Thinking beyond doing

By Mark Di Somma

Thinking beyond doing

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

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

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

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

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

Will your company still be around in 60 years?

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


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

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

Three reasons why remarkable difference might be unattainable:

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

So what’s the alternative? Conformity?


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

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

You can read that as reality. Or opportunity.

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

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

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

1. Why can’t life be more interesting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the world. In cultures. For customers.

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

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

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










Rethinking brand growth

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three out-takes for me from the McKinsey findings:

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

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





Declaration: Step 5 in building a purposeful culture

By Mark Di Somma

Declaration - going public with your purpose

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

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

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

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

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

5 ways to declare

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

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






Why are you rebranding?

By Mark Di Somma

Why are you rebranding

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 reasons why you would change a brand identity:

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

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

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

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




Setting responsible goals

By Mark Di Somma

Setting responsible goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An unnatural state of work

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grappling with pushback

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The next era of brand conversations

By Mark Di Somma

The next era of brand conversations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Business models as tensions

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

What would the three tensions in your sector be?

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


By Mark Di Somma


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

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

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

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

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

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

Blink – or they’ll miss it.

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

Building a better business case for brand internally with CFOs

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To rectify this, Ritson advocates a 7 step process:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That seems like a bright idea

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coffee to go

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brand ROIs (and why they differ)

By Mark Di Somma

Different rates of return

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

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

But is that an appropriate assumption?

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

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

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

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

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

Invest in your brand – get recognition.

Invest in your story – build a narrative.

Invest in the community – get respect.

Invest in product development – keep interest.

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

Invest in news – develop traffic and profile.

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

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

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

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

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

Brands and the power of joy

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A simple value equation

By Mark Di Somma

Simple value equation

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

Value = Perception divided by price.

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

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

“Why should I buy this from you?” and

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

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

Getting singular: building an effectively focused brand

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a flap

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 ways to get others to welcome your ideas

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck …

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

6 influencers of brand prosperity

By Mark Di Somma

Influencers of brand prosperity

There’s an increasing temptation to see technology as the harbinger of hope and hazard. Every day, the trendy press and commentators on social media carry reports of the next “it” technology together with their recommendations on what every business needs to be doing to ride the wave. Many of these wunder-techs seem to live a few days longer than their press release in the collective conscious. Some though will indeed change the world we live in and how we interact. This report by McKinsey for example identifies 12 such technologies that the company says could have a potential economic impact of between $14 trillion and $33 trillion a year by 2025.

But should our assessment of the risks and opportunities that sectors, and the brands within those sectors, face focus just on emerging innovations and their expected functional impacts? That seems simplistic.

In a report of its own from a couple of years back, KPMG pondered the impact that ten interconnected and interacting sustainability megaforces will have on business over the next 20 years – broadly speaking, a parallel timeframe to the era being considered by McKinsey. Decoupling human progress from resource use and environmental decline, KPMG suggested, represents both the central challenge of our age and one of the biggest sources of future success.

So yes, while there are forces that are clearly pushing economic opportunity forward, there are also clear constraints and restraints that will work to hinder the growth plans of many.

A temptation is to isolate these macro-forces from the everyday competitive realities that strategists grapple with – to deal with the immediate threats and opportunities and to some extent put off addressing the longer and broader term issues until they loom into view. Some might indeed argue that many of these issues are beyond their direct control or influence and therefore should be addressed on an as-required basis in order to protect brand and company alike from unnecessary distractions.

I understand that. But the brand graveyard is filled with the detritus of companies that considered themselves immune from what was going on around them, didn’t keep pace in markets where pace is everything, starved waiting for the tide to return in their favour, bet the bank balance on a sure thing that turned out to be very unsure, or simply fell away when their market collapsed beneath them.

Putting aside for a moment the risks most of us can only stare into the teacups to imagine, here’s my take on six forces influencing brand prosperity that brand strategists cannot afford to ignore. While the potential impacts of some are quantifiable and others not, all are at play on a brand at any one time.

Let’s start with the external forces: those that play out in the marketplace and often involve brand rivals.

Divergence – This pivots on your brand’s ability to judge how far your brand equity will spread. It takes judgment, confidence and insight to strategise your brand to the point where it is disruptive to your competitors but aligned with what your customers will be delighted by. Marketers need to be able to find and stay on the right side of that delicate balance between breakthrough and breaking point. That means having the courage to resist “best practices” that simply replicate what everyone else is doing at the expense of their own brand’s competitiveness. Getting that right, this study suggests, is a balancing act between coolness and autonomy: “Warren and Campbell find that autonomy and coolness have [a] curvilinear relationship which means that the relationship between coolness and autonomy is positive up to a point; after this point, it becomes negative. The authors suggest that what is perceived as cool is somehow deviant in order to be innovative and interesting. However, if autonomy is perceived as too extreme (e.g. threatening or harmful), it will be perceived as uncool.”

Convergence – There’s fallout (good and bad) when sectors collide. Increasingly, these sectorial intersections are becoming less and less predictable. Take for example, this panel discussion on the convergence of finance and telecoms. It’s speculation at this point, but fascinating in that threats and opportunities can indeed come from anywhere. The key challenge is to remain true to who you are as a brand whilst carving a clear route through the merging traffic. As this article in the Financial Times observes, converge with caution: “companies can no longer depend on the old sector definitions as a way of distinguishing themselves in the market. Instead, they must develop a distinct strategy and value proposition – a “way to play” – that is closely aligned with their most important capabilities, the products and services they offer, and the markets in which they operate.”

Credence – Consumers look for brands but at the same time they actually believe in brands less and less. In other words, having a brand in an age of brands is no sign of success and no guarantee of performance. (However, not having brands can only mean your products are destined to become commodities.) An econsultancy article quotes these two wake-up stats from a Havas Media report. Most people worldwide would not care if more than 73% of brands disappeared tomorrow. And consumers believe that only 20% of brands worldwide make a significant, positive effect on people’s well-being. It’s a point also made by Mitch Joel in an insightful article on the current state of branding. We should distinguish, he cautions, between the profile of brands in the internet age and the inclination that consumers have for them. Brands can matter, but only if they are prepared to focus on the consumer not themselves. “The opportunities to connect and build a direct relationship with consumers has never been more promising. The challenge – for most – is that they are bringing a very traditionally-based advertising mindset to the fold, instead of spreading their wings and seeing the bigger opportunity in smarter marketing mixed with better consumer experiences. These next few years are going to be even more challenging for most brands, because consumers are becoming more connected and are consuming media in such new and interesting ways.”

(Re-)Emergence – The world loves a comeback, which means the end of a brand is not necessarily the finish. This is in many ways the other side of convergence – when a rival appears (or re-appears) from inside the sector you think you know so well, funded up, revitalised and ready to grab back market share. Here’s an example from France where the Schiaparelli brand has returned, transformed, after a 60 year absence. Comebacks and revivals are a reminder to all of us that branding is a volatile environment; that brands that have ceased to be counted as competitors can, at times, return to a market bringing new ideas and energies with them. There’s some great examples in Steve Rivkin’s interview with Garland Pollard.

Internal forces also influence a brand’s ability to prosper.

Invergence – My term for the propensity of cultures to lose their way. And when that happens, the consequences can go a lot deeper than just churn and a loss of overall morale. For example, in this article in The Guardian about the failure of The Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the key contributing factors was a culture where the balance between risk and growth was not taken as seriously as it should have been. We all talk openly and regularly about the fact that brands must work inside-out but in my view more monitoring of cultural health as a factor in maintaining brand value needs to be done, both in terms of empirical evidence but also in frameworks that lay out for managers detailed guidelines of what to watch for. To me, that’s about two requirements of management that are often lacking in disillusioned cultures – the ability to espouse and encourage soft values, and the willingness to balance the emphasis on performance with an equal emphasis on encouragement. Here are seven tell-tale signs that all is not well.

Revergerence – The temptation companies have to stick with what they know. This is, to my mind, the most difficult issue facing strategists – knowing what to stick with, why and when in a world where change is constant. I’m sure there’s a link between this and invergence – that as a culture declines, people inside the organisation feel less inclined to innovate and more motivated to focus on what they and those around them do feel they know for certain. In this analysis of brands that have disappeared, the Huffington Post points to three clear reasons why brands vanish. Significant mismanagement and industry pressures, they observe, combined to sink Saab and Sony Ericsson. Brands like Compaq were acquired and disappeared, perhaps because they thought they would continue as is under new owners. Financial institutions like Lehmans never saw the financial crisis coming. Everything they assumed and acted on failed that stress test. Here’s some more telling reasons for why brands find themselves caught between what they know and a market that is moving, or has moved, on: they invested in flawed technology or ideas; they somehow didn’t see a declining market as applying to them; they didn’t shift core competencies fast enough; they over-expanded on an unsustainable model; they tried to fundamentally change something that customers continued central to why they were loyal; consumer tastes changed and they were caught napping; their history took them one way while the market went another.

Where are we going with this?

Collectively, these forces and those identified by McKinsey and KPMG point to three revolving spheres of influence, each turning at different speeds and with varying degrees of immediacy.

a) The long-term macro factors – those changes that will impact how we work and live in the decades ahead.
b) The short – medium term competitive factors – those changes that prompt us to act and react in order to grow markets and meet targets in the months and years ahead.
c) The internal factors – those attitudes, behaviours and ideas that people bring to work and/or work within on a daily basis.

So what are the take-outs for strategists? How should we realistically plot futures for our brands that make sense now and yet make allowance for ideas and issues that are often founded but unproven.

To me, brand prosperity depends on four actions:

1. Building and maintaining a purposeful, vigorous and curious, values based culture that is motivated to resist revergence
2. Creating and implementing strategies that cement customer loyalty and generate areas of leadership. I say areas of leadership in the context of marketplaces because I don’t believe that a market leading brand needs to lead in every aspect of that market. It must however own the rights to a clear, sustainable and distinctive direction. “Own the rights” is not about IP. It’s about having permission from consumers to forge ahead with an idea and to take them on that journey.
3. Developing a flexible portfolio of strategies to address potential and actual competitor behaviour across the four external forces (divergence, convergence, credence and re-emergence)
4. Funding research and development programmes not just to develop product improvements but to look to prepare the brand to leverage emerging technologies and address pending issues in ways that correlate with the brand’s purpose.

Photo of “Standing watch in the fog”, taken by Dennis Jarvis, sourced from Flickr

Motivation: Step 4 in building a purposeful culture

By Mark Di Somma

Motivation - Step 4 in building a purposeful cultureThere’s a temptation to believe that the sheer logic of a good decision will sway the crowd; that if you make a good case and present it in an inspiring way, you’ve done everything you need to for that idea to gain instant uptake in an organisational culture. I’ve yet to see that happen successfully. I’ve seen it tried often – “now take that idea and apply it to what you do” – but never in ways that live up to expectations.

There are “how” aspects to that. Presented with a range of reasons as to why change is needed, the opportunity that change could generate and the information that explains how decisions were reached, people are often receptive but inert. They may well agree with some or all of the arguments. But there is too little momentum to shift them from what they’ve done/known for some time to what is now being asked of them.

Often they worry that they’ll do it wrong or that others are less motivated to act than they are. Or they weigh up the new requirements against what is being asked of them already and decide the new actions are too difficult, unproven or unclear.

Meaningful change won’t happen until the change itself means more than the current arrangements mean now. People will make those shifts in how they behave if they are motivated to do so by rewards – interestingly, many of them communal rather than purely personal.

In this Tedx talk, behavioural economist Dan Ariely suggests that our motivations to do good work are no longer driven by the efficiency gains that dominated the industrial economy. Instead, we now find incentives in a range of intangibles including meaning, being able to create things, challenges, ownership and a sense of pride.

  • We are incentivised to act when we can see the results for ourselves.
  • People prefer appreciation to money. Conversely, if they will only continue to act if they receive more money, it can be because they feel unmotivated and unappreciated or ignored.
  • We value and are proud of work that is difficult and that requires us to expend a greater level of energy.
  • We all want to do good in the world, whether we are aware of that drive in ourselves or not..
  • We’re more motivated to follow rules if we are aware of how doing so benefits those around us.
  • We respond to challenges better than we respond to threats, and we respond to challenges best when we have confidence in our abilities.
  • A positive environment sets the scene for focused work.

Such insights suggest that organisations looking to achieve meaningful change should be asking themselves questions scoped beyond the usual constraints of WIIFM. Here are five suggestions:

  1. How open are you prepared to be about the ongoing effects of change? How, where and when will you report the impacts of what you are now asking people to do?
  2. How can you respectfully say thank you to people who do more than what is being asked of them? How will you celebrate what they achieve so that others feel motivated to emulate them?
  3. How can you present people with challenges that tax them in good ways? And how will you support them to take up those challenges?
  4. Have you spelt out the implications of change for the organisation, for teams, for individuals, for customers and the community? Are those changes the kinds of rewards you would change a deep-seated habit for?
  5. What will change in where people work that will encourage them to work differently? What visible proof will there be that things are not as they were and that that’s a good thing?

Photo of “keep on running” taken by Run On Beat, sourced from Flickr

Do corporate cultures commoditise?

By Mark Di Somma

Do corporate cultures commoditiseIf brands face a continual need to renew their value externally in order to sustain their margins, are cultures also subject to similar downward pressures? Is it in the nature of cultures, I wonder, to commoditise in terms of their meaning internally unless they are actively prevented from doing so?

And how much is it that – a “natural” decline in the emotive significance of the work over time – versus a decline in the collective sense of urgency or an inability to innovate that is responsible for a brand’s reduced strategic focus and complacent execution?

Are brands undermined internally as much or more than they are overtaken competitively? What do you think?

Photo of “Rollercoaster” taken by Kristin Kokkersvold, sourced from Flickr

A simple guide to being an interesting brand

By Mark Di Somma

Be interesting or go homeI’m intrigued by the number of people who insist they don’t believe in marketing, that no-one takes any notice of it and that they don’t have time to engage with brands. Until … they have something they want to tell the world. Then, suddenly, marketing – specifically their marketing – is interesting, exciting and something they know will work once they reach people. “Everyone will want to hear.”

Still they query why they need a strategy. “Let’s just get on with it”.

The research. “I know my market and they know me.”

Then the time it requires. “I could have had this done by now.”

Then why they need to craft a message. “It’s obvious”.

Then whether the message is safe enough. “I’m not sure we should be saying that.”

Or too safe. “Let’s just shock them. I love to shock people.”

Then every word. “That’s not correct grammatically.”

And every image. “Are we covering all our bases do you think?”

Then the tone. “I think we need to be a bit more obvious.”

Then the cost. “Let’s downsize the roster and see whether it works. Then build it up from there. Maybe.”

Then …

By which time of course, their marketing is just like the marketing they claim that they themselves don’t believe in, that no-one takes any notice of and that people don’t have time for.

My view? If you think you can shift units of what you do without engaging people and having them commit to you as a brand, knock yourself out. Just don’t believe that, if you do decide to market, that somehow your marketing is magically exempt from how markets operate today because it happens to be about something that fascinates you. Frankly, that’s myopic.

And please don’t believe that marketing is about what you want to say. Because it’s not. It’s about crafting something that other people – the people you’re trying to reach – want to listen to, read, interact with. This is, after all, the connection economy.

Here’s my favourite thought about what it takes to be interesting today: Earn people’s time. Because if you haven’t made that commitment with your branding and your messaging, you are just talking to yourself in public. And who’s going to make time to listen to that?

Photo of “no advertising sign on green door” taken by Steven Damron, sourced from Flickr

Learning to think in analogue

By Mark Di Somma

TED has huge analogue valueChris Anderson once observed that every abundance creates a new scarcity – and vice versa. So if digital is the abundance, what’s the new scarcity? I think it’s analogue – and by that I mean the things that are hard to reproduce and share quickly.

Books used to be like that. They could be reproduced but only with a high level of determination. They could be forwarded, but really only one copy at a time. No longer. Once a book exists as a file or a link, reproduction time and difficulty of access plummets. So does price.

The new law of market physics it seems to me is:
Ability to charge for value = inability to forward effortlessly

Special experiences, for example, retain their value because they’re not easily cc’d. TED has huge analogue value. Sure, I can watch and share the videos but the atmosphere, the conversations, the networking – these are things that affect each attendee individually and so are impossible to reproduce generally. To really get what TED gives, you have to be there. And you have to keep coming back and paying again and again to access more TED experiences.

So what does that mean for brands? It hints at an irony: a business model where the thing that makes you popular is not where you make the money. And the things that make you money are sufficiently removed or different from what makes you popular in order to be limited.


The Rule of Three: why profitable brands are usually very big or very small

By Mark Di Somma

MacDonalds is an obvious big three competitor

This article from some time back by Jagdish Sheth and Rajendra Sisodia sheds fascinating light on the business case not just for expanding brands but also shrinking them as well. According to the authors’ “Rule of Three”, the quest for scale is quite literally a race first for dominance and then for survival. But if you can’t win, don’t try.

Sheth and Sisodia’s research reveals that in most mature markets, there is only room for three volume-based competitors competing across a range of products and markets. Together, these three players control 70 – 90% of their market. To be viable as a volume driven player, the authors say, companies must have at least 10% market share. Financial performance continues to improve as market share increases, up to about 40%. However, once they expand beyond that 40% threshhold, brands can find themselves subject to a loss of advantage in economies of scale and heightened anti-monopoly scrutiny.

(Bruce Henderson of the Boston Consulting Group has a view that not only must there be no more than three significant competitors but that those competitors must exist in an arrangement ratioed 4:2:1)

The extent to which each of the big three can consolidate market share depends on their respective abilities to alleviate the pressure of fixed costs on their pricing.

While downturns, price wars and market changes can see three top players reduced to two for a time, in the longer run a third player will return or rise to claim the vacant spot. Of these three players, the market leader is generally a responder rather than an innovator while the third placed competitor is most likely to be the market leader in terms of instigating change.

Not surprisingly, the most profitable participants of the remainder of the market are those with small and specialist roles. For those contemplating a serious play for size, this observation will surprise some of you I’m sure: “The performance of specialist companies deteriorates as they grow market share within the overall market, but improves as they grow their share of a specialty niche.” (That’s because when specialist companies become even more niche, they become bigger fish in smaller ponds.)

The most vulnerable are the mid-sized companies looking to get above the 10% threshold. They are generally the least competitive players and the poorest financial performers. Sheth and Sisodia label this middle market space the “ditch”. They continue, “the most desirable competitive positions are those furthest away from the middle. Firms on either side of the ditch especially those close to it need to develop strategies to distance themselves. If a firm in a mature industry finds itself in the ditch, it must carefully consider its options and formulate an explicit strategy to move either to the right or the left.”

Because The Rule of Three applies and renews itself at every stage of a market’s and presumably a brand’s geographic evolution from local to regional, regional to national, and national to global, Sheth and Sisodia’s findings suggest some fascinating strategies for brands of all sizes, from big players and to those struggling to gain foothold in scale-focused markets:

1. Grow and then shed. Once a brand reaches that critical 40% threshhold, it should review (but not necessarily change) its growth strategy. At that point, decision makers could debate a range of options:
• Continue to increase in size whilst ensuring that the market itself remains transparently competitive
• Restructure the business so that it combines scale brands with specialist niche brands
• Shift markets or expand footprint into other markets in order to stay under that 40% mark overall

2. Better to merge than to die. Middle-market brands, particularly those stalled in a position for some time, should look for ways to make themselves more sale-able rather than hoping for the stars to suddenly align and their position to change. They can do this through the development of, or gaining access to, advantages such as exclusive rights that will make them attractive to one of the big three. Or, if a market only has two major players at present, they could merge with another middle market player to form an entity capable of competing for the third position.

3. If you can’t grow big, grow smaller. If your brand cannot break the top three, you should look seriously and proactively at developing a portfolio of niche or super-niche brands, either on your own or through being bought out and becoming part of a top three player’s own portfolio.

Image of “The Big M” taken by Keoni Cabral, sourced from Flickr

Brand response: how does your brand respond to parody?

By Mark Di Somma

Responding to parody

Talk by Starbucks this week of “next steps” following a Comedy Central prank that parodied their name raises the question of what should brands do when the borax is poked?

Aaron Perlut’s piece from a couple of years back on how GE chose to respond to The Yes Men laid out two simple strategies. The first one was pretty much what you’d expect: Acknowledge the spoof, clarify, and then ask everyone to move on. This, as he says, is a standard corporate response. It’s not particularly inspiring but it’s functional.

His second suggestion was more ambitious: Take on the mockers with a parody of your own. In fact, Perlut says, such a move may even give rise to an opportunity – “if executed well — tastefully reversing the parody can serve as a means to connect with new audiences that may have previously looked negatively at the brand or company.”

The third option of course is just to ignore the whole thing.

It’s curious to me that brands are very much instilled in our culture yet often retain a stiff and business-like approach to interacting with that wider culture. Having spent huge sums to be perceived as friendly and customer facing, their responses when the spotlight is thrust upon them in situations that they don’t control can be awkward, strait-laced and lacking in the very humanity they seek to cultivate. They seem to struggle with being approachable when they are not the ones doing the approaching. They want interaction, but only on their terms. As Rohit Bhargava put it so well, they reveal themselves as entities with Personality Not Included.

Behind their corporate windows, brands worry that slights on their trademarks and IP have reputational repercussions. The words “dangerous” and “precedent” get an extended airing by those who went to law school. But executive concerns should perhaps be tempered in today’s high-share media environment by the thought that consumers are looking for something to talk about and that parody is often little more than momentary fun. Unless the barb addresses a specific corporate action that will generate, or has already generated, deep ill-will, media scrutiny or consumer boycotts, it is very unlikely to jeopardise their overall brand equity and their response should reflect this.

Jest is really just another interaction. Often, it warrants no more than a reply.

So depending on the nature of the jibe, in most cases I’d plumb for strategies two or three. And if I was looking to strategy two, I’d absolutely be using social media to do it. Just like these brands did.

Act fast.

Act smart.

Act human.

Mitigate, don’t litigate.

Photo of “Smile, Day 153 of 365” taken by DieselDemon, sourced from Flickr

Resisting the temptation of assumptions

By Mark Di Somma

The temptation of assumptions“I think we can safely assume …” Actually, I doubt it. You can conveniently assume. You can quickly assume. You can naively assume. But I can’t think of any brand that can safely assume. Because to safely assume how you will continue to compete, you must depend on what you’ve known, or feel you’ve known, for so long.

Truly competitive forces, the ones that redefine industries and shatter business models, don’t seem to behave that way at all. They seem to come from nowhere. Which is also a fallacy. Because many of them are actually derived from someone simply asking “What if we don’t assume …” about some aspect of the current working model.

A great brand must be constant, because that’s how it retains integrity. It must be  consistent in its application, because that’s how it retains familiarity. Yet it must assume, and proceed,  on the basis that everything it counts as a strength now will fade in time, because that’s how it will retain vigilance. I’ve christened this need for lingering doubt over the ongoing value of what seems so proven The Feynman Principle in honour of the great man himself and his extraordinary sense of curiosity.

The brands that find new answers are the ones that continually and unsafely question … everything. A key aspect of innovation that too many overlook too easily is buried in the smaller word that overly-vaunted term contains. No.

Or at the very least – not necessarily.

Photo of “The answer, district 7”, taken by Bojan Bjelic, sourced from Flickr

Brands and boundaries

By Mark Di Somma

Brands and boundariesMarketers face this dilemma every day. They must push some boundaries past the point of pain in order to get the jump and be competitive. At the same time, they must clearly stay within constraints such as ethics and regulatory requirements in order to retain integrity, reputation and a clean record.

The two should balance: think ambitiously; compete responsibly.

Bad things happen when they don’t. Bubbles form. Temptations rise. And as they do, the urge to scuff the chalkmarks increases. The GFC is the poignant repercussive example of what happens when borders get realigned: when organisations reset their ethical boundaries and then use those reframed parameters as the basis for more ambitious (read: morally dubious) behaviours that they rationalise as necessary, even “responsible” in order to remain competitive.

It’s comfortable for most marketers to forge ways to profitably pursue their purpose because the money triumphs and the purpose justifies. You can make target and validate getting  there as having done something good in the process. It’s a much greater challenge for brands to work through how they will purposefully pursue their profit – because then, the behaviours are front and centre and the profits are the validation that customers support and reward you for choosing to behave that way.

Photo of “Boundary stone”, taken by Thomas Bresson, sourced from Flickr

Brand diversification: extend with caution

By Mark Di Somma

Extend with caution into being another lifestyle brandIn the search for more income, many brands seem keen to broaden their mandate or redefine the sector they see themselves as now being part of. But the hunt for diversified income streams comes with its own list of dangers and the most obvious caution is this: don’t lose the plot. Don’t spread your brand so wide, generalise your position so much or shift your emphasis so far from where you’ve been that you lose credibility, authority or distinction in the minds of your customers.

I watch with concern as companies make plans to “lifestyle” their brands, shifting the emphasis of what they do in order to introduce the new product lines that they hope will invigorate demand. This is driftnet strategy. It’s based on the belief that if you trawl wide enough across a broad enough front with a general enough message you’ll end up with a bigger catch than what you’re hauling in right now. Dig a little deeper into the plans and it becomes clear that the sectors brands often wish to rush into are already crowded (which marketers justify as proof of demand) and the rationale for this move is based on perceived interest/opportunities that are exactly that – perceptions – and that should, with rigorous appraisal, be dismissed as optimistic rather than substantial.

You don’t automatically become a better brand, a bigger brand or a more attractive brand by walking away from, or downplaying, the equity you’ve worked so hard to build.

In some circumstances of course, diversification is the best strategy going. Clearly if the sector itself is dying or if you are being converged on or commoditised at an accelerating rate, the need to disrupt your business case and reframe your brand is obvious. IBM have shifted their emphasis a number of times to powerful effect.

But if the effect of diversifying is simply to weaken what you already stand for by spreading what you do over a wider area and hoping that customers will find “relevance” in your presence, the effect may well be the opposite of what you intended.

You can become a more powerful and vibrant brand into the future if you can introduce an idea/product that extends the relationship people have with your brand in ways that feel effortless and delightful. My simple rule for brand extension/diversification is this: Go from strength to strength and not from strength to hope.

Image of “Dead Sea Yoga” taken by Ian Bothwell, sourced from Flickr

Layering your story

By Mark Di Somma

In this presentation from last year I talk about how great stories are structured and about the power of the nutshell of truth that lives at the centre of a great story. I show how changing just one word of that kernel can have dramatic effects.

Towards the end of the excerpt I touch on something that will become increasingly important I believe as brands gravitate to longer ideas: the stories must continue to evolve if they are to avoid commoditising into the stories of industries. What’s your sequel?

Di Fuller once again worked her magic with the design.

Tell your customers the history of your attitude

By Mark Di Somma

brands with attitudeIsn’t this such a great thought? “Don’t build a product, then try to market it.  Instead, build a customer attitude, then build a product to match that attitude.” It’s part of an absorbing and insightful article by Graeme Newell on why you shouldn’t focus your advertising around your product.

And it points to a parallel thought for me that clearly distinguishes brands with purpose from those that lack purpose. Purposeful brands focus on the history of the attitude that drives them far more than their chronicled timeline. They talk about what first motivated them to want to change the world and what impels them to continue shaking the tree. That’s powerful precisely because it’s timeless. And it’s relevant because it’s so connective. It explains to those of a similar mind how a brand they like came to the very same realisations that they have.

By way of a structure for such a story, I hacked Emma Coats’ wonderful Pixar code to render my take on how marketers might retell how they came to be the brand they are. This is is the result:

When we started, everyone believed …

We were so outraged by this, we decided to …

And then we …

And then we …

Suddenly people found they could …

So we …

Today, our customers …

And we continue to …

Photo of “Adidas JS Wings 2.0 Marble Leather” taken by Kevin Wu, sourced from Flickr

Brand strategy: the visible and the invisible

By Mark Di Somma

Visible and invisible strategyTactics are like torchlight. You switch them on, they show you a way forward, you act on them there and then. They’re logical, reactive, contemporary. Your customers and your competitors probably see and react to them in exactly the same light.

Great strategy though is like starlight. What you’re seeing coming out of a company now was established and agreed upon a long way back. It started its journey many many years ago, has been influencing the way the company thinks and competes for ages, and has taken all this time to become visible.

You’re only aware of it now, as a consumer, because it’s finally made it to your field of vision. You saw a press release. Someone said something. There was a product launch …

Here’s the amazing bit. What you cannot see, because it’s nowhere near reaching you, is the strategy that these companies are creating right now for the markets of tomorrow.

Two things about that matter. It can take that long for a great brand to develop and roll its strategy and its story. But making sure it’s still right is something that the best brands check almost every day.

Photo of “Pleiades Star Cluster”, taken by Nick Ares, sourced from Flickr

Education: Step 3 in building a purposeful culture

By Mark Di Somma

Education. Step 3 in building a purposeful cultureHaving clearly outlined why change is needed and the opportunity that change could generate, too many culture change programmes then leave people to make the changes themselves without very much more explanation. So often, staff are handed new values and a new purpose, there’s some motivational meetings and perhaps a video and gift, and then the business just expects them to get on with it. The thinking seems to be that this gives people personal empowerment; that it brings the change alive for them.

It does nothing of the sort because as Leo Tolstoy so rightly observed, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Such an approach shortchanges the opportunity because it leaves unanswered the real question: “how exactly is this going to happen?”.

The best hope is that people will make a viable stab at interpreting what they perceive to be the new expectations and attempt to adjust. The more likely scenario is that they will add the new words to their corporate lexicon and continue doing what they are used to doing and comfortable with on the grounds that the onus for change falls on others in the organisation. The most cynical will dismiss the entire initiative as another “warm handshake” that will disappear if they ignore it.

Getting this right in my view is about linking the dream that you have asked people to make with the reality that they currently find themselves in. It’s about laying out a programme of systematic change that transits people from the comfortable to the exciting.

Look to answer these four questions:

1. What are we going to do to help ourselves? – How is the organisation as a whole going to change and where and when are people going to see that change happening around them? By starting with collective change, championed and driven by leaders, a culture signals its intention to commit. These changes are the strategic responses required to reset the course of the whole ship. They provide people with a context within which to see what is being asked of them. They answer “Why?” and “Where?”

2. What are we going to do to help you? – How is the organisation going to back and support change for individuals? I find that clearly spelling out what people are going to receive by way of training/support in order to learn/relearn the skills and behaviours that will be expected of them reinforces the wider commitment and provides people with clear actions they can take. But don’t stop there. Also spell out: How are we going to listen to you? How will we review your work and your progress from now on? What are we asking you to add to your workload? What are we going to remove from your workload so that you will have the time and energy to do this? This shows commitment and recognition.

3. What are you going to do to help you? – Challenge each person to articulate the changes that they believe they will need to make to how they think and work in order to help realise the new goal. This asks people to identify in specific terms the shortfalls they would like to correct and the potential they would like to develop. It puts people in charge of their own change. It resolves “Who?”, “When?” and “What?”

4. Finally – what are you going to do to help us? – This asks people to quantify the contribution they believe they can make to the big change. Pitched properly, this question empowers people to articulate the possibilities they see for the organisation within the work they do. Personal ownership is the key to encouraging and realising continuous improvement because it promotes a “suggestion culture” where people are encouraged to initiate rather than simply follow.

Photo of “Bridge in the Woods” taken by Rodney Campbell, sourced from Flickr

Rising above the noise

By Mark Di Somma

Rising above the noise

It’s hard to develop a brand. It takes enormous effort, huge willpower, confidence, resources, patience and a thick skin. You’ll face doubt, distractions and problems. It’s gruelling …. But none of that is the toughest bit. Far from it. The most intimidating aspect is actually building a brand that consciously and clearly stands apart from everything else that is being built – everything else that is competing for the same audience you want to reach.

Here’s a simple and devastating question. Whose going to be most excited about what you’re working on right now? I’m not talking about while it’s under development. I’m talking about once it’s been released to the market.

If the real answer is, well, you, chances are you’re not building a brand that has the greatest chance of counting. You’re actually investing a huge amount in something that will, in the end, just contribute to more of the noise that everyone says they are fighting against – and you’ll be forced to bank on luck, persistence, advertising or price point to convince enough people to somehow swing your way and make all the effort worth it.

You don’t beat the noise by raising the volume. Sound thinking doesn’t add to the clatter. It cuts through it.

Image of “Canon 7D Noise”, taken by Harald Hoyer, sourced from Flickr

Define your terms of brand, then your terms of business

By Mark Di Somma

Define your terms of brand

So many companies build their brand around their business. They establish the tangible assets and processes and look to extrapolate the intangible value of that as brands for their buyers. They transit in other words from the physical to the emotive.

What would happen I wonder if, like Richard Branson does so often, you reversed the order; if the question being asked was “What would we need to co-ordinate (how, when and where) in order for customers to feel this way?” Start with your terms of brand in other words – and use those to define your terms of business. It sounds radical. But really it stems from the questions that everyone asks now, just in reverse order.

Ask first what most ask second:

  • Who do you want to be your customers?
  • How will you change the industry for them?
  • How will you behave to make that happen?
  • How will you help them feel that they will love?
  • What will they see by way of proof that you are committed to this?

Then, based on the answers above -

  • What will you offer them in terms of products/services (that they don’t get now)?
  • Where will you be for them? (on the ground, in the cloud, online, domestic, international)
  • Who will you work with to make that happen?
  • How will you look after them that they’ll enjoy?
  • How, where and when will you grow in order to be that company?
  • What will you return by way of fair compensation for your efforts?
  • What and how will you charge for what you offer that makes that happen and feels fair?

Photo of “Fly like a who’s who. Pay like a who’s that” taken by George Kelly, sourced from Flickr

The power of inconvenient questions

By Mark Di Somma

Inconvenient questionsEnron is a huge reminder of how easy it is to assume; of how the massive confidence of some readily inspires the trust of many. A reminder too of the power of the inconvenient question – just like the one that the reporter from Fortune posed when she asked the CEO how exactly did they make money?

Inconvenient questions are a bit like those sewer tests where they send smoke into the pipes – they’re how you spot where the gaps are and where they aren’t.

Who’s asking those questions at your place? And what do you do with those lines of enquiry and the people who ask them?

Do you treat the questioners like heroes and truth seekers, the people who really care about your organisation and its reputation? Does everyone just carry on assuming, and have you noticed that those people are no longer there? If these questions in themselves are unwelcome, chances are there’s your answer right there.

Photo of “Question Mark Cookies 4”, taken by Scott McLeod, sourced from Flickr

Brand and the ability to devastatingly disrupt

By Mark Di Somma

Brand and the ability to disrupt

Recently Thomson Dawson wrote a provocative and challenging article about “devastating innovation”. Brands that weren’t prepared to innovate far beyond their comfort zone, he suggested, would be devastated in the blink of an eye. What’s more, the fallout from such innovation would reach far beyond immediate competitors to wither those who never would have imagined they were at risk.

That fallout, Thomson suggests, can even be unplanned by the companies themselves. “Goggle Maps wasn’t originally created to help people find their way – it was about gathering more information about users to sell more search based advertising,” Thomson reminds us. “I don’t think the innovators of Twitter had any idea their innovation would become the de facto method for breaking news, leaving powerful and influential media companies flatfooted.”

I’ve always been of the view that the most powerful industry change happens with, or makes, a powerful brand. And I found an article from some years back that posed some fascinating and timely questions. Written at the height of Apple’s brand popularity, the article asked whether readers would like the iPhone as much if it had come from Redmond instead of Cupertino?

Take a current Microsoft product, writer John Dvorak suggested in the piece, and ask yourself how you would feel about it if it came from a small start-up with a trendy name? Now, take the same product and ask yourself how you would feel about it if it were done by Apple? Now take a product that is successful for another brand, and ask how would you feel about it if it had come from Microsoft?

The clear implication is that the impact of a radical change is governed as much by the brand as by the idea itself. Innovation for an ill-positioned company will simply not deliver what’s expected in the vast majority of cases because there is no market affinity – and without market affinity, without the goodwill of consumers wanting to see a brand succeed, chances are the innovation, no matter how brilliant, has a greater likelihood of being lost in the crowd or simply failing to gain traction.

It’s interesting that companies like Apple have seldom been first to market with what they do – but they have always made sure that when they do hit the shelves they are best to market, and their approach works because the market expects that from them. Arguably, enough consumers are inclined to believe that an Apple product will be amazing for that to become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

What devastating innovation can your customers expect to see from you next? And what, if anything, do you need to do to change their inclination before it’s released? Because without a devastating brand, your groundbreaking change could start out already blunted.

Photo of “Christmas #25”, taken by Kevin Dooley, sourced from Flickr

How do you run a brand story you can’t fully own anymore?

By Mark Di Somma

Running a brand story you can't own anymoreIt’s tempting to believe that our brand story is ours. It’s not of course. Today, it’s owned by everyone – in the sense that virtually anyone, anywhere can input. And that means you’re not the only one telling that story anymore.

Once customers simply provided validation that your story was true. Now they are part of the narrative, because their experience of your brand can so quickly become everyone else’s opinion of your brand, or at least part of it.

Customers and their impressions are the new interactive plot twists. They can support you, which provides affirmation that this is an interesting story worth connecting with. They can disagree with you which sows doubt. They can call for change, which can send your brand down other paths. If enough people disagree, that can encourage controversy or even opposition to what you seem to stand for.

Storytelling must, as a result, be increasingly responsive. Indeed, I suggested at a workshop last week that the days of having audiences for brands are almost over, because no-one wants to be simply told anymore. What they do want is an ongoing view of, and input into, how and where things go from here. That shift fundamentally changes the role of brand management in my view: from one of supervising how the brand is applied to curating how and where the story develops.

Photo of “Share”, taken by C!, sourced from Flickr

Another pitching secret: Imagine success for them

By Mark Di Somma

Imagine success for themIf you’re pitching for a new piece of business, especially in a competitive situation, ask “What will happen for them [the people who’ve put the business out to pitch] if everything goes to plan?” Knowing that enables you to plan an approach to make that level of success happen.

Articulating that goal to the company gets them excited about what could happen and links you squarely with that outcome. You inject surety into your pitch. You already feel like part of their team. You’ve become a proponent. You are associated with something desirable – and something desirable is likely to feel much more tangible.

So many companies don’t do that, and as a result the company that has put out the pitch must battle uncertainty to hire you.

There are other benefits as well. By working this through:

  • You think about the project from their point of view and with their priorities in mind;
  • Knowing the outcome enables you to plot a clear and deliberate path from where they are now to that end point that you have articulated. You approach the project with the obstacles they will face firmly in mind.
  • Defining success for them is a great way for you to check your understanding of the project and even to extend the goals.

So why don’t more companies pitch this way? They’re afraid it will be construed as a guarantee. But what you’re really looking to do is agree/negotiate an end point and to encourage the tenderers to define that more clearly for themselves through you.

Most people write a pitch brief to get a project started – not to get it finished. That’s why it often remains somewhat unformed in terms of possibilities in their minds. They recognise success though when they see it. And they’ll be much more inclined to hire you if they see what the project could mean through you.

Photo of “City Wildlife”, taken by Toni, sourced from Flickr

Brand changes: the different types of new

By Mark Di Somma

What new can mean for customers

We hear a lot about how fast and how much the world is moving. But when brands absorb what they think is consumers’ fascination with the new and shiny and respond to it, reactions can be mixed. The trap for marketers in this is that there are different types of “newness”: the ‘new’ people queue for, talk about, and go mad on social networks over; and the ‘new’ that bewilders, confuses, worries, or even confronts.

To help explain why this happens, I’ve categorised ‘new’ into three groups.

1. “New for me” – the exciting changes; the new developments and extensions that people can’t wait to share; the changes that generate dopamine. Technology, media, gaming, fashion, books etc – the life-enhancing things that people can bring into and add to their world that make it more lively and interesting. These changes are easy to introduce because they fit easily and well into the “upgrade culture”. People are waiting for them. Pretty much, announce and they will come.

2. “New to me” – the changes that move things into people’s world and in doing so make life less familiar; things that they now need to learn or remember to do or look for; things that challenge people’s habits. New labels, new policies, new pricing structures, new buying rituals. A number of brands, like JC Penney for example, learnt to their cost last year that when you adjust what people feel comfortable with, they take time and coaxing to shift.

I call this phenomenon “spooling”. It’s the time that consumers take to catch up, adjust and get used to what a brand has done. If a brand gets ahead of its consumers and doesn’t take them on the journey, reactions can be adverse and significant. New Coke is the most famous example of this. The outcry over the drink wasn’t really about what the drink was. It was actually about what the drink wasn’t anymore. To bring about these changes effectively, brands need to lead consumers through the change – explaining fully, urging quietly and encouraging patiently while people sort it out in their own minds.

3. “New at me” – the changes, often in attitudes, that challenge people and businesses at close to a visceral level because they test the very boundaries, moral and physical, that people, communities and even societies have established for themselves. Social justice issues can fall into this category by way of example. Change in this space is slow, obstinate and often beset with scepticism and resentment. Consumers require discussion, debate and above all time to work through what is being proposed, why it’s needed, how they feel about that and whether they are willing to participate. (This interesting article for example looks at why consumers have been so slow to engage with climate change.)

The best changes are perfectly pitched to the level of “new” they introduce.

The most surprising changes are those that make challenging change exciting or that elevate a small change into something that people hanker for.

Where marketers can go wrong very quickly is if they mismatch how a change is introduced with how a change is greeted. Retailers sometimes do this – introduce a packaging or a formula change that they think is exciting only to find that it’s greeted by buyers as an inconvenience they need to adjust to. Or they can mis-pace their product development by bringing out a product that continues the familiar at the very time that people want something exciting and different.

Both pale by way of impact, however, to brands that introduce changes that challenge people in an “at me” way but were not framed in that manner. That dichotomy of size-of-issue versus pace-of-change is one that NGOs often struggle with for example. They seek to introduce what feels to many like far-reaching change quickly because for the NGO the matter is urgent. For the recipient of the message though, the consideration time is much longer, and people react adversely because they hate feeling rushed or pressured. Their response is to dismiss the call for the new as wrong.

If you’re bringing a change to market this year, be very aware of what sort of ‘new’ it is for the people who buy from you, and plan your communications accordingly. New is in the eye of the beholder.

Photo of “Brand New Antiques”, taken by Seth Anderson, sourced from Flickr

Does corporate responsibility require more social creativity?

By Mark Di Somma

responsibility and creativity

Some years back, Deborah Doane wrote a hard-hitting article about the “myth of CSR”. In it, she argued that CSR was a reaction rather than an action; that it was essentially a collective response to uprisings against the behaviours and morals of corporate institutions and that it had been encouraged by an historically weak NGO sector as a way to bring about change.

Her concerns mirror many that I have independently raised.

Trade-offs made between profit and ethics in CSR programmes seem often to err in favour of the finances, betraying what has seemed an irreconcilable gap between what’s good for the world and what’s good for business. (I was quite taken with an idea quoted from Marjorie Kelly that “It is inaccurate to speak of stockholders as investors, for more truthfully they are extractors.”)

While stated concern by consumers over ethical matters is high, actual commitment remains low. I don’t see any evidence that that has changed since the Stanford article was published. Ethical behaviour is now very much an expectation on the part of consumers. There is little moral high ground (in the sense that such behaviours are consistently and abundantly rewarded), only the status of non-low ground if you like – that a company’s social responsibility behaviours are acceptable and therefore the brand is not financially punished. Consumers want companies to be good but are not prepared to pay more for them to be so. They are however prepared to use ethics as a filter for their choice set – to rule a particular brand in or out.

No surprise either that far from encouraging competition to demonstrate best ethical practice, there has been an unhealthy emphasis on compliance. As Doane observes, “companies often fail to uphold voluntary standards of behavior in developing countries, arguing instead that they operate within the law of the countries in which they are working.” In other words, the behaviour dials have been set to minimum rather than maximum.

Doane continues, “At some point, we should be asking ourselves whether or not we’ve in fact been spending our efforts promoting a strategy that is more likely to lead to business as usual, rather than tackling the fundamental problems. Other strategies — from direct regulation of corporate behavior, to a more radical overhaul of the corporate institution, may be more likely to deliver the outcomes we seek.”

That I struggle with – because to me, such strategies risk replacing one form of compliance that hasn’t worked with another form of even more heavy-handed compliance that could be equally ineffectual. Regulation encourages discipline – absolutely – but I’m not sure it fosters innovation. Equally, I’m unconvinced that changes in governance are the answer (although they could prove an important incentive, but only if and when the “extractors” are prepared to stop demanding short term gains.)

I do agree though that CSR has promoted business as usual, or perhaps more to the point, compliance as usual. But I also think CSR has proven a non-answer partly because we’ve been asking the wrong question. The question that continues to be asked of brands is “what are you doing to do good in the world?”, which naturally prompts the response “this much” and/or “as much as the next guy”.

What would happen, I wonder, if we linked responsibility and creativity? What if we made it a way for the world’s biggest brands to tackle, solve and profit from the world’s biggest problems? I don’t mean that at all in an exploitative sense. In other words, what if we tied responsibility not to “do-good” compliance but rather to big-bang competitive difference? And what if the responsibility element of that wasn’t about inventing an answer that was monopolistically priced, but, on the contrary, was about an insistence on globally scaled, volume-focused answers that everyone could afford?

In other words, what if we took Chris Trimble and Vijay Govindarajan’s wonderful concept of “reverse innovation” and made that the focus of the next era of responsibility? Then companies wouldn’t boast to their investors about what something cost, but rather what their expertise, innovative prowess and commitment to responsibility meant the innovation didn’t cost. And the global uptake that resulted would ensure investors got the returns they were looking for.

That would also generate a very different and quite disruptive question for responsibility going forward – one based on responsible leadership rather than a fading corporate social responsibility model: What is the biggest problem in the world that your brand is in the best position to (affordably) solve?

Now that really would be something worth reporting on.

Photo of “Is the traditional business world at war with creativity?”, taken by, sourced from Flickr

Sometimes, buyers need cake

By Mark Di Somma

Every buyer needs cakeEveryone loves secrets. The power of secrets is not just in the information. It’s in the fact that often secrets represent shortcuts. And the shorter road is something that fascinates many.

Shortcuts explain why the diet industry thrives. They explain why so many people read wealth creation books. They are also why email scams continue to work. And why everyone rushes into a business area that is booming.

1. People feel they are too busy and there’s too much at stake to invest the full time required if they might not have to.

2. No-one wants to miss out – especially if something looks straightforward.

3. Everyone wants to get there quicker than those around them.

Customers want secrets. Or more to the point, they can have difficulties with brands that don’t offer them what feels like immediate success.

And that leads us here: How long is the perceived road to a sense of achievement with your brand? Because if there’s a shorter way, or even if there looks like there might be a shorter way, you’re vulnerable to being usurped, superceded by the promise of access to a more powerful secret, a shorter road, a faster gain …

In a world where patience is not a virtue if you’re a customer, perceived pace, or rather perceived progress, is competitive.

If success depends on your customer acquiring understanding or knowledge, particularly  over an extended period of time, articulate the end goal and its value extremely clearly. And if you can’t provide “secrets” that quickly, at the very least provide cake. Plenty. And often. It could be through actual rewards. It could be through recognition. It could be through even just encouragement. Cake gives people the energy to push on and not to pull up short or to be sidetracked by what looks like a sweeter alternative.

Image of “Cupcake”, taken by Frédéric Bisson, sourced from Flickr

38 ways that brands generate “badwill”

By Mark Di Somma

38 ways that brands generate badwill

Just been re-reading parts of Matt Haig’s Brand Failures. While the edition I’m looking at is now close to ten years old, its ideas are a timely reminder that though the purpose of brands is to generate goodwill and margin, failure to deliver on expectations and the subsequent “badwill” that engenders is never far away.

As Haig observes in his opening chapter, “The process of branding was developed to protect products from failure … Brand identities were designed not only to help these products stand out, but also to reassure a public anxious about the whole concept of factory-produced goods … Fast forward to the 21st century and a different picture emerges. Now it is the brands themselves that are in trouble. They have become a victim of their own success.”

Badwill is a term that investment analysts use to describe the effect of bad behaviour on investor sentiment. It is of course the converse of the goodwill that stocks depend on to help lift their market price above their net book value.

Investopedia defines badwill as “The negative effect felt by a company when shareholders and the investment community find out that is has done something that is not in accordance with good business practices. Although typically not expressed in a dollar amount, badwill can play out in the form of decreased revenue, loss of clients or suppliers, loss of market share.”

The concept applies equally to brand equity, where the disappointment also springs from behaviours or attitudes but can manifest itself directly in lost revenues, lost clients, loss of market share and a whole lot of bad publicity.

It’s easy to see how stocks can be affected by factors that are beyond their control but given the tight control that brand professionals have over their assets, what do brands do to generate badwill or actually fail? According to Haig, they surcome to one or several of “the seven deadly sins of branding”:

Amnesia – brands forget what they stand for and quickly run into trouble.
Ego – brands can over-estimate their own importance and capabilities and this can cause them to stay in a market where the tide is going out or to attempt to enter markets for which they are clearly unsuited.
Meglomania – brands can be too ambitious. They can attempt to be into everything and to be everywhere and that can cost them dearly.
Deception – brands can market their products in ways that bear no resemblance to the reality. Haig calls this “brand fiction”.
Fatigue – brands can lose interest in what they’re doing, then the energy to innovate evaporates.
Paranoia – brands become over-reactive. They run themselves to a standstill with lawsuits, brand relaunches and desperate me-too actions
Irrelevance – brands fail to keep pace within a dynamic category and are overtaken.

I’d add several more – Distraction, Inattention, Impatience, Insensitivity and Isolation. In the rush to be edgy and competitive, it’s easy, perhaps too easy, to dismiss or even fail to notice ideas or ways of behaving that damage a brand on a daily basis, or to believe that providing customers with the levels of service and attention they feel they deserve is an unnecessary cost and inconvenience to the brand.

Of course badwill is not generated by the action itself, but by perceptions of the actions. And those actions are often as much the result of bad judgment calls as bad behaviours per se. A brand can be behaving in good faith and with good intentions and still engender badwill. And of course market scrutiny of brands is not just multi-channelled but also multi-faceted – from what they say to what they show to how they react, brands are always-on.

If customers believe any of these things about a brand, chances are that brand is under-performing in the marketplace and in terms of its intangible equity:

1. They’re arrogant
2. They’re insensitive
3. They’re stupid
4. They’re careless, even dangerous
5. They’re ruthless
6. They’re exploitative
7. They lie
8. They don’t deliver value for money
9. They’re awkward
10. They refuse to take responsibility
11. They’re slow
12. They’re inefficient
13. They stereotype
14. Their stuff doesn’t work
15. They don’t offer what people want today
16. They disappoint
17. They’re embarrasing
18. They’re offensive
19. They’re deceptive
20. They’re tasteless
21. They’re greedy
22. They’re annoying
23. They’re clumsy
24. They’re rude
25. They say they can do things that they can’t
26. They’re embarrassing
27. They’re disingenuous
28. They’re political (or their actions are interpreted politically)
29. They don’t move with the times
30. They hurt people
31. They’re confusing
32. Their own people hate working for them
33. They’re inconsistent
34. They’re obsessed with policy
35. They don’t listen
36. They trivialise things that matter
37. They’re passive (aggressive)
38. They’re boring

So who got it wrong in 2013? By way of interest, here’s who Ad Week judged the biggest brand failures in terms of marketing communications.

And some nice insights from Bruce Turkel here on 2013 business blunders.

Contrast all that with the 30 things that likeable brands do to generate goodwill.

Photo of “X”, taken by Marc Falardeau, sourced from Flickr

Thanks for a great year

By Mark Di Somma

Thanks for being part of Upheavals

As summer finally shows its face in my part of the world and the year counts out, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you who take the time to read, to comment and to publicise my posts. A blog is definitely a labour of love, even in this age of content marketing, and having others read, respond and feed into issues that catch my eye is hugely satisfying.

I’m often asked why I invest so much time posting. Three reasons.

I’m a brand geek. I love the ways brands work. I enjoy the ironies of how they work most effectively. I find them a great lens through which to look at business problems.

Secondly, I’m an avid reader and Upheavals is a great opportunity to share thinking that inspires me, from a full range of sources.

Thirdly, preparing posts generates amazing conversations with all sorts of people – from those I know very well (that’s you Christine, Alex, Blair, Jeremy, Sherryl, Di, Simon, Sarah, Mike, Adrienne, Gren and Sam) to marketers like Hilton Barbour and Sandra Pickering whose ongoing views, opinions and inputs I always look forward to. And of course Tom Asacker, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing in some depth this year for the inaugural Virtual Coffee.

Upheavals is also a work in progress. It’s an opportunity to document my thinking about brands, strategy, creativity and responsibility on an ongoing basis and as the theories, writings and opinions of others influence my approach. It is, or at least I hope it is, a blog that appeals to those with open and restless minds.

This year, visitors have tripled. That’s due in no small part to one big change: my involvement with Derrick Daye of The Blake Project and the amazing thinkers and writers at Branding Strategy Insider. A warm and grateful hat tip to Derrick, Brad, Pete, Thomson, Walker, Nigel and Mark for making me feel so welcome.

In the year ahead, my consulting dance card is looking pretty full, at least for the first six months. A great trip to Malaysia this year though reminded me just how much I enjoy speaking as well as workshopping. I’m looking forward to more of that in 2014. Please contact me if you’re looking to shake things up a little.

In New Zealand, we’ll see the New Year in first tomorrow. As 2014 makes its way to you, may I wish you a happy, safe, productive and profitable year ahead.

Photo of “Pohutukawa (New Zealand Christmas Tree)”, taken by Sids 1, sourced from Flickr

Increasing your difference by opinion

By Mark Di Somma

Difference by opinion

The opinionated consumer is on the rise. Brad Tuttle cites numerous examples of boycotting, protesting, petitioning and venting in this recent article in Time. Encouraged by the galvinising effects of social media and mass action against brands that they perceive to have done wrong, people everywhere it seems are pointing the finger and calling upon others to do the same.

Brands are now so much of our daily experience that we quite literally take their actions and attitudes personally says Martin Zwilling in a recent article in Forbes. And because of this we look for, and judge brands by their “worthy intentions”. Relationships, he says, are now the cornerstone of value and that potentially makes brands vulnerable to the opinions and agendas of others in a world where “your customers now have near-instanteous power to hold companies and brands accountable for their words and actions”.

This situation puts brands in an apparent dilemma. They can attempt to appeal to everyone and risk being likeable but bland. Or they can go out on a limb, take a position and incur the wrath and potential actions of those who disagree with them. Actually, I don’t think that’s a dilemma at all. To me, most brands, except those deliberately built around globally-scaled mass appeal, need to be opinionated, even argumentative, with the world around them, and the rise and rise of the opinionated consumer should be a catalyst for that rather than a deterrent.

In many cases, the issue isn’t actually whether people agree with you as a brand. It’s very hard work indeed to please all of the people all of the time. The question is what they are arguing with you about.

If they are taking issue with an opinion you hold, that’s their democratic right and they have never had more tools at their disposal with which to exercise their agreement or disagreement. But polarised consumers are also a huge source of loyalty. Powerful brands across almost every sector use opinions, and difference of opinions, to galvinise buyers into communities.

However if they are taking issue with an action you have taken, that is something to take notice of. Disapproval requires a very different response than disagreement – precisely because it has a moral perspective to it. If consumers or NGOs are taking issue with an action you have taken or not taken, that is at least worthy of some explanation of what you are doing and why by way of response. You may still decide to go ahead even in the face of protest or outright criticism … but you should have a clear view on why you are doing so, and you should be communicating that in a very focused way to your customers.

And if your actions don’t pass muster – admit it, apologise and take appropriate steps, or face the consequences of not being seen to behave in a worthy way. That’s not about backing down or spin or damage control. It’s simply about integrity. If how you act doesn’t square with what you say and what you’ve told the world you believe, you’re not being true to yourselves. Consumers can live with a brand they don’t like, even if they’re happy to give it a hard time. But a brand that can’t be trusted to keep its word quickly loses support across the board.

Consumers don’t just buy what you sell, they buy what you stand for. So here are my six suggestions for how to effectively build difference by opinion:

  • State your position, why you hold it, and who it will benefit in an unequivocal manifesto.
  • Be constructive – focus on the good you believe needs doing. Don’t hate, don’t discriminate, don’t stigmatise.
  • Be colourful – how you express your view is critical. Own your language.
  • Be consistent and be transparent – state when you’ve got it right, and when and why you’ve fallen short.
  • Challenge others to equal or better an industry benchmark/norm that you believe needs changing, regardless of whether you’re a leader, a starter or a challenger. (Interesting article here from the excellent thinkers at eatbigfish on who they thought would shake the tree well in 2013.)
  • Take up the debate. So many brands are not prepared to argue with those who disagree with them. Step up, I say. Not to change the opinions of those who disagree with you (that won’t happen) but rather to remind those who do agree why they should continue to have faith in you. But play the issue not the person … And apply that same principle to those who comment.

Photo of “Disagreement” taken by Nayaab Shaikh, sourced from Flickr

Do we need to rethink how brands use IP?

By Mark Di Somma

Rethinking how brands use IP

Provocative question: Why do IP law firms generally have such ugly identities? I suspect it’s because for most of them are about protection rather than attraction. And it’s interesting isn’t it that for two parties that should work closely together, brand and IP strategists tend to remain curiously separated.

I don’t think that separation is in any way antagonistic – more that it’s generated by different priorities and focii and overseen by different parts of the client organisation. My own view has tended to be that while IP and brand strategy are both focused on competitiveness, IP is a defensive strategy rather than a front-foot initiative; one with the potential to help deter those whose actions might otherwise pose a fundamental threat to the existence or integrity of the brand.

Two interesting pieces of reading this week have challenged that view. The first – on the challenges of IP keeping pace with innovation – is a reminder that brands cannot rely on the law alone to protect what they do once they have done it. In a world of agility, it may be necessary to initiate product changes that you can’t fully protect in order to remain relevant. That in itself suggests a growing contradiction between the iterative way in which new ideas tend to develop now and the absolute way that IP law seems to demand they be defined. What to do?

An answer may lie in this second piece of reading: an interesting post by Duncan Bucknell in which he examines a decision by Procter & Gamble to reduce the number of products per package to increase profitability and recoup the costs of innovation.

“Here we have a brand built on the message of quality and backed by a large IP Estate. What message are you giving to consumers who now get less diapers in that brand they trust and always buy?,” Bucknell asks. He then goes on to suggest a number of ways that an IP strategist might get involved in optimising the business strategy.

His key question seems to me to go some way towards resolving the dilemma raised earlier, and that is this: What do we already own (from an IP perspective) and how can we make best use of that competitively? In other words, Bucknell seems to be suggesting, base competitive innovation on the protections you already have rather than innovating wildly and then trying to protect that. Build up and out in response to market demand rather than starting afresh without any protective foundation.

It introduces a question around differentiation that I for one am going to pay a lot more attention to: what do we have available to the brand to compete from (not just with)?

Photo of “You can’t touch this” taken by barockschloss, sourced from Flickr

How to shine as a B2B brand

By Mark Di Somma

How to shine as a B2B brandWe tend to put the onus for likeability on B2C brands, but while B2B brands may work to different dynamics and different decision trees, people still want to do business with people they like spending time with. Here are 7 ways your B2B brand can increase other businesses’ inclination to work with you.

  1. Build your authority – the fastest way to de-risk the decision to go with you is to show that you are a wise choice. Do that through story and demonstration not hype and hope. Shape what you say about yourselves so that you make sense as the choice to everyone who will make the decision about whether to use you. Much of the perceived value of powerful B2B brands like GE is predicated on the market’s understanding of the worth of their vast knowledge across all the markets they choose to do business in.
  2. Be uplifting – genuine energy is hugely infectious. People want to do business with brands that are passionate about what they do and the difference they can make. Present problems internally in ways that inspire people to solve them, and present your findings and answers with gusto but humility. There’s huge power in suggestion. In areas like consulting, for example, the most powerful B2B brands are those that people want to be in the room with because they’re excited about what they’ll hear.
  3. Problem solve – it’s not about what you offer, it’s all about what they need. Yes, everyone says they know that, but precious few act on it. Instead, they focus on displaying their own expertise rather than discussing how that expertise could be applied. Market yourselves as a brand that understands and is working to positively address the issues that come between your clients and their objectives. Put what you know in the context of what your client or prospect needs to address. Ideo is a great example of this approach in action.
  4. Have real personality – so many B2B brands are afraid of being anything other than beige. They worry that it compromises their “professionalism”, whatever that is. Not true. Stand apart by presenting yourselves in a colourful and savvy way – in your actions and in your marketing. Mailchimp are a prime example of an email marketer with a strong and instantly recognisable voice. Remember, brands put a face to the resources you have available. They bring experience and knowledge alive. They telegraph powerful messages quickly and decisively. Work with that. In today’s aesthetically aware world, beauty inspires confidence because it signals attention to detail.
  5. Listen carefully – monitor the market, provide input, shape debate, engage with others and take onboard what you get back. Then share the insights you’ve gathered generously. A brand that listens and reports is a brand that others also come to look to for cues. Take up a cause. Speaking for the industry to consumers or on behalf of consumers to the industry bestows authority and authenticity and makes you a critical pivot in the journey to resolution. IBM with its Global CEO Study and Edelman PR with its Trust Barometer are great examples of B2B brands that have put themselves at the centre of valuable and dynamic conversations this way.
  6. Start relationships early – expressing an interest in doing business with another brand and then exhibiting the patience to wait till a slot becomes available shows planning and discipline. Look for ways to involve your execs as an unofficial sounding board for difficult decisions that the target company is facing. Show them you want to see them prosper before you ask them to help your bottom line. Pitch doctor Neil Flett has said that a high stakes pitch is often won or lost long before the presentation takes place.
  7. Open doors – making introductions that display no self interest reinforces trust and helps businesses perceive your brand as connected and enabling. You are part of the solution, despite the fact that you didn’t actually contribute directly in addressing the issue. Those introductions don’t have to be to other people or fims – they can be to thinkers, books, presentations or alternative viewpoints. LinkedIn has of course literally built a business out of being that global introducer.

Photo of “Fête des Lumières of Lyon – Parc Tête de la d’Or” taken by Henri van Kalkeren, sourced from Flickr




Customer retention isn’t just about more selling

By Mark Di Somma

Persuading customers to keep coming backIt’s occurred to me recently that the interesting changes in customer attitude that accompany brand commitment are not necessarily on the radar of enough companies. Consider this. Before we know them, our key concern as consumers with brands is truth. Can we trust them? Are they all they say they are? Why should we believe them? What makes them better than the brand we use now? Most brand communicators get this bit. They know how to fashion a story that talks to our world view and to our need to see value … well, sometimes. They know how to intrigue us. They can persuade us to call or to visit. They’ve learnt to hunt.

Where so many of them fall down is the next phase.

Because after the search for truth comes the need for affirmed faith. Once we are passionate about a brand, we need different things as consumers. We certainly don’t need to be sold to anymore – at least not like we were sold to at first. Now we need to be positively reminded that we’ve made the right choice. We need affirmation that this brand is something that makes more than sense, that it still has places to take us, things to show us, ideas to inspire us …

And that requires a very different message than the one most of us continue to get. “Go on, buy some more” is the message that comes at us. But “Come on, let us show you some more of our world” is what more of us actually want to hear.

Things are this way because brands are generally pretty good at widening the funnel at the top end. They’ve good at introducing new lines, new variants, new dimensions – in order to attract new customers. Competition’s taught them to do that well. What so many of them fail at is the next bit. Broadening the appeal for those who already believe.

And the result is that so many who have given their faith soon feel that they shouldn’t have done so. Because theres no big reward for their decision to lock in. They’re still being treated like prospects. Except now, they’re prospects with a sales record. Perhaps that’s why loyalty figures continue to sink. Because brands don’t quite know what to do with those who agree with them. They can’t relax. They feel an overwhelming need to keep peddling instead of working harder to expand (as in augment) the experience.

Could be we’ve completely overplayed the science of customer loyalty. Underneath it all, it’s a very, very simple concept. Sales don’t make people stay. So customer loyalty is not about keeping or bribing. It’s about doing all you can to widen the gap between “belong” and “so long”. Excitement, companionship, stimulation … these are the reasons why customers linger.

Photo of “boomerang” taken by Robbie Sproule, sourced from Flickr

50 ways to differentiate your brand

50 ways to differentiate your brand

For all those brand managers looking for ways to differentiate their brand, this compilation of ideas published over at Branding Strategy Insider may well be a definitive list. Really enjoyed working with Derrick, Brad and Thomson on this … What would you add?

Photo of “ISS in 50 seconds” by Mike Lewinski, sourced from Flickr

Brands as extended storylines

By Mark Di Somma

Brands as storylinesThe temptation when you’re working with a brand is to continue to treat it just as a product or service. It’s simpler to do so. It’s contained. You can add features to it or introduce a variation to it. But I’ve wondered aloud with marketers in the past whether treating a brand as the personification of an idea – one that needs to develop and evolve – is not only more interesting but actually vital in a world where story is king and great content is rarer than one might think.

Taking the concept of brands as ideas further, what would happen if marketers acted more like television producers and creators? How might that change the way brands tell their stories? This fascinating interview between Jon Bokenkamp, the executive producer and creator of Blacklist, and Jason Evans points to some interesting possibilities for where brand storytelling might go.

Brands would have a writers’ room. There would be a group of people whose role in the organisation was to create and regulate the release of the brand’s storytelling around a pivotal idea. Right now, ad agencies would claim that role. But I think it’s interesting to speculate on what would happen if the long idea was resourced, developed and managed by the brand itself, and then captured and expressed by its agencies.

Brands would take consumers on journeys – long, involving journeys that inspired and intrigued and that were well signposted within the brand itself so that things happened with deliberation and care. Brands might start to treat each year as a season of the series and build in plot turns and reveals to keep people looking for more. Sure, there have been long running ad campaigns but these have tended to be focused on mainstream media and been told as episodic commercials rather than as rich, deep stories in their own right. (More on how brands might fit into such an approach below.)

Stories would mix formats – using a combination of serialised storytelling, to give the brand idea momentum and enable it to evolve, and shorter, more specific “campaign” scenarios that enabled the brand to play up key aspects and dimensionalise the long story form. These different formats could be spread across different media, meaning different types of storyline happening at the same time in different places, or campaigns could interrupt or even cut across the main story to add episodic interest.

Brands would have a deep mythology/backstory that they would draw on and reveal over time. This would add both intrigue and depth. They would raise questions that they might take some time to answer – in order to build in tension.

When they did delivers answers, they would be both to the issues the brands have raised and to issues that others have raised. Some of these answers would have been developed well in advance, others would seem more spontaneous, depending on the channel in which they were raised. The key thing is that every moment in the brand’s life would have relevance and provide context for those experiencing the brand.

The stories would be human – they would be populated by people, and those people would be spontaneous, changeable, imperfect, relatable. Those stories would completely change how brands built their relationships with buyers. Brands would be product placements in their own human stories.

As the worlds of brands, media and entertainment converge, and channels become screens rather than outlets, my own view is that each of these disciplines will borrow success factors from the other. Just as the media has successfully branded its offerings and even turned them into franchised offerings (think Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, Survivor, Masterchef and more), we shouldn’t be surprised if brands themselves don’t start incorporating more of the conventions of TV into how they tell their tales. Advertorial will give way to advertories.

Photo of “Making Movies in Chicago” taken by FaceMePLS, sourced from Flickr