Durex: more sex please

Why I like this.

It’s smart and witty.
It addresses a problem that people can relate to: we interact less with the people we love because of tech (as I am now, writing this whilst sat next to my wife).
It’s well executed – you are anticipating a tech solution.
It’s counter-trend. There’s cultural pressure to embrace tech, not to turn it off.

However…it is promoting sex rather than the use of Durex within sex. Maybe they see a rise (sorry, couldn’t resist it…) of sales when the category of sex increases?

Do online businesses need a brand?


Many online businesses have seemingly thrived without a brand but as we move into the next online era, will this still be possible for today’s StartUps?

I was being challenged, in a good way. The guy had a lot of credibility: here was an online entrepreneur who had been there, done it and had the money in the bank.

He had asked me there because he knew brands were becoming more important online – he had the data to prove it – but he was a committed A/B tester and he was A/B testing my business concept, the one that says online businesses need to be better branded.

“You’re right, brands are important. But always? There are so many examples of great online consumer facing businesses that don’t have a brand…so do online businesses really need to develop their brand to be successful?”

My answer was: Yes…but the right kind of brand.

That needed some explanation. Let’s start with the yes.

The online world is maturing. We are in the Post-Land Grab era.

There is enormous online clutter and it’s only going to get worse as the StartUp energy/bubble continues and expands out across various countries. We are living in the Istanbul Spice Market: everything looks the same, you know it’s all pretty good and everyone is shouting at you.

Nowadays, few people are worried about buying online. People trust online businesses with the basics as much as bricks & mortar brands. Function and utility are commoditized.

The cost of entry is getting lower all the time. Development costs have come down massively, as has the effort required. And the Lean Philosophy has given us the permission to get out there quickly, knowing there is a community of early adopters willing to give us a try.

People are attuned to try new stuff. Everything is one-click away. Loyalty is difficult to find.

New entrants hope to exploit this so they keep piling in. Clutter to the power of x.

Investors pile in. They expect more than a quick ride, the want longer-term growth and confidence that you can keep the customers you have.

For all of these reasons, online businesses need brands, because only a brand can address the issues they raise.

A brand is an expression of difference and so an extremely cost-effective way of standing out from the clutter.

A brand contains the emotional and intangible and so can defend an established business against all the eager and over-excited new entrants biting at your ankles.

But – conversely – a brand is also a powerful tool for new entrants to make a mark in an established market. The distinct energy and personality of a new brand is the most effective way to challenge the status quo, break old consumer habits and create new expectations. Orange coming 4th to market in mobile telecoms. Apple in the face of the dominance of Micorsoft. Ben & Jerries’ youthful exuberance to counter the adult-ness of Haagan Dazs.

A brand gives investors confidence. Warren Buffet talks about making his investing decisions on the basis of a business having a moat. Of all the possible moats, brand meaning, because it is so intangible, is the most ownable and sustainable of them all.

As the StartUp bubble slows – or pops – and usage becomes more habitual, brand moats will become more important in the online world too. And then maybe Buffet, that famously tech shy investor, will embrace the online world.

So yes, online businesses need a brand.

But the right kind of brand. By which I mean…

Brands are not what they were.

They used to support one-dimensional products like shampoo or clothes detergents.

Then products got more complicated. They became the whole business, with multiple services, non-core products, customer support, partnerships and APIs etc. They became a philosophy, a commitment to environmental well-being, a cultural role. People buy all of these things.

The human brain is not selective. In fact, it doesn’t like to work very hard at all.

It doesn’t only listen to the ads and then ignore the rest. It uses everything (usually without actually consciously thinking it through) to create meaning and through that meaning gets a sense of how something differs and whether they like that difference. Brand meaning is created every time a person comes into contact with that business. When they see it, when the use it, when they speak to it – or it speaks to them, when they hear or read about it, when they are in a conversation about it, when they ask something of it and when it asks something of them.

If it doesn’t add up, they’ll notice. And if they don’t, someone on social media will help them along. Despite appearances, people are smart. Perhaps you can fool some of the people some of the time. But they can smell marketing BS a mile off. (It is the most odorous of all BS.)

But that doesn’t make people more rational. People are easily bored and most businesses bore them. We’ve learnt that people want loftier, more emotional leaning. They want their brands to think they can make the world better. Like Chipotle and Lifebuoy. Or heroic. Like Nike and Apple.

What is required of a brand in the modern world is not a summary of a core product but something all encompassing that makes people care, that brings them emotionally closer to you and – critically – is evident in everything you do. Without that coherence, it won’t add up and it won’t be considered credible.

So generally a brand is not a way to communicate your product, it’s a way to structure a business – and only then communicate something.

The take-away for any StartUp is this. The biggest mistake online businesses keep making is to think a brand is advertising or a brand logo. The business is the brand and you need to create a Branded Business.

Sean Ellis on Milestones to StartUp Success

Sean Ellis writes here on the various milestones to StartUp success. The bit that interests me most is the point about brand experiences over brand awareness. That’s the full value of a brand in the modern world, when there are so many touchpoint and moments the customer will have with your business. In fact, much of what I write is about that. They are after all the best guarantee you’ll get love and loyalty in the long-term – the 3 Ls.


Innocent Case Study

Why I like it…

Great simple purpose: Live well. Die old.

But a clear a sense of where that can go…and where they can not. That second bit is critical: be clear on what you are not & what you should not do, even if there’s a (quick) buck to be made.

They use their purpose to guide everything, including the hard stuff like packaging that is on-brand.

Why this blog?

This is a blog about difference.

Because, let’s face it, there’s not enough.

StartUp culture is all about product competence and getting investment.

It’s not enough about creating something that will stand out, find love, and stand the test of time.

It’s about creating a product-centric business not a branded business.

This blog is here to help StartUps  – and their brethren in the SMB world – figure out how they can create a differentiated brand. With words, pictures, case studies and ideas from pros, it’s here to help.

If you want to contribute in any way, please contact me.

But whatever happens, good luck and think different.

Where the river stands still.

Brand vision
Why StartUps should think about what won’t change (and why customer research is flawed).

As an entrepreneur or strategist, at some point, we will have thought long and hard about how future change will affect the business. But is change as important as not-change?

Jeff Bezos offers us this piece of magic.
“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. …”

Most brand development work I’ve been involved with started with the here & now and then looked at how things would change. Generally, the fact that the here & now might also be the future was perhaps sometimes assumed…but not really explored. No surprise really: we are bombarded by change propaganda by the Self Help Industrial Complex, which exhorts us to ‘embrace change’. But Bezos asks us to embrace What Won’t Change. Change is positioned paradoxically as both a threat and an opportunity for betterment.

But often advantage lies in exploring what others have not explored. So I applied the What-Won’t-Change exercise to my own StartUp concept.

I know that the structural change in the economy will continue.
I know corporate life will be less interesting to more people.
I know that people will want more control in their lives.
I know that therefore there will be more and more StartUps and small businesses.
I know that many of the people who found these StartUps and small businesses will be smart, eager to learn and keen to put time and money resource against things that improve and grow their business.
I know they will look to the internet for this, not to corporations who would traditionally have served these needs. They now expect the internet to do these things.
I know affordability will be critical to these cash-flow concerned folk and this rules out the existing consultancy model, which is outdated and designed only to service big corporations.

Thus, I will focus on helping the new legion of StartUps and small businesses with an online service that is highly affordable.

But I think Bezos would say most of the points on my list are not knowns; they are assumptions. And he’d be right. Let’s look at what he knows for comparison.

“[I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible. And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

His knowns are pretty much indisputable. My list is not like his list: it is full of assumptions and therefore it is disputable. Most business decisions though are made against assumptions. The entrepreneurs task is to make an assessment about the probability of those assumptions being correct, based on the facts and information you have, or can find, and – let’s be honest – the instincts you have. That’s the best you can do. And it’s often good enough if you’ve done that task thoroughly. I’m sure Bezos thinks the same way. He doesn’t only build a business around the knowns but also the probables.

This does raise a bigger point though. Some people will demand that you prove the case. I’ve had many clients ask for definitive proof. But you can’t prove it. You never can. Reality isn’t about knowns. The consumer will never tell you want they want in the future. Because, guess what, they don’t know. They don’t think about it. That’s your job. Their job is to get on with their lives.

If you’ve ever actually done face-to-face research, you will see up close and personal that weaknesses of any research method. People are disinterested or over-enthusiastic or guess.

There is no method that can tell you what you want to know about the future. Whilst some methods are better than others, all research is looking in the rear-view mirror, as the saying goes. Even the idea of simulated tests or MVPs can’t avoid this. Their use is in guiding your understanding of the probable. They can’t give you certainty.

In fact, it’s a more informed decision if you focus on what you know about now. When you get too far into change and the future, you too start guessing. A lot. It’s hard not to slip beyond smart assumptions and into flights of fancy. As the T-shirt demands: Where is my light sabre?

When you are a StartUp, you need to be pragmatic. You design for the future but you do it from the here & now. So perhaps the Jeff Bezos StartUp lesson is: Focus on what you know and what you kind of know and leave the future to sort itself out.

A System For Everything


Can brand creation be systematized for a StartUp?

In his recent Reith lectures, Atul Gawande’s anecdote rich narrative tells us how failures in health care are more often than not the result of failures in systems. People say it’s the failures between people (partners) that kill StartUps but I suspect it is often the failures in StartUp systems that drive this.

One of the big tech developments in healthcare was the shift at the start of the 20th century from home care to hospital care and, with this, the rise of professional doctors, nurses, operating theatres and so on. Death in childbirth had been common beforehand. Did the shift to all this professionalism and expertise lead to a reduction in deaths in childbirth? No, it did not. The reason being that there was not enough ‘Infection Control Procedures’, like sterlising equipment or a room properly…or even doctors washing their hands properly.

One might think this problem has gone away. It has not. We are told that there are six million infections caught each year by people whilst being cared for in western hospitals. Less than 5% of all health professionals wash their hands properly in Indian hospitals. The spread of Ebola is a failure of a sanitization and protection process, as the virus creeps into those tiny gaps in clothing and finds its host.

Gawande believes that the problem is that we have more knowledge and expertise than we know what to do with. We’ve created a world of over-complexity. We’ve got too smart for our own good.

But the avuncularly cozy and positive Gawande is confident was can improve things.

We cannot leave it to individuals. Individuals cannot cope with such complexity. We need to create a system that connects and manages us.

This is not only about inventing and building the system but also about executing and managing them ruthlessly. He doesn’t say this but in effect he is suggesting we use this uber-system to create a hive mind, in which the individual operates under the collective. Like the Borg. Only collective effort will allow us to deal with over-complexity.

Now are we in a position to do this though. Technology, data, knowledge give us greater tools than ever before. This is the Age of the System, he declares.

Anyone in StartUp will recognize this over-complexity. Gawande’s belief though is that not only can super-charged systems cope with over-complexity, than can accommodate even more pressure. By introducing aggressive systemization, we can do much more than we thought possible.

The specifics seem prosaic. Make behaviours the norm. Create check-lists. Identify defaults. Introduce feedback loops. He also makes two interesting cultural suggestions. One, the participants need to be managed so they have the humility to accept that even the best (the experts & bosses) fail. Two, in one very successful system the checklist was managed by the person with least power, the telephone operator, I assume, so they would not question it (unlike, let’s be honest, gobby senior staffers).
I’d be more skeptical of his specific suggestions if it were not for the fact that across the 8 major hospitals involved in the trial there was an average reduction in complications of 35%, and an average reduction in death of 47%.

So imagine the impact of strong systems in the chaotic, over-stretched, under-experienced environment of a typical StartUp. Imagine getting your UX to work with PM and producers on every type of process and workflow in the business.
Can a creative process be systematized? I’m interested in brand creation…can that be systematized?

A brand is structured. That structure, at its simplest, covers 5 things.
1. As precise a target as possible.
2. A position within the context of a marketplace.
3. The overall purpose that’s going to own that position.
4. The behaviours, personality and identity that going to execute this.
5. The traction plan that will impact the market in the strongest possible way.

(I know, it’s that simple!…Can you believe there’s whole industry based on that…;-))

To populate that structure, a series of strategic issues need to be considered. Or put in plain English, a list of precise questions need answering intelligently. It’s probably quite a long list but it’s not too long.

Answering intelligently clearly depends on the quality of the people who are answering but what matters more is the quality of the hive.

You clearly want people who are smart and, although not necessarily experts, understand and are interested in the basics. They’ve thought about brands, which ones they love, which ones they respect and why. The hive must know how to work together. To discuss. To debate. To conclude. To let it go and move on.

Coding has a system but is also creative. I think we can look at a brand in the same way. We don’t because it undermines our creative egos. But I actually like the intelligence and creativity of the system.

So if you can figure out what the precise questions are and work them through, I think any StartUp can systematize their brand creation and execution.

Or you can pay tens of thousands of dollars/pounds you haven’t got to a brand consultancy…

The power of the Unexpert.

Brand conviction

If your StartUp is going to do something original, you’ll have to ignore experts.

There’s a wonderful story I heard recently. In 1929, Werner Forssmann, was a medical intern in Germany, interested in heart conditions. Reading a periodical about veterinary medicine, he came across a photograph of a live horse with a tube inserted into its leg and pushed up to its heart.

He wondered if the same could be done in humans to help with cardiac resuscitation. He asked his supervisor, the expert in this story, if he could test his hypothesis with a live experiment. He was refused on the grounds that it would kill the patient.

He did it anyway with some comedy caper shenanigans. He asked help of a nurse, Gerda Ditzen, who declared heroically that she would only do it if she herself were the patient. He agreed but then, with a sleight of hand, tricked her, placing the catheter in his own arm after anesthetizing her. After no doubt much chuckling, they got x-ray proof that he had done it.

And because of this Unexpert, we now have modern cardiology, something up to a third of us will be enormously thankful for at some point in our lives.

Close your eyes and put yourselves in his shoes. You are 25 and that loud and slightly frightening boss you have has told you categorically not to do something. You did believe you were right but now he’s questioned you. What would you do? Imagine how hard it would have been to ignore the expert.

Despite being fired, reinstated, then fired again, and later being a fully paid-up member of the Nazi party, he was right on this one and won the Nobel Prize in 1956.

In advertising agency life, using what we would call Naïve Experts often proved to be invaluable. Someone who was smart but not necessarily an expert in the field we were working in. Someone who would ask questions we would not think of. For example, we interviewed a zoologist about play in the animal kingdom for the launch of the Sony Dreamcast and we looked into the intelligence of co-ordination and tricks for adidas football.

Having someone smart who has not been brain-washed by the orthodoxy – often your own orthodoxy you create within your StartUp team – can help you see possibilities you wouldn’t have seen otherwise…and that can make all the difference.

The story is also of course a reminder of the need to proactively do to prove your case so the naysayers are forced to pay attention. That’s why MVP’s are so popular but there’s so much more to a business than a MVP.

Putting simple versions of ideas into play that add value across all of the business is ultimately the truer test of a business concept than a single product concept, because people may pay for a product but what they are buying is a three-dimensional brand experience.

But ultimately it is the ability to ignore the naysayers and the doubt it your own mind that is the parable of that old Nazi, Werner Forssmann.

Too many StartUps, too little difference.