Is brand differentiation still possible?

By Mark Di Somma

Is brand differentiation still possible

Short answer – yes it is, but not in the way it was.

I haven’t met a brand manager yet who didn’t tell me that they had a differentiated product. I’m not surprised. It’s part of the job description of any brand owner to be marketing something that is disruptive, market-changing, blue-ocean, category-killing … 15 years on from when I first suggested “parity is the real pariah”, every brand’s still talking up difference – but consumers are increasingly hard pressed to see any.

In some ways, marketers only have themselves to blame. Enthused by the need to be so very different from everyone else, marketers seem to have searched, then compromised and finally settled for nit-picking their way to a self-appointed category-of-one. Is it time to call time? Perhaps if more brands admitted that the chances of them redefining the universe at a product or service level were nil, they could focus more on the things that do matter.

We’ve been drawn into the innovation myth – the belief that brands can invent their way to market dominance. Most brands will never do that. At best, “innovation” (which would better be described across the majority of the market as improvement) will keep them on a par with those around them. At worst, it will lure them into risking massive resources for a difference they will never make.

So let’s talk about a shift of focus: from big picture, broad brush disruptive market plays to a new era of specific, individualised small plays. In the new world of the quantified self and the emerging Internet Of Everything, brand differentiation today is really about what a brand does for “me” not how it revolutionises whole swathes of a sector.

Will Novosedlik posted this timely reminder recently: “We’re not in the land of Trout and Ries anymore, folks. We are in a networked economy characterized by constant technological disruption, channel proliferation and fragmentation, overpopulated categories and far fewer opportunities for differentiation. Far more empowered and influential customers are forcing a shift from customer acquisition to customer retention and from messaging to experience. They don’t want to listen to brands; they wants brands to listen to them.”

Take that one step further. Not just listen – cater. They want their brands to come closer and act as an extension of their extending world. In a recent McKinsey interview with Ola Källenius, the global head of marketing at Daimler AG talked about how the luxury car maker was forging a new type of customer experience through “Mercedes me”. It seamlessly integrates what Daimler AG know universally about their cars with what each driver experiences, through a single Mercedes ID that links a driver’s smartphone with their car and the manufacturer.

This combination of big data and little data (the view that each individual forges of themselves through their habits and their social and brand choices) will in my view redefine how customers find difference across brands. Differentiation won’t be about one big thing anymore. Increasingly, it must be about a personalized configuration of ideas that click with people’s worldviews.

According to Nigel Hollis, consumers don’t see difference, but they will find it. “On average, the proportion of people willing to endorse any brand as “different from other brands of (a specific category)” is low. But perceived differentiation is only important once buyers believe that a brand is acceptable — that is, that it meets their basic needs and is an acceptable choice.”

And that’s the new confluence – to advocate a view of the world that consumers are drawn to, believe in and find “acceptable” (a concept I have previously referred to as a Unique Brand Perspective) coupled with smart and individually specific ways of connecting, increasingly through devices, that consumers find intriguing, rewarding and inspiring. Universal and personal.

Let’s stop looking for big-bang difference on the shelf because for most brands I don’t think that’s where competitiveness is going to be found going forward. And stop bragging about how great you art. Most big brands can do campaigns. There’s no differentiation there. Chances are no-one’s listening anyway. Instead:

  • Break with a simple tradition in the sector. The simpler, the better.
  • Import something simple from another sector. Again, the simpler, the better.
  • Leverage how people want to make decisions – don’t fight with it (by asking them to make decisions in ways that feel foreign to them)
  • Help consumers navigate the massive choice set that confronts them, rather than adding to the clutter with more and more information
  • Stand for something in the world that makes sense, makes headlines and aligns with what you make, not because it’s sensationalist but because enough people want to see the same change happen. (Nice piece on this by Kathy Oneto here)
  • Make everything a consumer touches endorsing of why they should seek you out more – and do that through being in touch with them, not through generalising about them

Put your money into those things, I suggest. There’s plenty there to be getting on with.

Acknowledgements
Photo of “moss park ride parking lot” taken by hobvias sudoneighm, sourced from Flickr

Balancing brand behaviours

By Mark Di Somma

Balancing brand behaviours

Your word is your brand. Or rather, if the words aren’t right and your consumers depend on them for vital information, your brand will quickly find itself in the crosshairs of regulators, activist groups and annoyed consumers. The recent case concerning the contents of herbal supplements is more than an argument over percentages; at its core lies a simple question that underpins consumer trust.

Does it do/have what it says on the box?

You can see this as a labelling issue – particularly where food is concerned. Even that soon evolves into an argument about detail, consumer knowledge and mandatory disclosure. It doesn’t change the fact though that consumers expect to get what they pay for and there are brands that continue, wittingly or unwittingly, to short-change them. The halo effect of these actions carries through to everyone else in the sector.

As Walker Smith observed last year in this piece, “Trust is a third rail for every kind of business or brand. It is an intangible requisite for staying in business of which companies dare not speak. As soon as you ask for it, you lose it. If trust cannot be taken for granted in the everyday course of business, if trust is not beyond question, then customers immediately jump to the conclusion that something is out of sorts.”

I suspect that, for some, the reason “something is out of sorts” is because two very simple words are being confused: earn; and earnings. In the bid to tell the market what they are making revenue-wise, brands sometimes overlook what they should be building reputation-wise. To earn takes time, effort, integrity and the willingness to forge. Earnings are now, today, what it says on the press release. Central to this is the ongoing tension, identified by Steve Denning in this article, between the “real market” (the world of real transactions) and the expectations market (the world in which investors form and articulate expectations of how companies should perform).

Which leads to a dilemma that to my mind remains unresolved. Whose trust should brands value most – the trust of the consumer; or the trust of the market?

That tension almost invites bad behaviour. It incentivises some to take shortcuts, overlook requirements, dilute formulations … to deliver the efficiencies required to make their numbers whilst calmly reassuring consumers that everything is as it should be. As Steve Denning observes, “The proponents of shareholder value maximization and stock-based executive compensation hoped that their theories would focus executives on improving the real performance of their companies and thus increasing shareholder value over time. Yet, precisely the opposite occurred. In the period of shareholder capitalism since 1976, executive compensation has exploded while corporate performance has declined.”

The irony here is that brands flourish on margin but wilt on greed. Once a brand reaches that critical point where its profitability has hit its ethical maximum (it is still behaving in ways that it can be proud of whilst gaining the highest level of return it can in that environment), any point beyond that is one of rising reputational risk. And as the bad behaviours mount, so does the potential fallout in terms of impacts on brand trust once those behaviours are uncovered.

I don’t know why the makers of the various supplements chose to make the decisions they did, but the companies involved are now going to have to work very hard indeed to rebuild consumer confidence. Did they think they could just get away with it? Did they squeeze their supply chains too hard? Did they really not know? Is this an isolated incident or symptomatic of something wider? Perhaps we’ll find out in the fullness of time.

There seems to be increasing awareness that the interests of investors have been allowed to overly influence the pressures on companies and senior decision makers. But if managements are going to responsibly manage their assets (including their brands), at some stage, they will need to frame what they do in terms that markets hate: limits. And by that, I mean agreed boundaries that govern what will be built and what will be earned. And – not or.

That’s not about market restrictions. It’s about overall prudence and balanced gains: brands behaving well; consumers getting what they expect; investors receiving the dividends they expected from guidance.

Acknowledgements
Photo of “Medicine Drug Pills on Plate”, taken by epSos.de, sourced from Flickr

The enjoyable brand culture

By Mark Di Somma and Hilton Barbour

The enjoyable brand culture

According to Simon Sinek, “Studies show that over 80 percent of Americans do not have their dream job. If more knew how to build organizations that inspire, we could live in a world in which that statistic was the reverse – a world in which over 80 percent of people loved their jobs”. Nice thought. Imagine the productivity gains if the vast majority of people in any given building were inspired and not just paid.

At this point, the conversation for most of us quickly turns to purpose and the uniting of people behind an idea that is bigger than them. Intriguing then to read Tom Asacker’s take on this recently: “We’ve got this whole notion of purpose in business completely wrong. We think it’s about discovering some kind of deep meaning. A magical “why.” It’s not. It’s about something much more pedestrian. And much more powerful. Purpose is about enjoying ourselves.”

This seems like an idea worth exploring. But first, let’s draw a clear distinction, as we see it, between enjoyment and fun. This is a workplace, not a playground. An enjoyable brand culture is not necessarily one where there is less stress, fewer challenges, longer deadlines or an overly-optimistic level of comradery. It is one where people spend more time doing work that stimulates them, that pushes their boundaries and that materially advances the competitiveness of the brand and the changes it advocates for. So it is an environment where more of the work feels more purposeful and where people feel that, for a greater percentage of their day, their talents, experience and knowledge are being put to best use.

The struggle – for management and employees – is striking the right balance between competing agendas and mandates. The workplace most of us trudge to everyday remains an offshoot of the industrialisation of labour. Historically, the layering of process, policy and repetitive tasks was a necessity to build scalable and consistent outputs. The objectives? Consistency over creativity; uniformity over initiative. And, until quite recently, many people were happy to “go to work”; sacrificing time in a formulaic work environment for the regularity of a pay cheque. Both of those paradigms are under increased pressure and scrutiny as the focus for brands shifts from units to margins.

If brands are to continue to grow, they need to produce more valued offerings. That’s a very different state of mind than the historic model. A more fulfilled and engaged work force might be the key to unlocking these more valued offerings. Then organisations would be motivated to create environments with less emphasis on busy, more emphasis on valuable. And with that, less emphasis on not thinking (routine, predictable, unchanging), and more emphasis on rethinking (inventing, adapting, redefining).

So what would it take to introduce genuine enjoyment into a larger percentage of every person’s working day?

A different view of work and therefore how people can work. What if we pursued effectiveness not just in the way that productivity and happiness engineers want to deal with it – standing meetings, better task-setting, allocated time access to social media – but also in the sense of narrowing what comes between the people who work for a brand and the purpose of the brand itself?

How might organisations rethink their policies and operations if they were to acknowledge that boredom, paperwork and unnecessary meetings were sapping employees feelings of purpose, motivation and fulfilment?

How about if we made delivering enjoyment the responsibility of all members of the executive team rather than a task tossed over to HR to address?

Might we actually get further down the track to genuinely creating environments that provided people with work that inspired them if we assessed organisational performance on the basis of how much people enjoyed what they do?

These are whole-of-business issues because the need for brands to be enjoyable has perhaps never been greater. Our expectations, as consumers, of user interface, of service, of functionality are firmly aligned with pleasure principles. We buy stuff we like using. For brands to genuinely deliver on such expectations, the workplace must evolve from one of compliance and conformity to one of entrepreneurship, passion and commitment. That will only be attainable if a higher emphasis is placed on this notion of enjoyment.

It takes motivated people with plenty of ideas, and the energy to pursue them, to deliver the inspired enhancements and genuinely novel ideas that give brands a kick in today’s economies. Stagnant cultures filled with uninspired people crammed in cubicles and locked into silo-ed thinking can only generate standardised, stagnant brands that less and less people want anything to do with. As a culture and as a brand, the rule is increasingly stark: Enjoy – or die.

The pursuit of enjoyment doesn’t necessarily rule out pursuing a higher “why”. But, for a lot of people, the current “why”, if there is one, may be too abstract and too removed from what they actually get to do to be meaningful. That might also suggest that people need the right combination of universal and personal purpose in order to chase a goal that is fulfilling to them at all levels.

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

Acknowledgements
Photo of “The Office”, taken by John, sourced from Flickr

Brand strategy – not brand paperwork

By Mark Di Somma

Brand strategy not brand paperwork

Recently both Jeff Swystun and Mark Ritson took aim at the brand industry with characteristic frankness. Whilst applauding the advances in turning brand into a recognized commercial activity, Swystun believes that an industry developed to fight commoditization has itself succumbed to that market pressure. It has, he says, become “… highly stylized, shiny, and cool but largely standardized, prescribed and frequently devoid of substantiated benefit.” Everyone is being different in exactly the same way. Brand is today’s shiny metal object.

Too many brands are, in effect, going through the motions. “Branding is now a factory. An assembly line. Consultants make money in repeatable, familiar processes. Methodologies equal margin. What spits off the end of that assembly line is all too similar.” Ubiquity has generated complacency, giving way to methodologies that are more focused on going through process for process’s sake than arriving at anything fresh and startling. In the end, they are producing brands that are, quite literally, shelf fillers.

As a result, what was once brand strategy is now brand paperwork.

That’s the risk with any system of course. As the process becomes embedded, it assumes a life, and a righteousness, of its own. Complete the steps and the process is done, and if the process is done, then the answer has to be right. We’ve lost some things through that process I believe. Human insights have given way to broad and pleasant generalizations. Values have become shopping lists. And the sparseness and discipline of pared back thinking has given way to documents that are long on charts and discourse but short on breath-taking difference.

Mark Ritson holds nothing back. “The great paradox of corporate branding is that the more words you use, the less traction any of it has with behaviors and brand equity. Every Tom, Dick and useless Harry from the world of brand consulting tries to sell companies a ‘brand purpose’, with ‘brand values’ allayed with ‘brand attributes’ and other associated horseshit arranged inside concentric circles because a) they don’t know any better and b) they’re getting paid by the yard.”

I for one don’t have a problem with purpose, values and the “other associated horseshit” per se. I actually find them very useful as tools – but I do think that as an industry we are failing collectively to really push the limits of what they can mean for each brand we work on. And that’s because we’re not holding ourselves accountable to the right things. Marketers too are not pushing for brands that are exceptional.

Brand strategies too often are really identity and/or campaign rationales. Strategists are not demonstrating how the work they do generates value beyond what the market is already prepared to assign. Instead, as an industry, we’re telling ourselves that the brands we work on have things they actually don’t have, and we label the steps with convenient monikers to convince everyone that good work is being done.

Swystun and Ritson will most certainly have raised the hackles with their comments. But unless all of us who are responsible for creating, delivering, managing and evolving brands are prepared to question and re-question and re-question again the value of what we do and the difference that we deliver, we will follow the route of the products and services we work on. We will decline. To avoid that, we must continue to evolve, to shift, to inject instability and danger into how we work and what we aspire to achieve.

Acid test: If you’re “comfortable” with the brand strategy you’re working on right now because it’s followed the process and delivered everything that the client asked for, throw it away. In market terms, as a strategy for that brand going forward, there’s a very good chance it’s useless.

Acknowledgements
Photo of “papers”, taken by fsse8info, sourced from Flickr

 

 

 

How does a brand make a great brand promise?

By Mark Di Somma

How does a brand make a great brand promise

As marketers we take brand promises for granted. We just accept that every brand in its right mind has one and that it is committed to keeping it. As consumers, we have no such awareness. We don’t wander around with the strategies of our favourite brands on our devices checking that, wherever we see them, they are doing what they said they would do in the strategy.

In fact, ask any consumer to articulate the promise of even their favourite brand and all will struggle. What does Google promise? I don’t know exactly. What is the exact wording of the Moleskine promise? I have no idea. I think Starbucks promises me great coffee, but again I haven’t seen the playbook.

And I never will as a consumer. And neither will you.

What we do have are impressions – perceptions accumulated from all our encounters with a brand that tell us what we think we can expect. In all likelihood we subconsciously interpret those as a promise. Even then, expectation is not one thing. It’s extrapolated from a series of signals that are summed up neatly by Scott Smith as seven expectation types:

1. Explicit expectations – the things brands say that consumers will get. The expectation from consumers is that the brand will do what it says on the box.

2. Implicit expectations – the expectations around comparison and therefore what consumers infer they can expect from one brand or another.

3. Static performance expectations – the defined expectations around performance and quality in a specific situation or for a specific application.

4. Dynamic performance expectations – the changing expectations for a product or service over time. These are consumers’ adaption expectations. We expect the things we buy to keep up.

5. Technological expectations – how consumers expect the technology that powers what they buy to evolve, introducing new features and enabling new capabilities. These expectations are closely linked to how prepared consumers feel for the world around them.

6. Interpersonal expectations – the level and nature of relationship that consumers have with a brand. Interpersonal of course now includes high elements of automation and self service that add new complications in terms of lifting transactions beyond functionary.

7. Situational expectations – what consumers expect to happen in a specific situation and whether the experience lived up to, exceeded or failed that expectation.

Let me break these down into four categories of expectations and relate them to brand promise:

Sector – your brand is part of a sector and that sector makes specific promises in the mind of the consumer. We expect fresh food at a supermarket. We expect to be served in a restaurant. We also have reputational expectations that form an implied promise when we engage with a brand in a sector. We expect a taxi to be safe. We expect a fashion brand to be energetic and full of ideas. We expect our internet to be fast. We expect the trains to run and the planes to fly. The sector promise forms the bedrock for our expectations. It drives explicit expectations, static performance expectations, dynamic performance expectations, technological expectations and situational expectations for consumers. But meeting all these expectations gives a brand nothing beyond participation. Today, it doesn’t make you exceptional in any way.

Price – this powerful signal influences the quality of what we can expect. As consumers, we look for higher priced products to deliver greater quality, reliability and comfort. We expect to get what we pay for. Price has a significant impact on implicit expectations, but for the most part price alone is not the basis for a compelling promise – unless you are talking about conspicuous consumption luxury products. We don’t buy something because it costs more: we do pay more because a brand offers something that is rare, aspirational or extraordinary.

Service – service perceptions are influenced by three of the seven customer expectations: technological expectations; interpersonal expectations; and situational expectations. Marketers talk about this at length and about the need for brands to exceed customer expectations in order to succeed. They take their cues for this from customers who, not surprisingly, when asked what else they would like, quickly look to collectively raise the returns.

I call this the “Gimme” deception. Asked what they would like, customers say “gimme” more personalisation, more options, more attention, faster service and shorter processes. But as this HBR article makes clear, perhaps we over-estimate the impact that delightful service has on buying decisions. Consumers punish bad service, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean the inverse dynamic applies: “Two critical findings emerged that should affect every company’s customer service strategy. First, delighting customers doesn’t build loyalty; reducing their effort—the work they must do to get their problem solved—does. Second, acting deliberately on this insight can help improve customer service, reduce customer service costs, and decrease customer churn.”

Brand – the style and nature of a brand, its personality, has a significant impact on expectations. In fact, I believe character is the most powerful opportunity for a brand in terms of what it should promise. It influences implicit and technological experiences by helping consumers decide what the brand is capable of. It creates interpersonal experiences by telegraphing to consumers how they can expect the brand to relate to them. And it speaks to situational experiences because consumers glean from personality how much they can rely on the brand to do good by them. Given that sector and service expectations are prevalent but for the most part non-differentiating and that price sets the bar and reflects the promise (but doesn’t make it), how a brand chooses to behave decides what it gets to promise, not the other way round. And a brand promise is no longer about what consumers get; it’s about what consumers get to feel. Three questions:

  1. What does your brand promise to make your customers feel every time they choose you?
  2. Why would they expect that from you?
  3. Yet why is that extraordinary?

“No other brand will make you feel so …” That’s the basis for a great brand promise – and very, very few brands deliver on it because they confuse operational excellence with promissory distinction. They promise great service or great features because they want the world to know they’re very good. The thing is – the world already knows, or rather it assumes. That’s not a promise. It’s just a reassurance (and one that consumers increasingly take for granted). We keep thinking promises are made in words. They’re not. They’re captured in words for organisations’ convenience – and in phrases that marketers and senior teams feel good about but that, in reality, consumers are oblivious to.

Until consumers get a feeling that they’d like to get again and that they didn’t/can’t get anywhere else, you haven’t promised them anything great at all. You don’t promise and then deliver. In reality, you have to deliver first, and that becomes the promise.

Acknowledgements
Photo of “Project 50 – Day #1 (Moleskine), taken by Sean McGrath, sourced from Flickr

What drives change – brand crisis or brand culture?

By Mark Di Somma

Brand culture or brand crisis

If you need to shift your culture from where it is to a different viewpoint and value set, is there any incentive for change without a crisis? Will a culture make changes on its own or do people need a fright in order to seriously disrupt business as usual?

Dan Ward argues in this piece that the propensity for espousing burning platforms and fear-based programmes doesn’t bring about meaningful cultural change. Instead of fanning the flames of urgency, he says, organisations should acknowledge that they already have many cultures and that within these lie the seeds for the development of wider change. Hold a particular group up as an exemplar, he suggests, and advocate for others to join in rather than insisting everyone throw their hands in the air in horror and break with everything they know.

Interestingly, as this case study for Aetna shows, even a company that is in a hole can succeed in changing its culture without depending on the crisis itself for change. When John Rowe took over as CEO, he employed a strengths-focused approach that drew on a shared sense of concern, deep pride in the history and purpose of the company, and feelings of respect and dedication. In so doing, he accomplished what his predecessors had failed to do: shift the dial.

The authors observe: “All too often, leaders see cultural initiatives as a last resort … By the time they get around to culture, they’re convinced that a comprehensive overhaul of the culture is the only way to overcome the company’s resistance to major change. Culture thus becomes an excuse and a diversion, rather than an accelerator and an energizer. But cultural intervention can and should be an early priority—a way to clarify what your company is capable of, even as you refine your strategy.”

That’s the key it seems to me – tying cultural planning to strategic planning so that the two are in alignment. If organisations were to focus on cultural planning instead of insisting on cultural change, almost for the sake of it, they could instigate programmes and introduce resources that would help their employees to better fulfil shifts in the strategy. Not only would strategy and culture be matched in such circumstances but they would actively support one another and the workforce charged with making them happen. Behavioural shifts could be part of this cultural planning, allowing new ideas to be introduced as helpful ways to improve work rather than as rules to make everyone more compliant. This would also align well with Ward’s suggestion of highlighting cultural pockets of excellence and inviting others to emulate what is happening and being achieved there.

While there is evidence to suggest that the success of change programs correlates strongly with whether culture was leveraged, I’m not convinced that the reverse question has been asked or researched often enough: if you leverage culture strongly, do you even need change programs to be successful? In other words, instead of focusing on the case for change, should more organisations be focusing on continuous cultural improvement; building on what they have to be more competitive and drawing on the culture as a resource to help make that happen? As the survey by the Katzenbach Center makes clear, people in a culture are far more aware of the need for change than they are often given credit for. “A full 96 percent of respondents say some change to their culture is needed … there would seem to be an opportunity, indeed a need, to evolve culture itself so that it can be used as more of a change lever and, in some cases, to have culture lead the transformation.” I agree.

To achieve this, the report suggests, organisations need to employ several levers:

1. Culture diagnostic – they need to know the culture’s strengths and weaknesses in order to tap the strengths and address the weaknesses;
2. The “critical few” behaviours – there needs to be a small number of clear behavioural change goals;
3. Employee pride and commitment – companies must find ways to galvanise people around ideas that they can believe in;
4. Informal peer networks and motivators – companies should encourage peer-to-peer support and interaction;
5. Storytelling – story is used to explain how the culture will get to its destination and to reinforce pride and desired behaviours

I have no argument with any of these, but suggest cultural planning could incorporate other levers as well:

6. Cultural innovation – the opportunity to “lab” ideas and approaches within the organization before they are introduced to the culture as a whole. This is an extension of Ward’s idea;
7. Support targets – clear goals for the culture that complement the strategic goals for the business and that lay out the hard and soft objectives for people. These would extend beyond the HR goals to encompass how people are to be supported in order for the strategic goals to be reached. This would help organisations achieve more accurate cause and effects appraisals between their people and the achievement of their business strategies; and
8. Personal initiatives – people would have permission to try things out to see if they would work. Such programs could be in the form of a series of strategic challenges that are posted across the organisation and that individuals can nominate a certain percentage of their working week to tackling. Individuals would be recognsed for the scale of the problem they chose to address and the conversations they started as much as the actual outcomes.

You don’t fix what’s not working by doing more of it. That’s true of cultural performance; and it applies equally to how companies should approach cultural transformation for their brands.

Acknowledgements
Photo of “Jim Whitehurst: Don’t build a better mousetrap. Change the business model”, taken from opensource.com, sourced from Flickr

 

Brand and reputation

By Mark Di Somma

Brand and reputation

Brand and reputation are tightly linked but not synonyms. I raise this because I seem to be having more and more conversations where brand projects are being renamed as reputation projects to make them more “palatable” internally. That in itself says a lot about what senior management think brand is and why they believe it’s not what they need.

It’s commonplace to talk about having a brand and having a reputation, but in reality of course neither exists as a physical asset – and I suspect that this shared intangibility has fuelled the belief that they are one and the same thing. They also share approaches and goals. Both are shaped by communications and both seek to improve perceptions.

For me, a brand functions as a multiplier. It generates desire and differentiation and motivates buyers to pay more for your products than they might otherwise. Reputation is the sum total of your track record. It is the accumulation of your actions and statements to date. So whilst you build brands in order to get the most return from them, you protect reputation in order to preserve credibility and trust. Brand is proactive. Reputation is defensive. Both are important. Each can be damaged – and the fallout will affect both. As Warren Buffett once observed about reputation: “A great reputation is like virginity – ‘it can be preserved but it can’t be restored.”

This insightful Sloan Review article makes another succinct comparison: “brand is a “customer-centric” concept … Reputation is a “company-centric” concept … brand is about relevancy and differentiation … and reputation is about legitimacy”. Nicely put.

Ideally in my view you build a brand and a business on the back of a strong reputation, and you use the credibility and consistency of your reputation to attract the people, the investors, the leaders, the media interest and the stakeholder support needed to resource the organisation and its brand(s).

Overlaps complicate this relatively straight-forward arrangement: brands are increasingly judged on their back office – on the ways they do business and on the supply chains they use, on the leaders they attract and on who they are associated with – and our awareness (another shared idea between brand and reputation) of brand and organisational actions has been exponentially heightened by social media to the point where they are often fused. The brand is what the organisation is.

But the dangers of focusing on one at the expense of, or in place of, the other are captured perfectly in the Sloan Review article: “Focusing on reputation at the expense of brand can lead to product offerings that languish in the market. On the other hand, concentrating on brand and neglecting reputation can be equally dangerous, resulting in a lower stock price, difficulties in attracting top talent and even product boycotts … A strong brand does not necessarily equate with a good reputation. On the other hand, a solid reputation does not always result in a strong brand.”

So you can have market presence and awareness without necessarily being liked or trusted. And you can be liked and trusted by those who know you, but remain largely unknown beyond that restricted circle. In both cases, the brand is under-powered and this will affect its ability to contribute as meaningfully and significantly as it should to profitability and business growth.

Which leads back to where this piece started. I suspect that many senior managers focus on reputation because it impacts directly on how people talk about the organisations they run, so it is something that matters to them professionally. No-one wants to have worked at a tainted organisation. But because they do not perceive brands as part of their day to day responsibilities, brand can be seen as something that is narrowly defined and part of operations.

Marketers need to fundamentally shift the viewpoint of senior colleagues away from the belief that brand is an impression that outsiders have of the organisation and towards one where brand is seen as a direct expression of strategy and growth plans. Brand needs to be seen as something all leaders have responsibility for because it is something they drive together. Reputation on the other end needs to be positioned not as “marketing” (how people talk about us) but much more accurately as acknowledgement, in the sense of what the organisation is known and respected for.

For that to happen, marketing and corporate communications teams (and their respective agencies) need to spend less time squabbling over mandate and more time integrating their strategies and working to educate senior managers on their joint and collective worth as disciplined teams.

This doesn’t have to be complicated. Because changes in brand and reputation are often highly correlated (60 – 90%), Hill + Knowlton advocate a four-step process:

1. Identify key attributes for brands
2. Identify key attributes for reputation
3. Identify key stakeholders
4. Survey stakeholders regularly and monitor differences in attribute ratings over time to pinpoint potential threats to brand and reputation

To which I would add a final and crucial step:

5. Tease out correlations to show how reputation is impacting brand, how brand is enhancing reputation, and the effect of both on growth patterns. “When stakeholders say this … this is how it affects our brands … and as a result this is what happens in the business …”

Acknowledgements
Photo of “moon don’t give away your secrets 05 June 2011, taken by iglooo101, sourced from Flickr

Should your brand tell a counter-story?

By Mark Di Somma

Telling the counter-story

Stories add to the humanity of brands. They help consumers think through and act upon a narrative that is fundamentally rooted in human truths. Stories generate empathy. We see ourselves in the tale. Or we see a side of ourselves. Or we see the ‘me’ that we would like to be. Without that narrative, everything is dominated by features, data and discounts.

Consumers compare offers and in so doing they inevitably compare stories. They look for how brands fit the story of their life that they are telling themselves. Sadly, the stories that brands tell often focus on the world as they see it. They are a narrative shaped around their history and their vision for the days ahead, and they take their reference from the thinking and planning that have taken place internally.

Inevitably in most sectors, the stories of market leaders dominate. These brands set the rules and the expectations and as such they can have an undue influence on the stories that their competitors tell. They decide the market norms for the industry. That’s frustrating if you have a different brand approach and if you don’t want to be labelled as just another participant with the same attitudes and limitations as your rivals.

If your brand is struggling to get its story told in the face of a highly articulate and motivated competitor with strong market presence and plenty of resources, simply trying to out-shout them is a waste of time. One option to seriously consider is generating a counter-story; a narrative that deliberately sets out an alternative perspective in the minds of the people you want to reach. Challenger brands are ideally placed to use this strategy: in so doing, they can put distance between themselves and an incumbent and introduce new expectations into the market that they are best placed to fulfil.

Avis did this with Hertz. By introducing the idea that they try harder, they implied that their competitor was complacent and slower to act. More recently, Uber did the same to taxis – tell the story of an alternative way get from A to B that struck at the heart of a long-presumed narrative (although their story has since hit reputational and regulatory hurdles that they have yet to overcome). Sir Richard Branson is the master of this strategy. He doesn’t introduce another offering into a market without contextualising it as a very different approach to the one that everyone has got used to. He uses counter-story to weave a tale of what could and should be.

Talking about this with Shawn Callahan, he made two excellent points. Firstly, he said, you can’t beat a story with facts, you can only beat it with a better story. So if a competitor has a better story, listing the facts of your product only makes their story stronger. And if you do decide to tell a counter-story, you can’t have one that is only a tiny bit better. You should aim to tell a story that is 10 times better and more compelling. This often means having to do something differently. Secondly, timing is everything in his view. Not only do you need a story to beat a story but the first counter-story has a distinct advantage in terms of effectiveness over any others that may be created.

While many challenger brands focus their battle on a nemesis, a counter-story doesn’t need to take its cue from, or act in response to, another player. In fact, focusing on a rival brand can block challengers from seeing what consumers are looking for because they are too busy trying to score points. That’s what happened in the war between Sega and Nintendo. They were so engaged in their own tit-for-tat that they overlooked the arrival and ascendance of Sony as a gaming force. Instead, the counter-story itself can focus on a manifesto-like articulation of what should be possible and the articulation of that future through a story told in social media, video, interviews, data, graphics, case studies and narrative to add depth, context, ownership and insight.

7 ways to craft a counter story

  1. Challenge what everyone takes for granted. Explain why the status quo came to be this way and, possibly, who was influential in making that happen.
  2. Talk about why it must stop or change. Focus on what everyone stands to gain if that happens.
  3. Develop a narrative that revolves around your brand and that sets out an alternative to what has been the norm up until now. This will form the backbone of your counter-story strategy. Answer these six questions.
  4. Use personal experiences to bring the counter-story to life and to prove it will work.
  5. Offer simple ways to tell and spread the story – e.g. hashtags – and encourage people to do so.
  6. Incentivise people to try the alternative you are promoting – through free trials, money back guarantees, freemium models.
  7. Celebrate take-up as it happens. Show that there is inclination and momentum for change.

Acknowledgements
Photo of “Defining the Fleeing Retronym” taken by Derrick Tyson, sourced from Flickr

So many different types of brand

By Mark Di Somma

Different types of brand

We often talk about “brand” as if it is one thing. It’s not of course – in fact, the meaning and the use of the term differs, quite markedly, depending on the context. By my reckoning, brand is categorised in more than 20 different ways. (So much for the single minded proposition!) In no particular order:

1. Personal brand – Otherwise known as individual brand. The brand a person builds around themselves, normally to enhance their career opportunities. Often associated with how people portray and market themselves via media. The jury’s out on whether this should be called a form of brand because whilst it may be a way to add value, it often lacks a business model to commercialise the strategy.

2. Product brand – Elevating the perceptions of commodities/goods so that they are associated with ideas and emotions that exceed functional capability. Consumer packaged good brands (CPG), otherwise known as fast moving consumer good brands (FMCG), are a specific application.

3. Service brand – Similar to product brands, but involves adding perceived value to services. More difficult in some ways than developing a product brand, because the offering itself is less tangible. Useful in areas like professional services. Enables marketers to avoid competing skill vs skill (which is hard to prove and often devolves to a price argument) by associating their brand with emotions. New online models, such as subscription brands, where people pay small amounts for ongoing access to products/services, are rapidly changing the loyalty and technology expectations for both product and service brands – for example, increasingly products come with apps that are integral to the experience and the perceived value.

4. Corporate brand – Otherwise known as the organisational brand. David Aaker puts it very well: “The corporate brand defines the firm that will deliver and stand behind the offering that the customer will buy and use.” The reassurance that provides for customers comes from the fact that “a corporate brand will potentially have a rich heritage, assets and capabilities, people, values and priorities, a local or global frame of reference, citizenship programs, and a performance record”.

5. Investor brand – Normally applied to publicly listed brands and to the investor relations function. Positions the listed entity as an investment and as a performance stock, blending financials and strategy with aspects such as value proposition, purpose and, increasingly, wider reputation via CSR. As Mike Tisdall will tell you, done well, a strong investor brand delivers share price resilience and an informed understanding of value.

6. NGO (Non Governmental Organisation) brand or Non Profit Brand – An area of transition, as the sector shifts gear looking for value models beyond just fundraising to drive social missions. Not accepted by some in the NGO community because it’s seen as selling out. Necessary in my view because of the sheer volume of competition for the philanthropic dollar. This paper is worth reading.

7. Public brand – Otherwise known as government branding. Contentious. Many, including myself, would argue that you can’t brand something that doesn’t have consumer choice and a competitive model attached to it. That’s not to say that you can’t use the disciplines and methodologies of brand strategy to add to stakeholders’ understanding and trust of government entities. That’s why I talk about the need for public entities to develop trustmarks rather than brands. Jill Caldwell takes this idea of how we consider and discuss infrastructure further and says we now have private-sector brands that are so much a part of our lives that we assume their presence in much the same way as we assume public services. Caldwell refers to brands like Google and Facebook as “embedded brands”.

8. Activist brand – Also known as a purpose brand. The brand is synonymous with a cause or purpose to the point where that alignment defines its distinctiveness in the minds of consumers. Classic examples: Body Shop, which has been heavily defined by its anti-animal-cruelty stance; and Benetton, which confronts bigotry and global issues with a vehemence that has made it both hated and admired.

9. Place brand – Also known as destination or city brands. This is the brand that a region or city builds around itself in order to associate its location with ideas rather than facilities. Often used to attract tourists, investors, businesses and residents. Recognizes that these groups all have significant choices as to where they choose to locate. A critical success factor is getting both citizens and service providers on board, since they in effect become responsible for the experiences delivered. Most famous example is probably “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. Other examples here.

10. Nation brand – Whereas place brands are about specific areas, nation brands relate, as per their name, to the perceptions and reputations of countries. Simon Anholt is a pioneer in this area. Some good models comparing nation and place branding here.

11. Ethical brand – Used in two ways. The first is as a description of how brands work, specifically the practices they use and the commitments they demonstrate in areas such as worker safety, CSR and more – i.e. a brand is ethical or it is not? Secondly, denotes the quality marques that consumers look for in terms of reassurance that the brands they choose are responsible. Perhaps the most successful and well known example of such a brand is Fairtrade. These types of ethical brands are often run by NGOs – e.g. WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Network.

12. Celebrity brand – How the famous commercialise their high profile using combinations of social media delivered content, appearances, products and gossip/notoriety to retain interest and followers. The business model for this has evolved from appearances in ads and now takes a range of forms: licensing; endorsements; brand ambassador roles; and increasingly brand association through placement (think red carpet).

13. Ingredient brand – The component brand that adds to the value of another brand because of what it brings. Well known examples include Intel, Gore-Tex and Teflon. Compared with OEM offerings in manufacturing, where componentry is white label and simply forms part of the supply chain, ingredient brands are the featured elements that add to the overall value proposition. A key reason for this is that they market themselves to consumers as elements to look for and consider when purchasing. In this interesting piece, Jason Cieslak wonders though whether the days of the ingredient brand are drawing to a close. His reasons? Increased fragmentation in the manufacturing sector, lack of space as devices shrink, stronger need for integration and lack of interest amongst consumers in what goes into what they buy.

14. Global brand – The behemoths. These brands are easily recognised and widely dispersed. They epitomise “household names”. Their business model is based on familiarity, availability and stability – although the consistency that once characterised their offerings, and ruled their operating models, is increasingly under threat as they find themselves making changes, subtle and otherwise, to meet the cultural tastes and expectations of people in different regions.

15. Generic brand – The brand you become when you lose distinctiveness. Takes three forms. The first is specific to healthcare and alludes to those brands that have fallen out of patent protection and now face competition from a raft of same-ingredient imitators known as generics. The second form of generic brand is the brand where the name has become ubiquitous and in so doing has passed into common language as a verb – Google, Xerox, Sellotape. The third form is the unbranded, unlabelled product that has a functional description for a name but no brand value at all. This last form is the ultimate in commoditisation.

16. Challenger brand – The change makers, the brands that are determined to upset the dominant player. While these brands tend to face off against the incumbents and to do so in specific markets, “Being a challenger is not about a state of market; being number two or three or four doesn’t in itself make you a challenger,” says Adam Morgan of eatbigfish. “ … It is a brand, and a group of people behind that brand, whose business ambitions exceed its conventional marketing resources, and needs to change the category decision making criteria in its favour to close the implications of that gap.”

17. Luxury brand – Prestige brands that deliver social status and endorsement to the consumer. Luxury brands must negotiate the fine line between exclusivity and reality. They do this through quality, association and story. These brands have perfected the delivery of image and aspiration to their markets, yet they remain vulnerable to shifts in perception and consumer confidence and they are under increasing pressure from “affordable luxury” brands. Coach for example struggled with revenues in 2014 because of declining sales growth in China and Japan, two of the world’s key luxury markets.

18. Cult brand – The brands that revolve around communities of fierce advocates. Like the challenger brands, these brands often pick fights with “enemies” that can range from other companies to ideas, but pure-play cult brands take their cues from their own passions and obsessions rather than the market or their rivals. They tend to have followers rather than customers, set the rules and ask people to comply and, if they market at all, do so in ways where people come to them rather than the other way around.

19. Clean slate brand – The pop-ups of brand. Fast moving, unproven, even unknown brands that don’t rely on the heritage and history that are so much a part of mainstream brand strategy. These brands feed consumers’ wish for the new and the timely. Read more about them here.

20. Private brand – Otherwise known as private label. Traditionally, these are value-based, OEM-sourced retail offerings that seek to undercut the asking price of name brands. They focus on price. There is significant potential though in my view for these brands to become more valuable and to play a more significant role at the ‘affordable premium’ end of the market. For that to happen, private brands will need to broaden their appeal and loyalty through a wider range of consideration factors.

21. Employer brand – The ability of a company to attract high quality staff in much-touted competitive markets. Often tied to an Employee Value Proposition. Focuses on the recruiting process though it is sometimes expanded to include the development of a healthy and productive culture. Sadly, given the process obsession of too many HR staff and the lack of interest from a lot of marketing people to venture into people-issues, this tends to be a brand in name rather than a brand by nature. Great potential – but, given the very low satisfaction rates across corporate cultures globally, a lot more work is needed to realize the full potential of this idea.

It’s no wonder, on review, that so many people outside marketing struggle to understand what a brand is. And we haven’t even talked about brand in reference to structure (brand architecture models such as endorsed brands, house of brands and power brands) or the different types of brand audiences (B2B, B2C, B2T, B2G, H2H).

A brand can of course function across a number of these roles simultaneously – a product brand can be a challenger brand or a global brand, for example. That in itself is an important reminder that we often encounter the same brand in different ways in different contexts – and the criteria for whether a brand is successful or not can shift markedly depending on which categorisation is being applied.

The challenge for marketers given these dissipated meanings of brand is to somehow ensure that the emotions that a brand generates are valuable, relevant and differentiated in each context in which it is judged whilst, at the same time, aligning with the brand strategy overall. I don’t see much evidence of that yet.

Acknowledgements
Photo of “Number 21 written in red on wall” taken by Horia Varlan, sourced from Flickr

Brands are not as easy as they look

By Mark Di Somma

Brands are not as easy as they look

A lot of people talk a lot about brands as impressions: brands are how you are talked about when you are not in the room; your brand is the sum of the prompted and unprompted associations that people have of you; your brand is expressed in the ways that you are remembered. All of these definitions accurately describe the associative advantages of a powerful brand. But the critical aspect for me is that a brand today must not only look the part, it must also function as an asset – by definition that means it must be “Something valuable that an entity owns, benefits from, or has use of, in generating income.”

In order to do that:

  1. A brand must be tangible – there must be something identifiable to offer, and that something, whether it is a product or a service, must have value.
  2. There must be a distinctive and viable business model – a brand requires an efficient and competitive commercial delivery model in order to get into market and to meet demand.
  3. A brand must differentiate itself from other offerings like it in order to prosper – brands require a competitive environment in which to thrive because without such an environment the concept of a value equation means nothing.
  4. A brand must be visible to the people that matter to it – a brand must take conscious and measured steps to gain and retain their attention.
  5. A brand must engage with the people it seeks to work with – so it must have a personality that people are attracted to and it must tell a story that people want to hear more of.
  6. A brand exists to earn margin beyond the going market rate – and a brand that fails to do so joins the ranks of the commodities.
  7. It must create expectations – and those expectations must underpin the promises the brand makes in market and the values that it works by.
  8. Brands must capture who they are through a distinctive identity across a full range of touch-points – great brands are symbolised in ways that people know and that graphically capture their character.
  9. A brand must offer experiences around the goods or service it offers expressly to generate trust, connection and distinction with its audiences.

While these characteristics will be familiar to many, the implications are wide-ranging:

  • A brand needs a vision but it cannot just be a vision. If there is nothing tangible in the sense of a product or service, then there is just a concept. Equally, a brand needs a powerful idea, but it cannot hope to take complete ownership of that idea, no matter how big it is. There is no brand that owns the emotion of love to the exclusion of everyone else. Or happiness. Or enjoyment. Or speed. A brand can only ever be an interpretation of that idea. One interpretation – potentially of many.
  • A brand is only as robust as the business model that drives it. If there is no ‘go to market’ mechanism, there is no brand.
  • Brands make a conscious effort to stand out and stand apart from their competitors, and they do so on the basis of a value equation. If you have a product in the market that is the same as everyone else’s and your key reason for being there is simply to under-price, you don’t have a brand, because whilst there may be a budget equation there is not a value equation. That is the mistake that so many budget airlines made and many house brands continue to make.
  • In fact, the power of a brand can often be judged through its asking price. Unless it is specifically geared to a challenger model and has consciously oriented its entire business around price accessibility (e.g. Virgin), companies that ask lower prices often do so because they do not carry the brand equity to ask for more. Even then, challenger brands are about a lot more than pricing – attitude, experience, distribution and personality all loom large.
  • The ideas behind a brand can be protected by IP, but there must be more to a brand than a trademark or a patent. For all the claims from IP firms that they are helping to build brands, they’re not. They are protecting a mechanism of a brand. I’m not underplaying the importance of that, but the fact is people don’t bond with legal protections.
  • If no-one sees you in a marketplace because you carry no sustained awareness, you are not a brand because you are not functioning as an asset. Equally, if you generate instant profile through an action or scandal that takes social media by storm, you don’t have a brand – yet – because all you have is awareness in that moment. Unless you can capitalise on that, you will quickly revert to anonymity.
  • A strong brand often has a powerful identity, but an identity alone does not constitute a brand. As Darren Coleman puts it so well here, “Brand name, term, symbol etc., play an important role in brand. They’re not a brand per se. They’re physical manifestations of the emotional bond brands look to develop” You can have a beautiful identity system and still, in the words of the Sex Pistols, be pretty vacant. Equally, you can change the identity system you have to make it more upscale, thinking it will grow that bond, and actually diminish your value in the minds of your consumers: Gap.
  • Experience is not service. But great service is critical to delivering a customer experience. If you are delivering what people expect by way of assistance and back up, you are only doing what’s expected. If you have found a way to deliver what you do that sticks with people and that they talk to others about, you have created an experience. As Denise Lee Yohn reveals here: “seven out of ten marketers believe that investing in customer experience is more effective than investing in marketing communications, but only 13 percent believe that their company “excels” at delivering a day-to-day brand experience that matches up to what the brand promises”. To me, those perceptions by managers are a fail on two counts. Firstly, you can’t offer an experience unless you have made people aware of the brand because you have not linked the two, meaning you have not branded the experience. Secondly, if 87 percent of marketers believe their experiences are substandard in that they don’t deliver on what was promised, that means the vast majority of transactions are disappointing and are working against the brand in terms of generating trust.

We talk about brands as if they are all around us. But walk down any high street or through any CBD on any given day and ask yourself how much of what you see fits within the characteristics of brands above? How many of the companies that call themselves brands really do have distinctive business models, differentiated offers, great visibility, memorable experience models …? It’s far from easy to build brands that work as assets. But equally, that means there are more opportunities to create, manage and invest in brands that really do work to their potential than many companies realise.

Acknowledgements
Photo of “Large red heart on an empty billboard” taken by Horia Valen, sourced from Flickr

6 ways to find your brand’s next strengths

By Mark Di Somma

Finding your brand's next strengths

How do brands keep improving? If you’re already a market leader, where should you expend your energies to future-proof your business? A lot of the advice we read in the business press focuses on weaknesses and vulnerabilities and what needs to be fixed and updated. But if highlighting what isn’t working doesn’t work for your brand culture, maybe take your cues from the strengths movement and focus on further improving where you already shine.

This approach works particularly well with upbeat cultures that value performance and achievement. If motivation is already strong, talking about what hasn’t happened will only serve to dampen energy levels. Instead, I suggest you concentrate on your recognised organisational capabilities and look for ways to elevate these to new levels of proficiency.

Here are six areas in which you can lead your brand from strength to strength:

1. Product strengths – if you already have a distinctive and highly respected offering, use that kudos to your advantage. A lot of brands still focus on the technical supremacy of what they are doing. They bang the “quality” drum. There’s no point in doing that – it just draws you into a features war. Instead, use success to position your brand as the authority in the space. Seek trust supremacy. It’s harder to counter. By driving thought leadership in the sector, and presenting the success of your products as proof of that leadership and the difference you have made for your customers, you can look to shift market perceptions and consumer inclinations in your favour. Make your products the proof and the expression of what you think rather than the other way round.

2. Channel strengths – if you are readily available now, use that accessibility to your advantage. Be the easiest brand to buy. Look for ways to increase the range and volume of encounters that people have with you in the channels they know. If the problem is over-familiarity, perhaps look for ways to access new channels or markets that will help consumers see what you offer in new, even unexpected, contexts. The risk here of course is incongruity – your brand quite literally looks out of place. But done well, a change in venue can help change not only where people see you but how they value you. Where could you be that others aren’t? And why would you prosper being seen there when others wouldn’t?

3. Competitive strengths – if you have high-performing teams that thrive on bettering their rivals, use how you compete, who you compete against and the collective appetite for competitiveness to your advantage. Raise the bar by setting an outrageous vision for the brand and challenge your people to make it happen. Don’t present this as a new goal. Rather, explain it as a resetting of the horizon and communicate why you need to make this journey now. The critical balancing act is to temper ambition with support, so that teams agree on what needs doing and move forward together rather than looking to discard the individuals they perceive as the weakest links. Clear targets and communication of achievements need to be backed by training, recognition, resourcing and opportunities to collaborate that help people feel what is being asked for is do-able, desirable and achievable. Then expect your people to perform, and hold them accountable to agreed targets. In today’s market, powerful brands harness their energy from the inside and use it to out-pace and out-muscle others who are lethargic or complacent.

4. People strengths – what attributes do your people have that you could make more of? Why did you choose these people to work in the brand in the first place – and how can you encourage them to make more of those strengths? If you hired the people with the greatest skills, how can you grow their skillsets? If you hired the smartest people, what’s the biggest problem you can task them with resolving? If you hired the people who were most team-oriented, how can you improve working conditions for teams and how can you help them work more effectively together? Everyone talks about people being their greatest asset but often when you ask organisations why they hired who they hired, they struggle to express their decisions in terms of how those choices made the brand more competitive than it was and how they will position it to continue to be more competitive than it is. If you have an HR team with that strategic capability, apply their talents to deciding who, in the words of Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood, you “buy (acquire new talent), build (develop existing talent), borrow (access thought leaders through alliances or partnerships), bounce (remove poor performers), and bind (keep the best talent)”.

5. Adaptive strengths – are you faster and more inclined to change than those around you? If so, how can you use that accelerated ability to adapt where, what, how and when you work to your advantage? Being first-to-change can be a powerful advantage, particularly in industries that are seen as reticent and risk-averse. It can mark you as the sector refresher – the one that everyone looks to for next generation shifts in attitude, delivery or business model. The most important take-out for consumers is not that you are first, but that they are – in other words, because your brand is the one that dares to change, they as your customers are always the first to benefit. It’s about delivering them more of the latest and the best, the newest and the most powerful: turning your customers into pioneers. Nimble brands must gear themselves for customers with short attention-spans, meaning significant investments in improvements and breakthroughs and a lively communications programme to keep everyone up to speed so to speak. The temptation you must resist is the urge to go faster for the sake of doing so. Instead pace must always be aligned to results that directly matter to those who buy: the changes they want that can’t come quickly enough (until you deliver them).

6. Awareness strengths – as they say in the world of professional speaking, visibility is credibility. It’s very hard to stand out today but if your brand has a recall advantage, look for ways to make more of that top of mind. Why are you so well remembered – and what can you do to strengthen that at the expense of the profiles of your competitors? What can you do to get more-like-for-your-buck? And where should you be building awareness that reinforces the associations customers have with your brand and that delivers you real value for money? My advice: chase inclination not demographics. Be where you are best seen rather than where you are most seen. Create an elevated presence but make sure that presence pays. Otherwise, it’s an ego trip.

It’s rare in my experience that changing one strength alone will be enough to propel your brand to a new level of competitiveness. I suggest raising the bar across as many of these areas as possible, but focusing on two or three that will, in time, change how you perform. The secret here is to build your strengths in combinations that your competitors will find difficult to emulate – for example, “we’ll take a new level of product in this sector to a new level of awareness” or “we’ll not only change faster as a brand, we’ll introduce those changes into market via new channels at a pace that our competitors will not be able to match”.

Ambitious? Absolutely. But realisable because you’re working from what you’re already great at, not trying to catch up to or match what others already do well.

Acknowledgements
Photo of “strength” taken by Colleen McMahon, sourced from Flickr

Brand priorities. An increasing dichotomy

By Mark Di Somma

Brand priorities

This thought-provoking presentation includes some interesting observations on the contrasting effects of brands on the world. On the one hand the Y&R planners point out, brands are responding to consumer expectations that they will drive social change, spending around $18 billion a year on charitable efforts and using their financial clout and influence to affect real change. On the other, some of the biggest brands now know more about us as consumers and individuals than government agencies and we have no real ways of knowing how they will use that information, and to what effect, going forward.

Brands are becoming primary agents of change, it seems. They also have many stakeholders with very different priorities. The question is, will they use their influence to increasingly advocate for what matters to their consumers and communities or will they take their cues from the markets and focus on initiatives that enable them to keep growing as long and as much as they can?

I can’t see how there can be one answer to that. Each brand will follow its strategy and decide its priorities – based, one hopes, on the values it espouses. But Y&R’s observations do raise the wider question don’t they as to which of these stakeholder groups should be driving how brands behave?

The reason I raise this is that we seem to get conflicting messages about those priorities across the business press all the time. Many decision makers will argue that it is incumbent on organisations to deliver the best returns they can for shareholders. Others tell us that we should always put the customer first if we want to remain competitive and that consumers are increasingly wanting to see organisations behave responsibly. Others will argue that every brand is only as good as its people and that great brands are built from the inside out.

So who should brands serve first – their investors, their customers or their staff, all of whom are responsible for growth in different ways – and to what extent should they allow one group’s interests to dominate at the expense of the others?

Perhaps nothing symbolises the battle of wills between two of these groups, investors and customers, as succinctly as the debate over the humble seat. From planes to cinemas, the area being made available to value-minded consumers is becoming smaller and smaller as operators seek to boost their profits by putting more bums into shrinking spaces. Increasingly what the consumer is not prepared to pay for (Premium or First Class) decides what the brand is not prepared to provide or safeguard. And while there is competition in theory, when every market participant behaves in the same manner, the Coach experience anywhere becomes the Coach experience everywhere. Cue the Knee Defender.

To investors of course, the need to make profits while they can, and in whatever ways they can, to future-proof the business, deliver on guidance and therefore protect the stock price not only makes sense, it’s tantamount to responsible behaviour.

And what about the needs of staff and suppliers – as awareness of both mindfulness and productivity continue to rise, how do companies strike the right balance with their people?

One can assume that there will be brands, particularly public brands, that continue to take their cues from the markets. There will also be those who are prepared to risk the wrath of activist investors and/or delist in order to regain control. But if you’re a publicly listed brand, is there a third way? Is it possible to strike a balance between agendas?

This article on impact investing suggests that concepts are now being aired and debated that look to achieve much more defined and rounded outcomes for all parties. For this to work it seems to me, brand owners are going to need to adopt balanced brand models that prioritise exactitude over open-ended opportunity. In such an environment, intentions would be much more highly defined, deliverables clearly stated, quid pro quos considered and successes robustly measured.

Companies wouldn’t strive to beat their earnings at the expense of other metrics. Instead, they would look to hit their numbers and their other metrics simultaneously knowing that doing so sustains the wider business. Michael Dexler and Abigail Noble have focused on reconciling financial return and social impact, but I see no reason why the model couldn’t be extend to staff and supply chains. Perhaps this is where transparency is heading?

One can’t overplay how far-reaching such changes could be – not least, for how senior execs are evaluated and remunerated. However, as brands continue to increase in strength and influence, my view is they will increasingly come under pressure to define their ambitions much more fully and against a wider context and to behave in ways that align with their growing global status as brand-states.

So could the conversations around CAGR (compound annual growth rate) that dominate how brands plan and analysts predict today be replaced in time, for some brands at least, by discussions over SAGR (sustainable annual growth rate) or even RAGR (responsible annual growth rate)? For some, maybe.

Acknowledgements
Photo of “Seat of Peace” taken by Saim, sourced from Flickr

Lessons and opportunities for global FMCG brands

By Mark Di Somma

Global FMCG brands

It wasn’t that long ago that competition took place between products, and the criteria for choice between rivals was customer benefits. Product vs product. Today, for globally scaled brands, the competition is really between the reach and co-ordination of different configurations of value chains, and the criteria for choice for customers is the quality of the experiences delivered as a result.

It’s fascinating to see how this is playing out in the FMCG space – because here the global brands are amongst the most valuable in the world. The 2014 Brand Footprint reveals all top 50 global FMCG brands were chosen at least 500 million times over the past year. They made it into shoppers’ carts through a range of strategies: they talked to consumers’ heightened awareness of health issues; they delivered convenient solutions for people’s busy lives; they were smart sized in ways that made them affordable; they were genuine and relevant in their communications and encouraged consumers to talk amongst themselves; they were increasingly personalised in order to build deeper and closer relationships; and more and more they were weighted towards one of three categories – affordable luxury, premium, or basic.

What surprised me the most though was that, according to Brand Footprint, there are still significant opportunities for these huge consumer packaged goods brands to grow their footprints. In fact, the average market penetration across the entire Top 50 is just 20%. That means their value chains have some way to go if they are to dominate across markets.

The other surprise is the extent to which local brands are winning share, or at the very least holding their own, in the face of competition from the mega-brands. You might expect that faced with such an onslaught, local brands would be in decline. Not so. According to the report, these more localised players have in fact been able to use their proximity to market to attract new consumers and develop loyalty much more quickly than their globally scaled competitors, to the point where they now collectively account for 60% of shopper purchases.

So the challenge now for the big brands, if they are to achieve their ambitions, is to make “big” experiences count at an individual level against the more focused offerings of local competitors – meaning the real battle is between two marketing ideas that one might otherwise regard as synonyms: familiarity; and intimacy. In this context, they have different meanings. Familiarity – the brands that reach consumers and that they recognise. Intimacy – the brands consumers engage with and are loyal to.

As this tussle between market knowledge (somewhere) and global knowledge (everywhere) continues, the report identifies four ways for the big brands to increase their footprints in the years ahead:

  1. They must identify and meet local requirements much better than they have, be it through new flavours or tailored marketing campaigns.
  1. They must extend not just their reach but also their access through a combination of smart multi-channelled distribution and affordable product formatting.
  1. They must develop new consumer needs within their current buying patterns and fulfil them in relevant ways.
  1. They must include consumers in more conversations, encourage greater participation via sharing and involve them more closely in development and ideas.

There’s an interesting dichotomy here between logistical and emotional deliverables. To achieve true “glocal” status, brands will need to be able to get products to markets across the world with cold efficiency and then deliver them into market in ways that grow customer intimacy by making them feel as localised as possible, regardless of where they actually originate from.

That raises another interesting point. ‘Local’ is now more a sentiment than a geographical reality. It relates directly to the sense of proximity and to the speed of reach and sense of connectedness in the minds of consumers. Classic example of this? Amazon Prime – which has combined membership (and therefore the wish to get their money’s worth) with free shipping to make the company feel ‘next door’, everywhere. According to Time, “Subscribers not only ordered more often, but after paying the $79 fee, they started buying things at Amazon that they probably wouldn’t have in the past. Since shipping was always speedy and free, members saved themselves a trip to the store for things like batteries and coffee beans.”

The four letter word going forward for global brands is: Here. Does it feel this close? Does it reflect this place? Does it match how we live? If global FMCG brands can enhance that sense of immediacy in every market they reach into, they will give local brands a run for their money. If they can’t, they may well continue to be the brands that come “here”, not the brands that are “here”.

Acknowledgements
Photo of “Chained and Locked” taken by Dustin Gaffke, sourced from Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why consumer brands are increasingly personal (and what that means for you)

By Mark Di Somma

Consumer brands are increasingly personal

This is the year of wearables it seems. Morgan Stanley are predicting shipments will top 70 million this year and grow to 248 million by 2017. But the thought that wearables themselves will feature in consumer and business spending across areas ranging from fashion and fitness, healthcare and insurance also points to escalation of another trend. Products and services are now less about what consumers have or get and more about who they are and want to be.

Brands have always sought to be aspirational of course. The very nature of the “value equation” is that the receiver gets more of what they want than they had before. But whereas, historically, those aspirations have been pitched to the consumer by the manufacturer and the promises themselves have tended to be esoteric, today, through technologies such as wearables, consumers are increasingly looking for performance benefits that are personal and specifically measurable to critical issues for them like wellbeing, sleep and weight.

As this early article points out, the genius of the quantified self movement was to marry two fascinating ideas – technology and the search for self-improvement – to deliver a new concept of mindfulness. But for brands really it’s the consumer take-out that’s important. People want every moment of their lives to count for something. And brands should be taking their cues from this wish if they want to retain relevance and value. In many cases that will mean finding new and involving ways to link what they offer with what people most want to check. Now for the hard bit – on a moment by moment basis.

Perhaps the thrill is less in the having and more in the chase – meaning brands will need to introduce new “journeys” for their buyers in order to give people a beguiling sense of personal progress and momentum. Fitbit has been such a success of course because it has introduced just such a journey to more healthy living. And in so doing, it has not only gamified living, it has connected that pursuit to mobile technologies, making it even more accessible and addictive. You can see where you are in your quest, anytime.

Inspiration for such journeys could well stem from the things that people continue to worry about: the amount of sugar in their food; the state of their living environment; the money they spend on energy; the breaking of old habits and the adoption of new ones; the wish to be safe; the hunt for happiness and success; the search for companionship; the goal to be more productive and better organised across a day …

Two questions. How will your brand associate itself in a compelling way with a personalised journey for its customers? And what technologies will you work with/put in place/partner with to make the monitoring of that journey fun, (shareable), instantaneous and believable?

Acknowledgements
Photo of “Fitbit Force Activity-Tracking Wristband” by US CPSC, sourced from Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Would your brand pass The Tinder Test?

By Mark Di Somma

Would your brand pass the Tinder test?

Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, recently suggested that products are becoming increasingly addictive. Three macro-trends are driving that, he told me, and together they are lifting the addictive potential of all sorts of products and services:

  1. Companies are now able to collect more data about user behaviours;
  2. Interactive technology is more accessible; and
  3. The transfer of data is happening faster than ever before.

You don’t have to look far to see consumers heavily engaging with the apps they have integrated into their lives. Facebook, Twitter and Linked In are all obvious but Marie Claire cites research that shows there are now 50 million active users on Tinder. On average, they check their accounts 11 times per day and spend an average of 90 minutes per day doing so. In the words of Led Zeppelin, that’s a whole lotta love.

Here are seven reasons why I think that’s happening:

  1. Universal need – great apps cater to something that all humans recognise as desirable. In the case of Tinder, everybody wants company.
  2. Simple – it’s easy to use, and there’s some sort of distinctive ritual that makes it what it is. In Tinder’s case, you swipe. In Pinterest’s case, you pin.
  3. Mobile – people can “check in” on the run, and they can do so through their devices.
  4. Repeatable – this is something that people can do on a daily basis – in fact, many times per day.
  5. Rewarded – there’s rewards for continuing to check in, and as Nir Eyal points out in his book, those rewards are variable, making them more intriguing and addictive
  6. Social – the focus is on the individual but the app also enables them to engage with other people
  7. Safe – there are enough safeguards built in for people to feel that they are not taking an undue or unforeseen risk. We could debate the reality of that – but the perception is certainly there.

It got me wondering whether, if addictiveness is more and more crucial to success, more brands need to be shaping their product lines and their experiences/interactions around some version of Nir’s Hooked Model? Do brands need to behave more like apps in an increasingly mobile world? Technology brands do already of course. But what if you extended this approach into areas that are less wired? If brands worked harder to gamify decision making and engagement, is it possible to make the things people do every day feel less everyday?

Could habit also be the elusive link between mobile devices, retail and online? Ultimately, will omni-channel live or die on its ability to create and satiate habits? If so, that would be a major shift in emphasis it seems to me: from an approach focused on access via multi-channel service delivery to one intent on driving, reinforcing and fulfilling powerful brand habits in a range of ways.

There’s implications here too for how we might rethink selling. In B2C at least, brands probably need to be looking to entice consumers down what Nir Eyal refers to as Habit Paths rather than continuing to rely on sales funnels – and using data, accessibility and speed to cultivate relationships that align with wider social behaviours rather than brand-specific needs.

If you rethought coffee from the point of view of those hooking qualities – data, accessibility and speed – what would it do not just to what you sold but also the context within which sales and interactions took place? After all, as Peter Diamandis points out, coffee, innovation and connectivity have a long history of association.

Finally, a fun side-note to help decide the likeability of most advertising. If the ads that pepper mainstream TV were on Tinder, how many do you think would get a swipe right from you and how many would go left?

Acknowledgements
Photo of “Love is everywhere” taken by Nana B Agyei, sourced from Flickr

 

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

By Mark Di Somma

The Hook Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brand actions are not the same as brand strategy

By Mark Di Somma

Brand actions or brand strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning to expand your brand? 7 things to consider

By Mark Di Somma

Brand expansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Purpose can drive change and innovation

By Mark Di Somma and Hilton Barbour

Change  - to what purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This isn’t a new thought.

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we’d contend is unassailable.

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

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

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

We think Gary Hamel would agree.

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

 

 

 

 

 

The battle between ideas and access

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting brand and price

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

MacDonalds versus Chipotle graph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Mark Di Somma

Are your brand signals effective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollow brands in an age of scrutiny

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Verbal Brand and its critically important stakeholders

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

Having got all this right, why the resistance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlock a competitive brand story

By Mark Di Somma

Unlock a competitive brand story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The real secret to B2B pitching: being connective

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Mark Di Somma, Brad VanAuken and Derrick Daye

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

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

Performing but misunderstood

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

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

Increasing contribution

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

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

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

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

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

Picking up on the need for brands to increasingly compete through their stories, Mark asked recently whether brands also need to be assessing their own actions within the context of a narrative and not just pushing stories for their brands out into the marketplace. “I can’t help feeling that at least part of the role of the CMO today is to storify the organisation’s own strategy… That might suggest CMOs [are the best people to] manage the crafting of two parallel storylines: the narrative surrounding the organisation’s journey (the push element); and the stories that consumers hear from the brand that convinces them to believe in the brand and its competitive value in market (the pull element).”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conditions apply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brand campaign lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge

By Mark Di Somma

Ice Bucket Challenge - lessons for brands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Measuring purpose. The next key business imperative

By Mark Di Somma and Hilton Barbour

How do you measure purpose

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

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

“Measure what matters because it matters what you measure”

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

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

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

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

The data is there and the recommendations pretty unambiguous.

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

And what metrics might we use?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is all this introspection about measurement worth it?

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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

Let’s sack “dumb” HR

By Mark Di Somma

HR by the numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing dumb about that. Nothing dumb at all.

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

Rethinking brand reach in a watching world

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Mark Di Somma

Brand offering - deep or wide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

By Mark Di Somma and Hilton Barbour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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

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

Brand controversy: how far is too far?

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Big brand dynamics: the rise of the super-platforms

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mark Di Somma

Unique brand perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else would you ask?

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

20 ways to kill dull products

By Mark Di Somma

Let's kill dull products

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

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

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

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

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

Competitive intelligence – capitalising on other brands’ weaknesses

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

Three actions you can take in response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three actions you can take in response:

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

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

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

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

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

Three actions you can take in response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brand wonderland – the role of the flagship store

By Mark Di Somma

Flagship store

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does your brand have touchpoints? Really?

By Mark Di Somma

Brand touchpoints

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three questions:

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

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

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

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

 

 

How to avoid short-selling your brand story

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Why brand management will replace marketing

By Mark Di Somma

Why brand management will replace marketing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Could CMOs be doing more with stories?

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The different scales (and values) of talk

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 things to talk about

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

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

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

Brands and the power of secrets

By Mark Di Somma

The power of secrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to build a secrets strategy

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing a re-liking strategy

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tell all your brand’s stories

By Mark Di Somma

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

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

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

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

I’ve identified six streams of story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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