that’s the focus of this new book. The secret to achieving habit leadership, says Eyal, lies in pulling consumers into what he’s dubbed the Hook Model. The Model itself consists of four steps:

  1. Trigger – the actuator of the behaviour. Triggers cue behaviours into becoming part of consumers’ everyday routines.
  2. Action – the behaviours that consumers take in order to receive a reward.
  3. The Variable Reward – the creation of craving through unpredictable feedback loops.
  4. Investment – the investment that consumers make – in time, data, effort, social capital or money – that improves what they subsequently receive.

I reached out to Nir for more details. Here’s some excerpts from our conversation:

MARK: So tell me Nir, what’s the difference between a habit and a ritual?

NIR: A ritual is “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order,” whereas a habit is “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” When it comes to the context of product design, I define habits similarly, as impulses to do behaviours with little or no conscious thought.

MARK: What’s driving The Hook Model in your view?

NIR: Three macro-trends are making the world a potentially more addictive place. Companies are able to collect more data about user behaviour, interactive technology is more accessible, and the transfer of this data (back and forth) is happening faster than ever before. These three things — data, access, and speed — send users through “Hooks” faster and more frequently, and therefore have increased the addictive potential of all sorts of products and services.

MARK: Is The Hook Model applicable to any product? If not, how would it change for other products?

NIR: Lots of products are habit-forming. The impulse to watch television at the same time of night, cheer for your local sports team every season, have your favourite cup of coffee from Starbucks each morning, visit your favourite store when you feel stressed, or even attending religious services each week, are all examples of behaviours we do with little or no conscious thought, out of habit.

That being said, not every business needs to form a user habit, but every business that forms a habit needs a Hook. The bar is very high for habit-forming products, lots of things have to go right and not many companies do it successfully. Of course, those who do it right create tremendous amounts of value. However, even if your company doesn’t require a habit, understanding consumer psychology and applying even parts of the Hook Model to your customer experience can improve your odds of success.

MARK: Which brands are winning the war to change customer routines? And what types of brands are losing?

NIR: To date, companies have relied upon expensive advertising to drive consumer action. They’ve associated their brands with an attribute they hope customers will value above competing products. But recently, a new crop of companies have found they can bring their users back not through brand-building ads, but through the experience of using the product itself. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest don’t use their brand to compel use. Instead, these companies take users through the four steps of the Hook to form habits.

MARK: Finally, how long does a new habit last before people revert to an old habit? What are the implications of this for products?

NIR: Habits are powerful but they often don’t last forever. To borrow an accounting term, we know that habits are LIFO, last in, first out. That is to say the habits we’ve most recently acquired are the first to go when circumstances change. For businesses, this means they need to maintain constant vigilance for the next competitor who could potentially capture the habits they’ve cemented with their customers.

The basic framework I describe in my book also illustrates how companies can wrestle user habits away from entrenched competitors. There are four potential strategies to displace an existing customer habit: new competitors can design products to shuttle through the four steps of the hook faster, better, more frequently, or by making it easier to start using the product in the first place.

If you’d like to find out more about The Hook Model, you can buy Nir’s new book from here (non-affiliated link).

Brand actions are not the same as brand strategy

By Mark Di Somma

Brand actions or brand strategy

Actions are not strategies. Great strategies change more than where you are, what you call yourselves, what you offer. That’s Michael Porter’s thought. Great brand strategies re-invent the emotional context within which your brand competes against others in the marketplace. That’s mine. A great brand strategy redefines the relationship that people have with a brand over time. People think about you differently because they feel about you differently. That opportunity often gets missed in the rush to give people internally things to execute.

Great brand strategies focus on shifting the consumer inclination. The myriad of things you intend to do over the next 6, 12, 24 months are the means to arrive at that distinctive emotional goal. Turning Volkswagen into America’s most loved car – strategy. Telling people to stop smoking – action. Lifting traffic with a promotional offer – action.

Actions are prompts, and therefore, like all tactics, they function as switches. Yes. No. In response, people do something or they don’t. Change the logo – action. Like. Or not. Notice. Or not. Consumers may be incentivised by an emotion to take an action or respond to it but that’s often as far as the emotive change extends. The residual emotion about the brand and what it means to someone often remains largely unchanged. The brand is what the brand offers at that moment.

So many “brand strategies” are really action plans. Innovations – actions. CSR – action. Sponsorship – action. Content – action. And every “media strategy” and every “digital strategy” I have seen in recent years was, in reality, an action plan. They have all been about getting people to do things. What they don’t do is lay out a distinctive, competitive, emotional arc for that brand that puts in ‘clear space’ to pursue its commercial goals.

So why are so many marketers determined to be brand action figures? It seems to me they have muddied the waters between planning and strategy. There are important differences. A great brand strategy is filled out and brought to market through actions that move consumers towards that competitive end-feeling. But the equation doesn’t work in reverse: a collection of actions does not automatically indicate a real strategy in play. It simply shows that people have been busy.

Red Bull’s brand strategy was to become the most exciting beverage in the world. In itself, that’s a radical idea. It doesn’t make logical sense for a drink to be exciting. It does make emotional sense – if you can imagine it. It was an idea that put them in a different space than everyone else who sold drinks. And every action the brand has taken, from what they say to what they sponsor, has reinforced the shift to that consumer inclination. They remain a brand utterly addicted to excitement. Disney’s brand strategy was to be the happiest place on earth. That sense of magic infects every action they take, and each action has consolidated Disney’s emotional status. On ice, on film, onsite – Disney does everything it can to be fantastical.

That’s why every brand strategy should be underpinned by two clear questions:
• What’s the most amazing thing could consumers feel about our brand that they don’t feel now?
• Where’s the competitive advantage for us if they do?

Then and only then should the question be: “How do we do that?”

Photo of “Unmasked” taken by JD Hancock, sourced from Flickr

Planning to expand your brand? 7 things to consider

By Mark Di Somma

Brand expansion

As marketing teams finalise plans for the year ahead, the logistics of making growth happen should be strongly influencing the targets you set.

Most of us would agree there are four ways to strategise for growth: increase the share you hold in the markets you are strong in; develop new products for those markets; extend your reach by finding new markets for your current brands; and develop new products that cater to new markets.

But while the strategies themselves are well-known, your capacity to expand is of course directly proportional to your capacities to generate demand and to fulfil. It’s tempting to pluck a number that’s x percentage points above organic growth. But as the old direct marketing adage goes – be careful what you ask for, because it might just come true. Here’s 7 factors I suggest you look at to navigate a responsible course between stretch and over-reach.

1. Access – will your distribution strategy allow you to grow volumes of either current or new lines to the extent you need to? If reach is finite and static, your ability to physically deliver into market will bottle-neck. What have you done to open up access – and is doing so in keeping with your brand’s position in the marketplace?

As my colleague Brad VanAuken points out here: “Distribution contributes to customer brand insistence in two ways. First, it increases brand accessibility so that brand preference is more likely to be converted to brand purchase. But, more importantly, it increases brand exposure, which increases brand awareness … The only situation in which extensive distribution may not be right for your brand is if it is positioned as an upscale or luxury brand. Limited distribution in limited upscale places can add to the cachet of “exclusive” brands.”

Will you be available, not available or too available as a brand for the targets you are setting?

2. Speed – can you deliver enough product fast enough to meet the demand? At one level, this is about pure fulfilment. At another, it’s about making sure that you have paced the introduction of new product and the upgrade of current offerings at just the right speed to avoid simply trying to shovel more and more of the same thing into a market that’s tired of what you’re offering.

How have you timed your innovation/improvement programme to coincide with your expansion plans? Too slow – and your brand will lack dynamism. Too fast – and you risk overwhelming consumers with too many choices and cannibalising your own releases.

3. Support – have you timed and resourced your communications to drive growth at the pace and intensity you require? I think this is one of the significant challenges today – getting enough cut-through for your brand to be heard at the same time as you continue to sustain and refresh the messages to keep consumers’ interest.

Too many brands think through launch and then plan for maintenance comms. I think that’s changing – and increasingly brands need to be planning waterfalled comms that maintain messages but introduce new points of interest over the medium term. At the same time, you need to have a resource ‘buffer’ in reserve to address any lag. The trick here is to responsibly balance maintenance of your growth ranges, introduction of new developments and offers, the planned withdrawal of communications support for dying lines and the responsive comms needed to plug holes or fades.

Are you saying enough about the right things to the right people at the right times with the right weighting in the most interesting ways to generate the growth you want?

4. Interaction – how are you ensuring that your social feeds are more than just background? How are you striking the right balance between the short-term exchanges that Twitter and Facebook are so good for to build relationships and the longer-term commitment of reinforcing relevance? What metrics have you put in place to ensure that your social conversation is fuelling interest across all your products and planned releases, without reducing your social channels to promotional mouth-pieces?

At the other extreme, is your brand just chatting for the sake of it? That question is made all the more pointed by speculation that organic reach on platforms such as Facebook is heading for zero. In which case, you may find yourself increasingly allocating resources to interactions that speak to no-one and add nothing to your ability to grow.

5. Volume – obvious but easily overlooked. Once the orders come in, will you be able to keep up with demand? The temptation is always to look to ship more to bigger markets but, to Brad’s point earlier, not everyone should be looking at scale as a driver for growth. Sometimes, a brand should be aiming to be precious rather than popular – particularly given the logistics, expense and delayed returns of getting into some of those markets and continuing to supply at the levels required.

Everyone talks about return on equity and return on capital. Perhaps marketers need to focus as much energy on the heavily-related topic of return on expansion. “What do we get for going there in greater quantities? And what do we gain if we don’t?”

How much is enough when it comes to your brand retaining optimum brand value? At what stocking level do you risk becoming too much of a good thing?

6. Understanding – there’s a fascinating irony in the fact that as markets get bigger, the demands of consumers to be treated specifically and personally grow louder. Those demands come with some potentially hefty investments. The key questions for brands with ambitious growth plans are: Can you grow your understanding of your market(s) as quickly if not more quickly than you can the consumer base itself? And then, having grown it, can you keep feeding that enlarged community with the levels of service and experience that they now expect?

In a great piece on the travel industry, the authors offered advice that is relevant to any number of brands keen to expand their footprint: Focus on customers, not channels; Win in the era of ‘big data’; Unlock the power of partnerships (“Succeeding here may be more about identifying companies with similar interests and synergistic capabilities than about throwing new money and new technology after problems rooted in structural issues of coordination.”); and Master the entire customer experience.

How will you stay delightfully one-on-one as you expand? What will you continue to know about your customers as individuals that your competitors don’t know?

7. Responsibility – What compromises will you need to make ethically to achieve the growth you’re targeting? Does it depend on you sourcing from lower-wage countries, for example, compromising environmental standards or adding ingredients to your products that are considered harmful or unhealthy? Does it come at the expense of diversity goals – or other responsibility targets? Interesting to see Puma putting safeguards in place across its supplier network to ensure that they pass muster. Not doing so risks your brand being labelled as one that pursues its commercial plans at too high a social cost.

What’s the potential cost of growth to your social reputation?

Brands remain addicted to growth. (In time, my view is that we will have to question that –because the environmental consequences debate will become increasingly mainstream.) But in the meantime, growth continues to be the metric that so many look to for proof that marketers are doing their job well and that businesses are strong. In the 12 months ahead, what level of growth are you going to commit to that enables your brand to grow at a realistic pace, retains the customers you have, introduces new advocates to your brand community and continues to safeguard and enhance your brand’s immediate and long term reputation?

Photo of “Earth Horizon with UFO or Star” created by DonkeyHotey, sourced from Flickr

How Purpose can drive change and innovation

By Mark Di Somma and Hilton Barbour

Change  - to what purpose

Change has become a recognised game-changer for enlightened and progressive businesses. In this series we’ve attempted to define why Purpose and Profits should be linked  and explained the importance of building a system to measure the impact Purpose has. In this post, we go further into the notion of Purpose as a catalyst for change.

In a business environment where change is trumpeted as the only constant, it’s not surprising many organisations recognize the imperative to build deeper competency in change management. Sadly though, as John Kotter the veritable “father” of change management has asserted, the reality is that most large change initiatives are blighted with sub-standard results and some are dismal failures.

Why? Well, according to Gary Hamel, the issue is that organisations are spectacular at managing the implementation of top-down change but really shoddy at embedding the reasons (and rewards) for change at a deeper psychological level. And secondly, in a world fixated on agile and nimble companies, they seldom create a business that can adapt – and innovate – quickly.

Simplistically the failures seem a classic case of “the process” over “the people”

Perhaps a better way forward would be to look at change through an entirely different lens.

Shift the question from “Change – to what end?” to “Change – to what purpose?”

In this alternative world imagined by Hamel lies change platforms that syndicate and democratise change across the organisation, that are based on initiative rather than mandate and that encourage free-form experimentation rather than project-managed milestones. Such an approach, encourages wider and more accountable participation, fosters honest conversation, diversifies solutions rather than seeking to close everything down to a single answer and seeds local experimentation that can then be refined in a less risky environment before becoming part of the way forward.

For those caught up in the “innovate or die” zeitgeist, the scenario above sounds like nirvana.

But what if we could further elevate the potential that these changes would be embraced more readily, and more deeply?

What would happen if those change platforms were purpose-focused – if they focused on changes that could change the world as well as the bottom line?

What if the changes being sought on an altruistic level (intentional purpose), were linked to the pursuit of commercial benefits that were tangible and sustainable (functional purpose)  would that inspire managers and people in the businesses themselves to participate in the ways that Hamel describes?

Could that help deliver the bottom line benefits that growth-focused change management cannot?

This isn’t a new thought.

In 2009, two McKinsey principals, Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller, wrote an article about the irrational side of change management in which they identified a range of pre-conditions for successful change:

  • A story that focuses on the impact of change on society, customers, investors, teams and that is compelling to individuals not just the organisation; that people feel they “own” because they helped author it; and that uses a combination of urgency and dreaming to spur momentum and incite change.
  • Clear behaviours that are expected from all involved, that are publicly reported on and that are embraced by all, rather than led by a select few.
  • Aligned and reinforcing mechanisms, such as systems, processes and incentives, that are seen as intrinsically fair and that are long on meaning because they are offered as a surprise rather than a right or an entitlement.
  • Skills enhancement that focuses on what people feel and believe in as well as what they think, and that build capabilities through a programme of forums and fieldwork.

What sounded like an irrational premise to them then, sounds incredibly like a Purpose-driven and Purpose-founded set of conditions to us now.

Yet there remain many who are Purpose-skeptics, who believe that Purpose is merely a business Polyanna. These include renowned Australian marketing scientist Professor Byron Sharp who has taken Jim Stengel, one of the key advocates of purpose-driven brands, to task over whether such brands are as effective as Stengel states. Sharp questions whether the methodology used to arrive at Stengel’s list of successful purpose-driven brands is sound.

That skepticism may be well-founded. After all, as we noted in our last article in this series, the current lack of an accepted measurement system to effectively monitor the competitive difference that purpose injects is worrying. But, there was a time that measuring Brand Value didn’t exist either.

Here’s what we’d contend is unassailable.

Change requires people – not processes – to do something different tomorrow than they do today. It’s messy, complicated, frustrating and the attraction to slip backwards toward the current status quo remains high.

Making the change, and sticking to it, therefore requires an appeal to both the head and the heart of your people. In organizations who have a clear, distinct and embedded Purpose, that appeal becomes infinitely easier and infinitely more motivating.

After all, as our PROSCI Change Management instructor was fond of saying “Change is all about the people, Stupid”.

We think Gary Hamel would agree.

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 are appreciated.


Photo of “Not only our island nation that is sinking”, taken by Nattu, sourced from Flickr






The battle between ideas and access

By Mark Di Somma

Ideas and accessAt one level Taylor Swift’s split with Spotify is the story of ongoing upheavals in the music industry and one artist’s approach to contain the impact. At another, it is symptomatic of a struggle for the relationship with the end customer that is going on across much of B2C.

Those who create/ manufacture/ produce are increasingly at odds with those who distribute/ bring to market /sell. And the questions in this burgeoning battle are the same in the music industry as they are between food brands and supermarkets for example or between Amazon and book publishers: who owns the most valuable part of the relationship, and to what extent should the other part compromise their margin?

Creators will always believe that the idea does not exist without them. Perfectly valid argument. But as distributors gather more data about consumers, gain greater and greater footprints and as the channels they control become ubiquitous, many are increasingly of the view that the idea won’t sell without them. The dilemma – where does the value get actualised? The answer, as Christine Arden says, is now whoever touches the customer last.

Increasingly, the price of greater access is the commoditising of the value of the idea – or at the very least, pressure to make the idea more and more available (whether it is as a product or indeed any other form) by making it cheaper. Chris Anderson once said that technology marches towards free. I wonder whether access does the same. Is that the price of fame if you’re a brand? That, in most cases, as you go wider and further, you must also become less valuable in order for the take-up model to work for those who are distributing?

Spotify made Taylor Swift’s music more available – but at a price that Swift now deems unacceptable. That price is more than the pirated price – free – and presumably less than what Swift makes from album sales. But as David Holmes noted in this article in The Guardian, “She is one of the few artists today who can really drive sales and not just streams … I think you could count on one hand the number of artists that could pull this off and remain popular – as digital download sales are in freefall. I do think eventually every artist is going to have to be on a streaming service … Over time, if artists want their music to be heard in any meaningful way, they need to be on a streaming service.”

If Holmes is right, the future looks like more and more artists competing for listens on globally streams that may (look to) pay them less and less (as the competition to be heard intensifies).

It makes for an increasing balancing act in my view – the sweet spot between a brand that consumers know and value and a brand that is spread too thin with margins it considers unviable, disrespectful even; margins that in essence make it next to impossible to continue to invest and therefore condemn a brand to spiral out unless it can find enough critical mass to overcome the margin deficit and somehow pull out of the dive. This won’t be Taylor Swift’s problem – but it is an ongoing issue for many brands, particularly those that are looking to establish footprint.

It raises an interesting question doesn’t it for those looking at whether to scale or contain. “How popular can our brand afford to be?” Will the margin you retain by having more control compensate for the volume you achieve by partnering with another party with global reach?

Image of “Access to Cloud/Ladder to Heaven” rendered by FutUndBeidl, sourced from Flickr

Connecting brand and price

By Mark Di Somma

Connecting price and brandAs technology and globalised business models continue to deliver efficiencies and new opportunities, every sector will face disruptive pricing that in effect re-costs what the market would otherwise pay. Many of those movements will naturally be downward; others will lift the entry point. Amazon has effectively reframed the cost of books; Samsung and others are resetting the cost of owning a tablet; Tesla has redefined what an electric car is and also the cost of owning one.

Prices fluctuate in every market of course – nothing to talk about there. But when a brand’s pricing changes significantly but the perception of the brand does not, there’s a real risk of non-alignment. The brand either ‘loses value’ or ‘becomes/stays more expensive’ for no good reason that the consumer can see. By shifting what Tim Smith has referred to as the “value exchange” without repositioning the premise by which they compete, brands end up deteriorating both: there is less sense of value; and there is less sense of fair exchange. Consumers are either getting more or less value than they were getting – for no reason that has been clearly articulated to them.

MacDonald’s it seems is facing this very issue at the moment. They continue to offer, and to brand themselves, as the purveyor of $1 meals, but increasingly their menu reflects higher ticket items. And that’s affecting their bottom line as the gap between what people expect to pay and what they are being asked to pay widens. As John Gordon comments in the article, “If you encourage and kind of seed the notion that you can come in for a couple bucks and get some food – and then you can’t do that anymore – there’s bound to be a reaction.”

Hilton Barbour sourced this graph which clearly shows the Golden Arches not keeping pace with low cost meal competitors like Chipotle.

MacDonalds versus Chipotle graph

As Businessweek points out, “Chipotle has disrupted everything up and down the food chain, forcing everyone from Taco Bell to Chili’s to scramble to stay relevant.” At some stage, it strikes me, that MacDonald’s will need to make the decision as to whether they are still (and can afford to remain) a frugal diners’ brand. They will either need to disrupt their costs in order to get back to being a true $1 meal provider or change what people expect to find and pay for in their restaurants.

And such a decision has implications for the story they tell and the experience they provide. After all, if you’re no longer a $1 meal brand, changes are needed to do justice to the new asking price. As Seth Godin so rightly observes, “Every great brand (even those with low prices) is known for something other than how cheap they are.”

While MacDonald’s may be struggling to keep their brand and their pricing aligned at the economy end of the market, Tesla has, counter-intuitively, used price to successfully shift perceptions the other way. In a market that has traditionally focused on affordability and mass market interest in the hope of building feasible levels of interest, Tesla has priced itself high and built a brand to meet it, and in so doing has successfully positioned the electric sports car as a luxury vehicle. They have then single-mindedly set about creating a vehicle that does justice to that bracket. Price is a powerful signal that this is a brand that cannot, and should not, be compared to other electric offerings. As Max Warburton points out in this article, “Tesla is selling cars to emotional buyers who are comparing the Tesla S to other emotional, irrational and expensive products – such as the Mercedes S class and Maserati. That’s the genius of the product – consumers are not doing any cost/benefit calculations …”

The worlds of fast food and fast cars may be subject to very different price points, pressures and competitive dynamics – but both cases illustrate the power, and vulnerability, of clearly identifying, through the brand, the value that consumers are paying for.

Accessible brands have accessible price points. Aspirational brands are priced stratospherically. Done well, the elements of brand and price reinforce each other. Allowed to drift, the relationship gets out of kilter and confused consumers look around for competitors who feel closer to what they were expecting. Tesla’s great challenges going forward will in part I suppose be technological. But they will also be perceptual – if they wish to retain such a market-disrupting price point, they will need to look for ways to remain irresistibly elite.

Further reading
Beth Kowitt fills out the background on what’s going wrong with McDonald’s in this article in Fortune. Well worth the read.

Photo of “self portrait with a price tag” taken by Hanan Cohen, sourced from Flickr
Hilton Barbour – for the chart that featured on his Linked In feed.


Brand signals or brand noise? Being heard. Staying heard.

By Mark Di Somma

Are your brand signals effective

In economics, signalling focuses on the ability of one party to effectively convey information about itself to another party. That was relatively easy pre-Internet. Brands simply pushed claims into the marketplace through a range of set-play media actions and waited for consumers to react. The ability of a signal to reach an audience rested almost entirely on the message itself and the media budget.

As we move now from a world in which asymmetric information has prevailed to one in which perfect information, or at least more transparent information, is closer to the norm, marketers are grappling with a landscape where they must balance a new abundance of signalling platforms with a maddening overload of market noise. To be heard above the din, they must think through not just what they signal and how, but also why and to what effect.

As Allen Adamson has said: “Branding is about signals – the signals people use to determine what you stand for as a brand. Signals create associations.” Brands that simply telegraph what others are saying will only add to the background volume – making it harder for any signal to stand out. Extending Adamson’s observation, lack of signal creates dis-association, a brand that people are not inclined to feel part of, or even to be seen with. The price of noise is commoditisation. And as the noise increases, profile fades and brands drown.

There’s clear correlation to me between market leadership and signal leadership. The brands that are listened to are the brands that consumers turn to for guidance. According to this article in strategy + business, market leaders that lose their pre-eminent position have only a short time in which to regain the top spot – before they risk slipping back into the field. That timeframe it seems can be counted in quarters rather than years. Peter Golder, Julie Irwin and Debanjan Mitra found that, “Brands with the largest market share tend to have lower advertising and production costs, a broader and more loyal customer base, and enough popularity to counter their competitors’ moves … [when] they analyzed the quarterly periods from 2003 to 2008 [they found] fewer and fewer companies were able to get back on top after just three quarters below the top.” Furthermore “the stakes for ceding first place are high … The gap in market share between the number one and number two brands, on average, was more than 10 percent.”

Brands that have a powerful share-of-signal are under similar pressures.

With the ability to turn the signal: noise ratio to your advantage so critical, here are eight signs that your brand is doing it right in creating effective market signals:

  • There’s a strong idea running through everything you do, and that idea is distinct from what your competitors are saying and doing.
  • You’re telling a story others wouldn’t tell, couldn’t tell and, most importantly, shouldn’t even try to tell.
  • Consumers take their cues from you. You don’t just lead the market, you pretty much decide the market. You are the brand reference point for your sector (and sometimes for others as well).
  • Your signals continue to attract market attention and market share in good times and bad.
  • People react to you passionately – and you cue those reactions.
  • Your price is a signal in itself to others of just how much distance there is between your leadership position and their place in the market. Providing your position stays constant, the more they give way on price, the further the distance between them and you.
  • You may not have the first word on developments in the market, but your story and powerful share-of-signal mean you almost always have the last word.
  • You change the conversation proactively and those shifts trend quickly and globally. Those changes are also picked up and passed on eagerly by brand fans.

Photo of “When the signal drops”, taken by David Blaikie, sourced from Flickr

Hollow brands in an age of scrutiny

By Mark Di Somma

Don't tell anyone
We’re all tempted to do it at some stage: to overstate the advantages; to push the benefits of what is on offer past the point of credibility; to state that what we are doing or offering is better than what others are offering, but with no substantiation for that belief.

The obsession with short-term growth coupled with natural competitiveness and the intensity of competitors come together to motivate brands to disregard the boundaries of responsible advertising. In New Zealand, we’ve had a case recently of caged eggs being sold as free-range and at free-range prices. Business Insider Australia highlights a number of other examples of false claims that have collectively cost companies many millions of dollars, including: Activia yoghurt (which claimed the nutritional benefits of its product were clinically and scientifically proven when they weren’t); Taco Bell (whose seasoned beef was seasoned with oat filler); and New Balance (which claimed its sneakers were calorie burning when there was no evidence of tangible benefits).

It doesn’t stop there of course. Ads are retouched to make things look bigger or smaller than they really are, offers are rendered useless by their terms and conditions, products are advertised as available at a certain price but in reality they aren’t, environmental claims are made that prove groundless … the list goes on.

At best, these are mistakes or oversights. At worst, they are snake-oil deceptions. Leaving aside those who deliberately set out to rip others off, often, it seems to me, the brands that are inclined to engage in hollow practices are those where sales have become an obsession at the expense of other aspects of the relationship. That’s a very old-fashioned view of business as we all know. And yet it persists because focusing on the numbers and incentivising people to do what it takes to make the sales targets can be seen as easier than connecting with customers and building valued relationships.

Why do we behave like this? Why do human beings exaggerate and even falsify? Is it just money? Apparently not. Novelist Sarah Jio talks about the very human factors that drive people to deceive in this article in the Huffington Post. She quotes Dr Robert Feldman who says we are programmed socially from a very young age to make ourselves look better. Feldman points to a study he led in which 60 percent of people lied during 10-minute conversations with strangers – not once but two to three times on average. Most of those who took part had no idea they had done this until they saw the replays on video of their conversations.

Success only adds to the incentive to mis-shape the truth according to Professor Dan Ariely. The most dangerous deceptions occur when people can rationalise/justify their right to lie and when the stakes for telling the truth become higher than the perceived dangers of continuing the pretence. Repetition endorses the belief that the falsehood is really true. We self-actualise.

Brands are easily drawn into the same hollow circles. Every brand owner wants to be proud of the product they are responsible for. For some, the temptation to overplay what they are in charge of is too great. Initial consumer reactions to these hollow brands encourage the mindset and the behaviour. Shoppers are naturally drawn to things that seem too good to be true despite all the warnings for them not to do so. So, brands see that they are making money. They repeat a statement, and sales go up again. And on it goes. In time, and with success mounting and sales hitting targets, companies tell themselves that such behaviours are okay; that they are worth it. Brands will even justify the “shortcuts” they take on the grounds that it’s what they have to do; their customers “demand” it. They reach a point of what feels like no return.

As with people, when the repercussions of coming clean (media attention, recalls, legal action) appear to outweigh the benefits of continuing (incentives, rewards, bonuses, promotions), companies and individuals can easily default to what seems to be an easier and more comfortable future. They may even have talked themselves into believing that they are telling the truth.

It goes without saying that hollow claims hurt brands when they are unearthed. Suddenly, a brand isn’t just questionable, it’s also vulnerable (in terms of reputation) and potentially liable (legally). The repercussions are not new. What has changed in the last ten years is the likelihood of being discovered. Brand accountability has entered a new era of scrutiny – and that is shifting the risk to return profile for hollow brands. Search engines, reviews and social media have fuelled what Bono has referred to as the “Transparency Revolution”. Not only is this exposing bad business practices, it is also correcting the information asymmetry that has encouraged brands to push unreasonable claims and/or to align in self-interested ways that are hidden from consumers.

Robert Pera: “Traditional company business models aren’t built to empower customers and pass on value to them. They are built to extract profitability from them. And information asymmetry gives them the perfect cover. But, with an increasingly connected world paving the way for more and more information transparency to the customer, all of this is about to change.”

As Michael Lazerow explains in this interview, the Internet of Things is being replaced by the Internet of Customers. “We are in the midst of a trust revolution where everything is transparent. As we saw with the NBA recently, you can’t do stuff that is stupid. If you do, there is always a camera, always something on.”

Every brand must make a profit. No dispute there. What’s new is that profit is increasingly answerable to a widening set of ethical criteria. Brands that look to keep information back, that re-touch their claims to make them look more appealing and/or who fail to align margin to value will find their products under public gaze and themselves under increasing pressure to retract.

The next era of challenges for brands it seems to me lies in “accountable profits”: in explaining to consumers that the returns that the company is making from what it puts on the shelf are reasonable, sustainable, prove-able and responsible. Some are going to find that very hard indeed.

Photo of “AndYaDontStop” taken by The Legion of Shhhh!, sourced from Flickr

The Verbal Brand and its critically important stakeholders

By Mark Di Somma

Innocent verbal brandAt a time when communication is increasingly hailed as shorter and more visual, the way brands choose and use language (the Verbal Brand) continues to hugely influence a plethora of channels, from social media to search engines to advertising, public relations, website content, direct marketing and more.

Language is responsible for expressing and persuading, for informing, declaring and characterising, relationship building, telegraphing and storytelling. Words are indeed, as Rudyard Kipling once described them, the most powerful drug used by mankind.

Style guides spell out the grammatical rules surrounding corporate language. They say how to write. Tone and manner guidelines speak to the nature of the language that should be used. Usually these are a checklist of characteristics, dos and don’ts. However such guidelines seldom consider the influence of the brand promise, the brand essence and the all-important brand values in shaping the brand in words and the checklist itself is often so broad that the guidelines could be interpreted any number of ways in different situations. Neither document addresses why writers should write what they write. The best Verbal Brand guidelines, by contrast, take their cues directly from the core elements of the brand strategy and articulate how to consistently apply the spirit of the brand at every verbal touch-point.

It’s tempting, whenever we talk about forging the language for a brand, to believe that there is one key audience that really needs to understand the mechanisms and structure – the writers themselves. After all, they are the people responsible for crafting the communications. It is tempting too to believe that tone and manner guidelines and a style guide will cover things off nicely.

However the people responsible for moulding the Verbal Brand need more than ‘why’ and ‘how to’ if the Verbal Brand is to work to its potential. They actually require a consistent Verbal Ecosystem around them that is committed to endorsing and reinforcing the verbal identity. That’s because no verbal decision is made in isolation. It is governed on either side of its creation by influencers with a great deal of say in what words end up being used. It is critical therefore that in forging a powerful Verbal Brand that companies involve and align three distinct groups:

  1. The commissioners – the people who brief in the work and therefore define what the words must achieve in any given situation
  2. The writers themselves – the people who define and create the brand’s language and who bring the tone and manner to life through the communications they work on.
  3. The evaluators – those responsible for assessing the work and signing it off. They include not just the marketers of course but also product managers (technical accuracy), the legal team (risk and compliance), brand owners and communications management.

If the people commissioning the work choose to see the language in a light that differs markedly from how the brand needs to be expressed, the results can be very confusing. If the writers work as they see fit and without reference to the rules, then the creative work will lack consistency and ‘fight’ with the brand’s personality. If they don’t understand the nature and reasoning behind the brand style, the legal team or other approval signatories can quickly seek to mitigate risk or elaborate on benefits through additions and conditional qualifications that destroy flow and integrity.

Unless all three groups have a clear and consistent understanding of what is on-brand verbally and what is not, things can quickly go wrong. Get it right – and the Verbal Brand is remarkably effective at engaging audiences and conveying understandings that it would be difficult to ‘claim’ in any other way.

Innocent Drinks for example is a master at balancing simplicity and a certain deliberate naiveté. There’s something incredibly playful and pure about the brand’s use of puns, lower case letters and child-like graphics. Innocent indeed. It’s hard to believe that this brand is a market leader in a fiercely competitive and crowded sector – which makes its approach a breath of fresh (and noticeable) air. The Economist too has stood out in a wordy and noisy business publications market by reducing its marketing communications to its trademark white words on a red background. It goes without saying (perhaps because it is so heavily implied) that those who read the magazine regard themselves as erudite.

Brand language this clear and this good doesn’t happen by chance. Nor does it happen in isolation. It builds because the people responsible for collectively bringing the Verbal Brand to life understand that good words, strong words, lovely words, powerful words are a rich source of affinity – and judgment. They take risks. They push verbal boundaries. They resist the urge to say anything other than what needs saying. And everyone involved in bringing the words to life understands that.

They work so hard on their verbal identity because they know that brands are judged this way. As much as they are judged visually. If your brand doesn’t speak in a language that you own, you don’t have a voice. You are noise.

Photo of “Custom Label” taken by Simon Doggett, sourced from Flickr

Brand identity management: why someone will always want to be an exception

By Mark Di Somma

Managing the exceptionsPitch a new brand identity system to almost any large company with multiple divisions and inevitably someone will plead to be an exception to the new rules. This is particularly true where brands or divisions have had their own identity in the past. Attempts to consolidate a myriad of “brands” into a consistent brand identity system or to replace a whole portfolio of marques with a single power brand will be met with varying volumes of indignation.

Let’s assume there’s a strong business case for doing this. Because that should be a given. And let’s assume that the business case is driven by by a powerful pain point or a significant prompt – because otherwise why would you be motivated to look at change in the first place. Finally, let’s assume that the design team have done a great job and the new identity is powerful, distinctive and well crafted.

Having got all this right, why the resistance?

In my experience, it’s often because when you introduce a new brand identity system you take away something that people have real ownership of. Once people have an identity that feels like theirs and they have formed an association with it that binds them together as a group, that identity in essence becomes their flag. It is in effect a symbol of their working life. Changing that is tantamount to burning the flag. People respond viscerally to such a shift but they look to articulate their concerns logically – and in a business context, that inevitably means they frame their arguments against what is being proposed commercially.

Here are some of the more predictable lines of argument:
• “That’s not what people look for”
• “Our clients need to know it’s us”
• “We need to highlight this”
• “That’s not what works in our experience”
• “We’re not comfortable with that”
• “We can’t compete with that”
• “We need to fit in with others in order to be credible”
• “It’s not exciting enough”
• “That’s not us”
• “Changing is a waste of money”
• “We don’t want to be that close to the corporate brand”

If these or other lines of resistance are clogging up your inbox heading into the brand implementation stage, here are three things you need to query:

1. Why do they not want to be part of the wider group? Identity fills a vacuum. Often if I’m undertaking a change project inside an organisation that has had a plethora of brands, there is a distinct lack of core identity. People generate or adopt brands in order to have something to be part of (whether they recognise that’s why they’re doing it or not). And because there is often no central brand management function controlling who can be a “brand”, identities proliferate like rabbits. The danger sign for me is when internally facing functions identify themselves as something other than the brand that employs them, the organisation has a serious, and literal, identity crisis.

To build belief in what is happening, it’s vital that you forge a deepening bond between the functions and the new flag you are asking them to serve under. Purpose, values, behaviours and a strong understanding of the united strategy going forward are critically important. So is patience. You need to engage in conversations with the change-resistant that allow them to freely and frankly express their concerns. And you need to build enough flexibility into your own thinking that if they do raise valid points, you are prepared to step back, evaluate what has been raised and adjust. It’s another one of those fascinating contradictions in branding. Great brand management combines the abilities to be both definitive and iterative.

At the same time, if a group’s independence is so entrenched that the outliers are determined never to be part of the corporate brand, they probably need a reminder from the corridors of power as to who writes their pay checks.

2. What are they really missing? It’s tempting for customer-facing personnel to believe that the brand they’ve been operating under is a critical part of their success. Sometimes that can be because they fundamentally misunderstand the role of the brand.

One of the distinctions that I work very hard to establish is the difference between identity and messages. Frontline staff will sometimes tell me adamantly that the (new) branding is all wrong when the real problem lies with what they are being told they need to talk about – or the lack of such prompts. To address this, hold a series of workshops on key messages with teams and distil what you learn down to a series of compelling and short statements that they can use in contact centres, at trade fairs, in-store etc. Fill these elevator statements out with more detailed explanations for times when elaboration is required.

At the same time, examine the permission system under which these staff operate. What are they directly empowered to do? What you’re looking for here is to make sure that the messages people give, and the actions they are allowed and feel comfortable to take, are directly aligned.

3. What happens if you give in? Inevitably the group requesting to be exempt from the new rules is seeing what they do in isolation. But it’s critical that you evaluate such requests from the point of view of the wider context. Every decision you make has ramifications for every other brand in the portfolio. If you make an exception for one brand in one situation, what precedent does that create – and how far could that precedent spread?

The decision to allow one sub-sub-brand opens the door to more. The decision to include an extra colour has the potential to change the palette for everyone. The choice of a name variation locks in confusion. Not unreasonably, the ripples of exception create expectations that others too can plead their case for independence and difference. It doesn’t take long under such circumstances for the regime of exceptions to over-rule the rules and for the consistent brand system that the designers have slaved over for months to be mired in contradictions.

My own guiding rule to anyone asking for an exception? Say No. Until you have to say Yes (but understand that Yes must mean Yes for everyone).

Photo of “Solo” taken by Thomas Leth-Olsen, sourced from Flickr

Unlock a competitive brand story

By Mark Di Somma

Unlock a competitive brand story

Everyone has a story now. Or at least most brands claim to have one. But having a story in many ways is like having a product. Really it means nothing if it is not competitive as a narrative and personally relevant to each recipient. So your story must be distinctive from the other stories that are in play in a market and it must continue to be so. That’s challenging in fast moving sectors where there is always something new to look at, another brand tale to try.

That’s why you can’t set and forget a story. Anymore than you can set and forget your business strategy. As your business adapts and responds to changes in the market and the initiatives of your rivals, your story must change too if it is to remain competitive. What that means in effect is that your story has eight requirements, all of which influence what you tell in different ways:

1. Your story must be long (in terms of scope) – you need a story that is capable of being told over an extended period of time, meaning it must have enough aspects (threads) for you to push your storytelling forward, developing, introducing and twisting as the story goes to keep people involved and wanting to know more.

2. Your story must be deep – you need a story that allows you to delve into the detail of different aspects to intrigue, to prove expertise, to demonstrate detail, to highlight a facet, to deliver a backstory.

3. Your story must be competitive – there is no point in telling a story that is similar to that of your biggest rival, or in telling the same story as the rest of the industry. You need an angle – a perspective that is refreshing and different, that sets what you have to say apart from what others are talking about. It must be more relevant to the people to whom it is addressed than the story your competitors want to share with them.

4. Your story must be social – it must be more shareable across a full range of social media. So it must invite contribution and input. It must share ownership with the community that forms around it. And it must take its cues, through data analysis and analytics as you collect information on customer shopping habits, customer interests and customer concerns in terms of areas of accent, aspects to explore further, ideas that need to be brought forward. As you gather insights, you need to find ways to inject those ideas into the conversation in order to immerse people further in the storyline.

5. Your story must be communal – David Berkowitz, the CMO at MRY, made the comment recently that the marketing industry is obsessed with telling stories, but brands need to become story makers, not just storytellers. “Do you think people really get brands’ stories?,” he asks. Great question. “Think of a brand you love … Do you know what its story is? … The future of storytelling isn’t about telling anyone anything. It’s about storymaking, where the brand facilitates and taps into the stories people are creating and sharing with each other. Storytelling is the epitome of the old one-way, broadcast mindset that so many of us in marketing are trying to leave behind.”

6. Your story must be respectful – The temptation with sharing stories is to increase the levels of social familiarity. Recent research from WPP’s Geometry Global suggests that a lot of consumers would like a little more distance please. Commenting on the finding that 40% of Internet users across the world don’t see the point in friending a brand online, Cesar Montes, Geometry’s chief strategy officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa says, “There is not a real rejection of brands using social channels to communicate with [consumers] … The rejection is about brands using social as if they were my friends in the typical way that Facebook users would use [social].” That same reserve can be extrapolated to stories. Brands need to cultivate interest and participation, but at the same time, getting too close, too quickly or asking consumers to take an interest that is too personal is more likely to see them leaning out rather than in.

7. Your story must be protectable – in a dynamic and competitive storytelling environment, you need to be able to adapt your story to preserve its singularity. If others attack your story, you must have a response strategy in place. If others look to intrude on your narrative, you must defend your right to tell the story you do, take your story in a new direction or work with the community of people who are drawn to your story to evolve it.

8. Finally, every story needs a sequel – your story must be able to run its full course, but then a new story must take over, a story that takes its reference from who you were but somehow redefines how people will know you into the future.

Photo of “Winner” by Kreg Steppe, sourced from Flickr


The real secret to B2B pitching: being connective

By Mark Di Somma

Being connectiveIt’s easy to look at your pitch and to be pleased with your work; to feel that it has captured you perfectly and expressed what you are about and what you have to offer. It’s also irrelevant. Because, to be blunt, no-one’s as interested in your pitch as you are. They’re really only interested in themselves and what you can do for them. They probably hear similar claims and ideas everywhere they turn.

As marketers it’s hard to resist the call to say your piece, to state your case. Until you realise that your piece and your case are exactly that – yours. Simple suggestion. Drop the y. Say our piece. State our case. Prepare the piece and the case you share, not the one you want to sell.

Pitch the partnership. And directly connect the partnership to results. When we do this, this happens …

Because when you do that, you instantly add ownership, responsibility and respect. So think “Why are we going to sell more apples?” or “How are we going to bring more trade this way?”

A great B2B pitch is not about the answer you have or even the one you bring or offer to develop. It’s really about the problem we will solve. The one others couldn’t. Or haven’t seen.

Photo of “Connect #2”, taken by Techniedog, sourced from Flickr


From CMO to CEO: the next era of brand leadership?

By Mark Di Somma, Brad VanAuken and Derrick Daye

From CMO to CEOChief Marketing Officers (CMOs) haven’t had it this good for some time. As Jack Trout observed the average tenure not so long ago stood at less than two years. Now it’s close to double that. The reasons why things got so bad, according to Trout, could be attributed to both internal and external forces. Internally, politics and competing functions combined to make it tough to get and keep the resources that CMOs needed to do an effective job. Externally, prima donna agencies with a hotline to the CEO also caused problems. Not helped, he says, by the fact that in most organisations the CEO is the ultimate CMO. The decisions they make essentially provide the marketing team with their licence to operate.

And that gives rise to this thought: if the CEO is the ultimate CMO, should the CMO become the CEO? The question might have seemed presumptuous at one time, and still may to some, but there are precedents for considering the CMO role in a wider light. The conversation about increased collaboration between CEO and CIO is now well advanced, and, at Unilever for example, the CMO and CSR roles have effectively been combined in one person. If the CMO role is casting its eyes sideways, why shouldn’t it look up?

Performing but misunderstood

A review of the prospects for CMOs may be timely, but that’s not to say it will be easy. According to Robert Rose, Chief Strategist at Content Marketing Institute, “The Fournaise Group conducted a study that found that while 90% of CEOs do trust and value the opinion and work of both CFOs and CIOs, a full 80% of them do not trust and are not very impressed by the work done by marketers. A Nielsen Study in 2009 found that the average short-term return on marketing investment was about 1.09. In other words, for every dollar spent on marketing, about $1.09 was returned.” So marketers are delivering the goods but CEOs don’t trust them.

Brad’s own experience as a CMO is that the marketing function’s value is not often fully appreciated because marketing operates as a “gestalt” between the understanding and insight obtained through hard data and analysis and intuition about the market that is the result of years of exposure to marketing research and trying to understand consumers from a deep psychological perspective. While the left-brain (analytical) portion of this is relatively easy to understand, the right-brain (intuitive) part is large invisible and seems like “hocus pocus” to most people who are more operationally oriented.

Increasing contribution

There are many reasons why CMOs are critical to an organisation’s success today. Chief among them is to be the voice of the consumer to the organisation. As markets continue to change rapidly and consumers continue to gain power, it is important for organisations to build a better understanding of the market’s evolving needs into everything that they do.

A key role of the CMO is to keep the CEO and the rest of the organisation informed about the market by commissioning, analysing and reporting strategic, insightful and actionable marketing research. This significantly increases the value of the CMO to the organisation.

Another way CMOs demonstrate their value is to take a more central role in developing organisation strategy and plans so that the organisation becomes better at addressing consumer insights.

The CMO should also be responsible for identifying the desired customer experiences at each customer touch point and then influencing the entire organisation including sales, service, operations and strategic partners, to deliver those experiences. This requires outstanding persuasion skills but also endorsement by the CEO.

Related to this is helping organisations understand how to align their values with their customers’ values and how to create a sense of community with their customers, including identifying the most current ways in which this can be done (e.g. CRM and social media). To underpin this work, the CMO could help the organisation reach consensus on its mission, vision and values.

Picking up on the need for brands to increasingly compete through their stories, Mark asked recently whether brands also 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 [are the best people to] 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).”

Certainly when we look at Brad’s list of the 50 things that make for a successful brand manager, what is most striking is how multi-faceted marketing has become. Gone are the days when CMOs ordered up ads from the agency. Today’s marketers need to be able to interpret research, analyse competitive environments, strategise for differentiation, plan communications across a full range of channels and build brand equity locally and globally. Until now, boards and management teams have largely viewed those skills as contributors to the things that really mattered – financial performance and returns to shareholders. But as brands themselves play an increasingly important role in delivering profits to companies and their investors, the skills needed to maximise brands as assets must also assume greater importance and profile in the leadership team.

Finally, we believe that CMOs are a strong lateral and creative talent in the senior management team. That ability is often used against them by others, but in a world where brands are assets and stories underpin brand value, what was once seen as a weakness may now be a significant strength. No-one should be able to tell a story better and, assuming Trout is right, and CEOs are an organisation’s natural choice for chief storyteller, there is something to be said for having a marketing person in the leader’s role.

So the role is continuing to evolve? What about influence? Some way to go there according to Martin Roll who spelt out the merits for greater involvement of marketing at C-level and Board-level in this post. “As the business landscape evolves, marketing also evolves into an organization wide strategic discipline,” Roll observed. “Given marketer’s knowledge of the customers, it is imperative that the CEO and the corporate board have a representative of the customer to continually educate them.” With their in-depth knowledge of markets and customers, marketers should act as a major resource for strategy formulation, he suggests. They are the people best placed to orient corporates towards customers and to leverage the internal capabilities needed to compete meaningfully and effectively.

“The role of marketing within a company is only going to become even more central as managing customer interactions and co-creating value become the building blocks of any corporate strategy,” predicted Roll. “In the future, the CMO will emerge as the strategic connection between the corporate boardroom, the top management team, the CEO and the customer.”

Many feel that the career path for CMOs is changing. A poll quoted in Ad Age found that 54% of business executive believe that their CMO could one day take over as CEO.

“The shift is due in part to the fact that CMOs are increasingly being charged with driving enterprise-wide transformation and creating measurable results. Often they are responsible for redefining business models or go-to-market strategies, driving a strategic agenda that will create significant value for the business and its stakeholders, and leading at the highest levels to drive change across organizations.”

The key requirements to get there, according to AdAge? Vision, results and leadership.

Conditions apply

Others see the transition as more complex. Changing times for marketers will not be enough in themselves to propel more CMOs to the top role. Spencer Stuart interviewed CEOs with a marketing background about what CMOs now need to do to make the transition to credible contenders.

Their feedback suggests that the nature of the business itself will greatly influence the likelihood of success. It is generally far easier for a CMO to become CEO at a business that sees itself as marketing-led or consumer-oriented.

CMOs must look to reposition themselves within the executive team. Among the changes cited:

  • They will need to demonstrate greater commercial awareness and take on more financial responsibilities, meaning they need to have a broad-base of experience to draw on.
  • They must continue to test themselves beyond the marketing arena by gaining experience in other functions. For example, they will almost certainly need line manager experience and exposure to international markets.
  • Within the senior team itself, they must position themselves as savvy and critical strategists with strong influence over the business planning process.
  • They will need to demonstrate a clear and pragmatic understanding of finance and key financial levers, meaning they will probably have had P&L responsibility across brands, channels, customers and countries.

There’s little doubt in our minds that as organisations become more marketing-focused, the opportunities for CMO to become viable CEO candidates will increase. But for that transition to become more broadly accepted by Boards and by Executive teams themselves, CMOs need to play their part in de-risking the decision by diversifying their skills and proving that they can transform customer insights into strategic vision and value development into returns for shareholders.

My thanks to my colleagues, Brad and Derrick, at BSI for their assistance with this post.

Photo of “stairs to elevator” taken by JD Hancock, sourced from Flickr


Brand campaign lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge

By Mark Di Somma

Ice Bucket Challenge - lessons for brands

The “Ice Bucket Challenge”, the viral awareness campaign to raise money for ALS, has swept the world in the past month or so, raising over $100 million for a cause that was previously under-profiled, and flooding social media, so to speak, with videos of people from all walks of life pouring ice-cold water over themselves.

More than 3 million people have taken part in the Challenge to date and the amount raised is more than 35 times what the ALS Association raised during the same time period last year. In any sector that’s an extraordinary feat. So why has this campaign sparked so much interest, what are the implications for brand campaigns generally, and will the effect last?

Here are 9 reasons why I believe this campaign has done so well:

  1. It’s incredibly simple – and I mean that in the best sense of that term. No-one has to learn anything, buy anything, go anywhere, enrol for anything. The raw ingredients to keep this Challenge going – bucket, ice, water and phone – are ubiquitous. The instructions are obvious. That makes participation very accessible.
  2. It’s high impact and immediate – the Challenge is over in seconds. That in itself points to an interesting phenomenon: magnification. The ability to undertake a small, short act for a big cause – with the juxtaposition of participation and perceived impact actually crucial to the campaign’s success.
  3. It’s shareable – yes, to some extent that makes it a vanity project. But, more importantly, it’s not only something that people can do visibly and in a social context, it also provides highly visual, personalised content that people can pass on to others. Causes become much more real for people when they can identify in some way with what they are being asked to support, even if that identification is just a selfie.
  4. There’s a strong clear call to action – the power of this campaign doesn’t lie so much in the act of pouring the water. It stems from what immediately follows – the nomination (call out) of three people by name on social media to do the same thing. The pitch is also image-perfect: crazy enough to feel daring, but not so weird that people feel overly self conscious.
  5. It’s a great cause – by taking part, people believe they are making a difference. So, there’s a strong feel-good, do-good factor operating here. As the Telegraph pointed out, it’s much less compelling to anonymously donate to something “icky” like guinea-worm disease that takes place elsewhere in the world, because the disease itself is not something that gets talked about and the social support to participate is lacking.
  6. It’s democratic – everyone can take part. They can give as much or as little as they can afford. Participation links people socially. Suddenly there’s a connection between the person who did this in their back yard and Bill Gates, Martha Stewart, Donald Trump, the New York Yankees et al. What the Ice Bucket Challenge has done so well is to find a fun way to form an unexpected community.
  7. It’s seasonal – no surprises that this took place in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere summer.
  8. It’s unexpected – causes with gravitas tend towards approaches that are more serious. The success of the Ice Bucket Challenge proves the power of disruption. It’s not something people instantly associate with a terrible disease like Lou Gerrig’s, and that gave it an informality that people were drawn to and wanted to share.
  9. It’s franchiseable – other brands could take part, even brand their participation, and that just added to the sense of involvement. When KFC got involved, they dressed up an actor as the Colonel and did the Challenge with a KFC bucket. CSR meets brand awareness. Everyone wins.

So what does this mean for other campaigns? To me it suggests four things:

  • The power of pop culture – love it or loathe it, the clear take-out from the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge for me is that pretty much every brand campaign that wants to go social must be mobile camera-ready. Simple principle: if they can’t shoot it, they won’t share it.
  • It needs to be personal – any event or campaign you plan needs to be one that people want to be seen to be part of. Increasingly, people don’t show up at an event, they show up with an event. What social signals does your event or campaign send about the people who support it?
  • The hard one – your idea must be both simple to do and yet not have been done before.
  • In the case of NGO brands specifically – although I suspect this is also true for consumer brands as well – it must change the world (or rather, their world) for the better in some way and yet not take the world to make that happen. As Rick Smith put it so well in Forbes: it must be big, selfless and simple enough to generate a multiplier effect. An idea he neatly refers to as a “global cascade”.

As for The Ice Bucket Challenge – will it keep working? This is probably not an idea that a whole lot of brands can now successfully adopt and it is not an idea that in itself has a long half-life. Like all things viral, the dynamics of this campaign are probably fast uptake followed by relatively quick fall-off as people’s attention shifts to the next ‘thing’. It has worked wonders, and it really has been a fantastic and inspiring achievement, but I doubt it will continue to rake in participation and money at the rate that it has. I think this is an idea that has been banked. I really hope I’m wrong.

The challenges now for ALSA will be to convert big into long – to persuade enough people to take a deeper and longer term interest in supporting the fight against ALS than just the Challenge itself. In an article in The Guardian, Rachel Collinson offers the ALS Association three pieces of advice on how to do that: educate new donors about the difference their money will make; start a thank you campaign that aims to be just as viral as the original; follow that up quickly with a series of welcome messages explaining more about ALS and countering some of the rumours that have circulated about their spending.

Other take-outs from the same article are not dissimilar to those facing any brand with a viral message. Have a scale-up model that enables you to meet demand as it builds, recognising that if your campaign trends the levels of interest can be huge and sudden and the criticism voracious. Understand too that you will lose control of the campaign once it passes a certain level of popularity. Plan for that by having a way to ‘hand over’.

Does this campaign game-change philanthropy? No. In the sense that, as above, it doesn’t change the scene for all. But it should inspire NGOs in particular to think more radically and simply about how they foster awareness. What it also does is underscore the need for NGOs to think about causes at an individual level of appeal rather than even as an appeal to individuals. In the same vein, it’s a reminder to consumer brands of the ongoing shift in engagement from widespread communication to direct involvement. The new take on ‘call to action’ isn’t what you are asking consumers to do, it’s what you inspire them to do as they act. The key question for every marketing manager planning a campaign right now: What will our buyers share and how will that lift our market share? In my opinion, that’s the real conversion equation today right there.

Photo of “Mission Accomplished – ALS Ice Bucket Challenge”, taken by Kim Quintano, sourced from Flickr

Measuring purpose. The next key business imperative

By Mark Di Somma and Hilton Barbour

How do you measure purpose

In the first article in this series on purpose, we looked at the nature of purpose and espoused the view that purpose has two facets: functional (where it describes what the company must get done); and intentional (where it articulates what the company would like to see change in the wider world.) In this article, we look at how purpose and its impacts might be quantified and the benefits that a measurement system might bring.

We’re a species of builders. Building has ensured our survival since the beginning of time. And whether you’re building a home or a business, measurement is a critical accompanist to activity. Measurement is so important to us that one of the most profound upheavals in European history was driven by a desire for common units of measurement. Measuring and building are, therefore, inextricably linked in our DNA.

“Measure what matters because it matters what you measure”

For years we’ve had common measures and yardsticks for ascertaining the relative health of organisations. Some objective measures– like EBIDTA – and some more subjective but no less important – like stock prices. More recently, the Internet has become a measurement bonanza for business leaders and meta-trends like “big data”, highlighting just how much opportunity and potential lies in the ability to track every click, measure every interaction and derive sentiment and “truth” from every social engagement.

With such a bewildering array of data points to measure, how does a business leader choose the right set? No business would ever just measure CAPEX and leave OPEX uncalculated. So, how can a business leader ensure they’re measuring a balanced set of data points rather than just one’s that might give them an erroneous and biased view of their organization?

In particular, how do we find consistent and verifiable ways to measure intangibles like purpose? And why would we spend time tracking that measurement?

Firstly, there’s plenty of evidence to show that fuelling purpose fuels performance. According to Deloitte’s Culture of Purpose 2013 Report, a strong sense of purpose has been shown to contribute to long term success. Cultures with purpose report that their employees are more likely to perform well and the businesses concerned experience strong financial performance. They also have a distinct brand, a clearly defined values and belief system, greater customer satisfaction and better employee satisfaction. As far back as 2011, the father of organizational effectiveness John Kotter correlated “high performing cultures” and financial performance in his book Corporate Culture and Performance

The data is there and the recommendations pretty unambiguous.

So with all the lot of discussion about why it makes sense, who it affects and what it can be used for, why is it that putting metrics and measurement to purpose seems so elusive?

And what metrics might we use?

There are some suggestions in a recent article in MIT Sloan Management Review. Companies focused on customer focus might look to their Net Promoter Score for proof of whether their purpose is effective. But that strikes us as a blunt tool when used alone. For those that seek to put their employees first, the authors reference employee engagement scores. Again, a rather ambiguously defined metric and certainly not one operating to a universally consistent standard of measurement.

So, if we agree that “Purpose” is an aspirational goal for any organisation, something tantalisingly just beyond reach, shouldn’t the measures of success relate directly to the progress being made towards that purpose?

Case in point, if you’re IBM and you’re committed to a smarter planet, then the number of new patents, the levels of publishing and the dollars being invested in R&D are all good purpose-performance indicators. Perhaps peg those numbers as a percentage of EBITDA or even as part of the P/E ratio calculations. Look to at the correlations between outputs and profits. After all, if the Deloitte findings are correct, purposeful organisations should be capable of higher than average future earnings. If you’re Zappos, and your purpose is to deliver happiness through service, then those indicators would be things like staff churn, average tenure of customers, Net Promoter Scores and the numbers of repeat customers. Again, they show how the pursuit of happiness is benefitting the business.

So can we align pursuing purpose with metrics that provide clear proof of the impact on the business?

And if we can, why hasn’t it happened yet?

One of the key issues with purpose is that it has traditionally been expressed as an aspiration, and that aspiration has been isolated from the rest of the business. What’s been lacking is further drilldown that details what will be achieved, when and how. In other words, the financial impacts of the projections have been isolated from the purposeful impacts.

For example, Nike sees its purpose as being “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” In order to quantify how the pursuit of that purpose boosts the bottom line (and therefore why purpose is good for the business), Nike would need to quantify the impact of inspiration, innovation and the number of athletes in the world on their bottom line. Remember, in Nike parlance, we are ALL athletes.

So … 10 questions that might go some way towards doing that:

  1. What do we define as inspiration and what part do we play in that inspiration?
  2. How many inspiring products do we sell (and therefore who do we inspire and to do what)?
  3. What did those products cost to develop?
  4. What do we make from them?
  5. To what extent are we making money from products that continue to inspire vs those that are re-inspiring vs those that will inspire into the future?
  6. What is the “inspiration” contribution of our product versus that of the sponsored athlete, high school jock, weekend warrior wearing it?
  7. What innovations have we introduced in the last year for athletes?
  8. How many of them have we sold?
  9. What’s still in development and what are the projections for those products in the business case?
  10. How quickly is our innovation cycle and being realized in terms of saleable goods and what effect are those innovations having on our bottom-line?

But is all this introspection about measurement worth it?

We believe so. While some may see quantifying the impact of aspiration as problematic, there is good precedent to pursue this.

There was a time when considering a “brand” as a legitimate asset on a balance sheet was considered heresy. Business today largely accepts the notion of “a brand is a genuine asset” as mainstream. Ergo, if purpose can galvanise employees to be more effective, entice partners and vendors to greater heights and drive disproportionate customer preference, loyalty and sales, doesn’t it behove us all to make more of an effort to try quantify its contribution?

Ultimately if purpose is to be embraced as a competitive force, those organisations that are genuinely putting it at the core of their strategy, must be able to demonstrate the rewards. To themselves. To their investors. And, let’s be honest, to a legion of business people who still remain skeptical about the power of purpose.

How are YOU measuring Purpose in your organisation? How do you correlate your purpose with your performance? We’d love to know.


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 are appreciated.

Let’s sack “dumb” HR

By Mark Di Somma

HR by the numbers

For all the talk of the need for talent and the huge dependence on human capability to compete effectively, HR for the most part is still a dumb industry. It’s dumb not because the people responsible for it are dumb but because the processes of control and conform that worked so neatly in the factory age are still in effect. And they are dumb. They’re dumb because they continue to treat people in ways that are out of sync with what is really required.

The old joke that HR stands for Hiring (Filing) and Redundancy remains sadly all too true all too often. That’s because for all the talk of empowerment and individual initiative, in far too many corporate cultures people are still being put in a place and handed processes, procedures and things to do. OK, so now they’re grouped in clusters and open plan offices and they are provided with ergonomic furniture but they are still being treated as production units rather than as creative individuals. As a result, too many organisations subliminally ask their people to compromise rather than compete; encourage them to politicise rather than perform; and expect them to agree rather than activate.

In a thought-provoking presentation at WOBI, Gary Hamel posited that if organisations were serious about being competitive in the burgeoning creative economy, then they really would change how they changed. Three key observations drove home why a fundamental rethink of the ways that companies marshal cultures is critical.

1. In any company, Hamel observes, there are a lot of jobs that are nothing more than commodities. They are photocopy roles of what is being done at every other competitor. How, asks Hamel, can any organisation expect to differentiate who it is and what it does when the people responsible for thinking through the change are in identikit roles to the very people they’re trying to be different from? “I would hope that in your company, there’s not a single job that’s a commodity job,” he says, “because that means it’s not creating any true differentiated value.”

It’s a superb point. And it raises a fascinating opportunity for HR: to fundamentally redefine the roles and the evolution of roles within the business so that a brand does indeed have people in distinctive roles doing distinctive work and contributing directly to a differentiated strategy.

2. Hamel goes on to point out that getting rid of commodity jobs is not about outsourcing those jobs or driving them offshore – because all that has happened in both cases is that the roles have left the building. The thinking that saw the need for a conforming job and the criteria that shaped how that same-as-others role would be undertaken have not.

Getting the same job done more cheaply may make you a more efficient organisation but it still reflects a wish to compete in the same manner as everyone else. In effect, it still treats people as “dumb” because it sees what they do, and the contributions they make, as fully transferrable. It turns people into a revolving door of CVs, judged not on what they have to contribute but how similar they are to what the organisation has now. When you power your business model with people whose skills are not specifically tuned to how you foresee you will compete, then one of two things is happening. You either don’t have a strategy that is distinctive enough to warrant people with differentiated skills or you don’t believe that people with those skills are worth having in your organisation. Those are not smart attitudes.

3. Finally, Hamel says, the reason companies have peopled the commodity jobs they’ve created with workers they largely perceive and treat as a commodity is that organisations have continued to assume that uninspiring work must be done by uninspired people. That circle self-perpetuates. With instructions to just do as they are asked and no more, and judged on their ability to “fit” that paradigm, people in such cultures quickly revert to a no-action approach. The truism: when no-one’s motivated to change, everyone is unmotivated.

Companies are quick to claim that their people are their greatest asset – but many of the ways they bring their workforce together speak to a different meaning than that statement might initially suggest. People are their greatest asset for the work they want them to do now – not the work they will need to do to be competitive into the future. Under “dumb” HR, the ways in which people are arranged and roled does not make them (or even allow them to be) a significant asset for where the company needs to get to.

“Dumb” HR is cookie-cutter people administration. It undervalues what people can do, and underplays what HR should be doing. And while strategic HR gets an airing in the business press, there has to be more to it than just finding the best people to fulfil the current strategy.

The strategic HR opportunity that’s being missed lies in increasing the creativity of the work being done so that the company can keep generating distinction and disruption. And that’s about not just recognising talent but actively creating and evolving a role for each person that energises and empowers them to deliver work that bears less and less resemblance to what they would do, or be challenged to do, elsewhere.

Nothing dumb about that. Nothing dumb at all.

Photo of “Irrational cookies”, taken by fdecomite, sourced from Flickr

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