All posts by andrewedwards

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will be critical to these cash-flow concerned folk and this rules out the existing consultancy model, which is outdated and designed only to service big corporations.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.

How every StartUp can be creative.

brand creation exercises
brand creation exercises

5 ways for any team to be creative.

I was with the tech guys of a StartUp recently. They retreated into their shells when I started asking about the brand concept. Once I’d got their confidence, the told me they couldn’t do that stuff – they were not creative, they were programmers, they were rational.

There is a mystique about creativity. The creative industry, myself included, often reinforces this, and why not? It is in its commercial interest to do so. But everyone is creative. Including our programmers.

Part of creativity is about seeing patterns and opportunities, about not being intimidated by the weight of a problem. The more experience you have of problem solving the easier it gets. I’m told that’s why at Harvard Business School they make students work through three case studies every day. Repetition gets the brain to see patterns, which creates efficiency and the illusion of excellence, even genius.

Broadly speaking though, most smart people can gain that experience and whilst some will do it better than other, most can do it.

In my experience, most of the people who are called ‘creative’ use reference points. Sometimes, the more remote that reference point is, the more inspired the idea becomes. It was Picasso who said: Good artists copy, great artists steal.

He also said: All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. Kids don’t self-edit. They just say what’s in there.

Clearly, as well as an excellent drawer and colourer-in, Picasso was a veritable quote machine. What I don’t think he talked about is what we might call the politics of creativity. Let me put that into a quote so I too can get onto Brainquote.com:

Creativity is as much the force of will to convince others to make something, as it is the force of the idea.

It isn’t easy getting an idea made. Good creative people know this. They know the guy on the other side of the table is sometimes intellectually lazy, or worried about his job, or just bitter and will give it two seconds thought before rubbishing the idea. It’s not about the idea, it’s about them. Good creative people have strategies to overcome that. It might be shouting, or belittling, or occasionally patiently explaining, but it always involves being stubborn for weeks and months until the thing is made.

(That doesn’t mean they don’t adapt and listen to other people. Knowing when to listen is key to getting it made, and being able to hear the ideas that will make it better elevates the idea further.)

But the act of coming up with ideas in the first place, I still believe anyone can do.

Our brains are designed to solve problems from birth. I’m involved in a lengthy anthropological study my wife calls fatherhood and anyone who has observed children slowly learn how to solve problems would surely accept the universality of creativity.

The personality traits that drive creativity exist within us all – like curiosity, puzzle solving, being right. They might need fine-tuning and they might need a pat on the back/kick up the arse. But they are there.

Then there are the thinking-structures that come from experience, the ways our brains see patterns. Whoever you are the more your do it, the better you get.

I accept that there will still be degrees of quality. Some people have a better combination of the experience/confidence/conviction thing. But everyone has it to some degree. Given the right framework any team can make a good start to most problems, meaning asking the right questions.

So how can you and your team be creative?

Here are five suggestions to make anyone creative.

1. Do like Picasso and steal. Look for influences and examples you can build on, from anywhere. Business, novels, music, art, science, The Simpsons. The build might not be immediately obvious but if you know why you like that influence you can create parallels that will take you somewhere: they did x so what would our equivalent be? Use anyone or anything that has a distinct way of thinking or doing. What have they done we think is cool? How would they approach our problem? So…how would John Lennon think about sales? As daft as it can sound, it works.

2. Structure. Don’t just dive in. Work out a structure beforehand. Start with the broad, exploratory themes and then get more precise. Get to principals before you get to the detail of execution. Define the headline questions and then figure out which questions need to be answered before you answer the headline ones. Let that shape the conversation.

3. Make sure everyone says something. You want everyone to put it out there. So give everyone space to talk. Get people to write down thoughts so it is not only the loudest voice that gets heard. Or get them to draw it. Whatever makes them comfortable expressing themselves. If some people are not joining in, make them the critics of everyone else’s output to begin with, until they find their positive voice. People find it much easier to criticize than to create so use that to strengthen ideas. Also, have a laugh. People talk more when they are relaxed. Play a game. Get some cookies. People say more with cookies.

4. Time. Spend a decent amount of time on it…and let people know how long you’ll spend doing it. People relax more over time. Be clear they are in there for a while: even the most reticent will say something eventually. If you are running the session, go silent. It’s amazing how others will want to fill that quiet.

5. Figure out how to agree as a group. Any suggestion is a worthwhile suggestion but you’re going to have to come to a precise agreement at some point. Fudging the solution is worse than having no solution at all. So before you start, spend quality time discussing what you are trying to achieve in the session and then agree the judgment criteria. If some criteria are more important than others, weight them. Use this to score ideas 1-5. Many people don’t like scoring ideas but the way it works best is to use that score to prompt a debate, not to give you the answer.

So having said all that, if there’s one take-away for any StartUp it is: if you want to get creative, get some cookies.

A System For Everything

Creating-a-brand-system

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…

Every StartUp should start out to alienate someone.

New companies need difference

How Birdman can inspire StartUps

I saw Birdman last night.

It’s fresh. It’s human. It’s believable. It’s also unbelievable. It’s dramatic. And it is inspirational.

It is so distinctive and inventive; I thought there’s got to be some lessons for any ambitious StartUp…

I like to imagine the creative process when I see a film like that. The narrative I create is full of naïve assumptions about how films get made. I assume the director is the leader, the director of a debate and therefore the ‘starter’…or as John Hegarty of BBH used to say of the difference between agency planners and creatives, ‘the first to piss in the pot’. After that, others take their turn.

So a film this good requires everyone to input but also all those who input to agree on the fundamentals, to pull in the same direction, no matter how brave it feels sometimes. The director creates the terms of the debate. Everyone needs to build from that.

Besides the director, in the centre circle there’s the actors, the director of photography, the producers but there are also those with secondary input like the lighting, editing and set design talent, people who can make a big difference to the output and if they get it wrong can undermine the impact.

Which gets you thinking: as it grows, how do you organise a StartUp to maximise everyone’s creative talent? You need to be clear about who is in charge, who is in the centre and who is secondary…but never in a way that blocks creativity. Everyone needs to be free to make sure their bit lives up to the overall ambition. But there does need to be a coherence, an organising theme, a sense of purpose that drives them and leads them all.

The Birdman ensemble agreed to do something different. Often people asks: what do we want the audience to do? But a smarter question sometimes is: what do we want to do to the audience, to the heads, to their hearts?

That subtle shift of emphasis gives you different ideas.

On Birdman, they seemed very clear how they wanted the audience to feel, as opposed to think. In my imaginary fly-on-the-wall documentary, words on the flip chart would include: shock, raw, exhilarate, confound, occasionally lost, amused, thankful, respected.

But the Birdman folk knew not everyone will like this. The knew some people will feel these feelings: annoyed, let-down, condescended, belittled. That’s why on IMBD there are a lot of 10s and a lot of 1s. Most good films are 7/8s.

I believe often better brands come from aiming for the 10 & 1s. A great brand should seek to excite some but also to annoy others. Who and why will people fall into these camps for your brand? Try writing down 20 thoughts on each.

To get to this point of love and alienation, the Birdman ensemble agreed to play with conventions, stretch them, disrupt them. But what I think it interesting is this: the conventions are there. Just played with/stretched/disrupted. They seem to do this knowingly. In that sense, it’s a thought-through, analytical film.

That’s good learning for a StartUp. A great brand concept should be knowing. It should have thought through the conventions and then played with them. It should be very self-aware about what is doing and what it is doing it against.

Another thing that struck me was the immediacy. There was no set-up, no context, no back-story. It’s just there. Like real life.

For example, within the delivery of two or three lines, we completely get Edward Norton’s character. He has a complete sense of his character’s life. When he speaks, we know the personality beneath. He’s distinct. He’s rounded. He’s entirely believable.

That generally only comes because it’s thought through. It’s analysed. It’s constructed.

Immediacy is key to a powerful branded identify. It’s more credible that way. You want a person to get you straight off. It’s more costly to require repeat visits. And people can’t be bothered.

The thing I take away is this. You need something so well thought through that it’s emotional impact is immediate, and in such a way that it forces people apart, so the people who do like you feel they are part of a special club, of like minded people who are just as ……. (insert the most relevant adverb here eg. smart, stylish, savvy, progressive etc) as they are. And the others walk away moaning about you. But it creates a debate. And that makes noise. Which creates fame.

And now you can guess what gets my Oscar vote when then call me.

(Yes, it’s kind of sad that I’m watching great films and thinking about the learning for StartUps. But I’m with friends. You get the all-consuming nature of this.)

The battle between authenticity and lies.

brand personality, brand behavior, brand behaviour

Messaging is the last thing a StartUp should worry about.

People tell lies. Brands tell lies.

People have always been skeptical about marketing. Because they are skeptical about what people say.

Marketing was always about messaging. (Most of the brand models developed by big corporations are message focused.)

But how we market should reflect the reality of how people think.

And they think other people talk a lot of shite. And they know brands are run by people. Sometimes some of the more desperate, self-interested, self serving people.

So they think brands talk a lot of shite.

But people can see through that. Just like they can see through people’s lies.

The way we judge a person’s credibility is by their actions and by their overall personality.

We look them in their eye and think: given what I know of this person, and of people in general, does that stack up? We don’t over-think this: it’s intuitive and immediate. We think simply.

I knew a guy who patted everyone on the back and said how much he cared, how much he liked them. But other than talk, he never did anything to make their lives more bearable and he could have. In fact, he prevented it. Because it wasn’t in his interest.

It wasn’t a person, it was a brand, but I wanted to anthropomorphize it to make the point. That’s the worse type of brand.

There was a thug called Hitler who said: “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”

But he was wrong. He just bullied people into silence. But too much marketing seems to adhere to this idea.

I don’t buy all that old-fashioned orthodoxy about winning friends and influencing people. The snake oil salesman approach. But too much marketing does.

The StartUp advantage is the blank canvas. So be a modern brand. Define your brand by your company actions and personality. What you say will be authentic because the foundations are. It necessarily comes after you’ve got everything else right. Too many StartUps go straight to marketing. That might create temptations to be expedient, to be like the old marketers.

I’ll make a distinction with exaggeration and hype. They can be good. You are selling after all and you do need to present your case in the strongest light. That’s called advocacy. But fabrication is different. Having nothing to back it up is different.

Mark Twain said: “I have a higher and grander standard of principle than George Washington. He could not lie; I can, but I won’t.” It’s up to us. What kind of brands do we want to populate the world in the future?

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.

Your Big Advantage over the Big Boys.

business difference

How StartUps can make the most of the blank canvas.

It’s easy for a StartUp to feel intimidated. To think you are not worthy. To look at the big boys with awe, with all their resources, their profile, their confidence, their relationships. You might assume that if they chose to confront you, you’d stand no chance.

But I’ve worked with them all my professional life and guess what? You’d be wrong.

The truth is that their disadvantages might just outweigh their advantages. Corporations are a complex battle of interests, laden with conservatism. They are risk averse…in fact, worse; often they are decision averse. Often the mindset is: doing something new creates the potential for risk, whereas doing nothing avoids that potential…so stick with doing nothing. And in that environment, that’s actually smart: because that’s how the corporation is often structured, that is the reward mechanic and behaviour follows.

There’s some talk about corporations beginning to be more like StartUps. But in all but the rarest of situations, this misses the point. Corporations are bureaucratic because they have to be. They have due diligence and institutional investors, they have heavy structure, processes, organograms…but more importantly they have a hive of people and a culture.

Legacy system buries itself deep within an organization. You can’t unpick it. You can’t alter the mechanics and expect a new mindset. That’s the wrong way round. (Personally, I believe that once an entity becomes a corporation, it creates the conditions for its own demise. But more on that some other time.)

StartUps have no legacy. They have a blank canvas. They are free to do what they want. And this can be the biggest advantage in the world.

But you have to focus on the areas where this blank canvas can lead to the greatest advantage. That’s not going to be product, or supply chain, or sales, R&D or talent.

The two areas they will find it impossible to beat you are:

1. They can’t think as small as you.

2. And they can’t think as holistically as you.

To the first. You can target a tiny but perfectly formed audience. In fact, you must. Not just focus better but show them the love. Find – or create – a gang. Not an audience, a gang. A gang is about belonging, about having something you are anti and about feeling special. Prove to them that you were designed for them and only them. You can grow from here, not by compromising but by pulling more and more people into that gang.

To the second. You can aggressively deliver your brand concept through every element of your brand. Corporations find it so hard to control this, on a practical level and on a human level. But it’s easy for a StartUp once they think not as a business but as a brand that does business. Change the experience people have when they connect, buy, use and share your business so it captures the uniqueness of your brand idea.

As I’ve written before, Airbnb does this as well as any StartUp. But using an existing brand makes the point more clearly and I’ll use the most famous brand in history, Coca Cola.

We are told the brand idea of Coca Cola is happiness. But you know what, it’s not really.
It’s brown sweet fizzy drinks. Which they then use to lay claim to happiness.

It’s a critical distinction. The product drives everything, not the brand.

Take the brown drink away and what have they got? Nothing. The brown fizzy drink is their legacy system. But what if Coca Cola was a StartUp? What if they had the same blank canvas you have?

How can you build a business around Happiness so it lasts forever, not matter what trends there are in product use? Here’s my back-of-a-fag-packet thinking.

Coke should have started to build from Happiness Factory and position themselves as an experience brand.
Happiness isn’t simply about taste and mouth feel, it’s about entertainment. Coke should have bought Pixar.
They should own theme parks and days out.
They should have acquired/built the play-centre ecosystem that’s growing so quickly in Asia.
They should own handshakes, smiles and jokes.
But they didn’t and they are becoming less and less culturally relevant.
(To be fair, their bar was very high….and their Christmas play is good, you have to give them credit for that. And they do lots of great tactical work like this in the Philippines…but I’m making a point.)

The StartUp lesson is: use your blank canvas to create a branded business – not just a brand image – that reeks difference. Then you can slap that big bully right back in the face.

What StartUps can learn from airbnb about brand building

BHAG
Why the StartUp of 2008 might be the brand of the 2015

I’m a nomad. And I force my wife and son to be nomads. Such is the price we pay for trying to do a StartUp. It’s not pleasant but hopefully that will end soon and hopefully it will have been worth it. But as a result, I’ve become an expert in all things airbnb. Now I’m evangelist.

I might even invest if they go to IPO this year. And I don’t do IPOs. They’re all hype, CNBC up-to-the-minute bulletins and over-valuation. They have 700,000 rooms, making them the biggest lodgings provider in the world and the hard business case is strong. But what really excites me is the potential of the brand they are developing and the way they understand what the brand is. This is a StartUp that is just over 6 years old but with the brand wisdom of maturing years.

Sure, they can do brand awareness – they built that very well in the first year or two – but what they’ve always understood better than most StartUps is that it’s the brand experience that matters more than anything. The brand must look good, it must communicate well, it must have solid marketing but a modern brand is not this. A modern brand is the unified rich experience people have when they use any and every part of your business. The brand is everything you do, certainly everything that is visible.

Take the language. They have ‘hosts’. They talk of feeling at home, not of ‘staying’ somewhere. This cleverly positions themselves away from their enemy, the hotel industry

That’s another thing: they have an enemy. The don’t bad mouth them, they don’t need to, but it’s clear that they want to be seen as a genuine alternative, not more of the same. We don’t do that, we do this.

They feel different. It feels like a genuine community. We review hosts. But they review us. We introduce ourselves. We get to know each other. airbnb helps us become short-term friends.

It makes you realise that the booking.com’s and expedia’s of the world might have seemed to offer something new but really are only an extension of the old. They have value but they lack the depth of airbnb and in time I think that will be a problem for them. It’s hard to care passionately about an extension of the old. But the new creates evangelists.

It isn’t easy to avoid being like your competitive set. People huddle together for safety. Often investors, managers and stakeholders like conventions; they call it ‘best practice’. But here everyone has been smart enough to see the value of difference. (That’s something the marketing client community need to learn from as they become more and more convention bound.)

It’s clear what they are against but in terms of what they stand for, airbnb are using ‘Welcome Home’ as a tagline at the moment but Brian Chesky, the CEO, touched upon the broader (and bigger) purpose in a recent FT interview when he talked of ‘creating a world where people can belong anywhere’.

Words are important so let’s break this sentence down.

‘Creating’ tells me that they make a distinction between where they are now and where they want to get to. So it’s a vision, not just a summary of what they do now. It also tells us that it’s unclear what that is exactly. It’s much bigger but not yet defined – and they are clearly comfortable with the fact that they don’t know exactly what this is but do know in a general sense. I’ll come back to this.

‘World’ is clear. They see no limits (other than the world…for now). This is evidenced through their creative output. This is worth commenting on because too many US StartUps think the world is the US.

‘Belong anywhere’ is the substance of the purpose. It implies that, in the current lodging/hotel model, people do not feel they belong and that only the airbnb model can deliver belonging.

This is their benefit: belonging anywhere. The reason to believe is that real people with real apartments/homes provide the product, not de-personalised hotel rooms. This is reinforced through the style of reviews, the nature of the properties and the nicely shot Welcome Home ‘advertising’ campaign running on their own website header and so on. Basically, everything the business does.

But it’s the room to grow in that statement that fascinates me. What other ways can they help people feel they belong?

Later in the interview he touches on what that might be when he aligns with the idea of ‘bring(ing) back the idea of cities as villages’ by making more of all available space. Wow. The high street has lost its humanity; it has become a homogenous block. Imagine a world in which individual businesses had access to the same enormous audience as the current airbnb hosts, an audience willing to try something new, who crave something distinct…you might just see a renaissance of distinct, one off shops and cafes, of cities.

As a brand person, I love this. It’s the kind of idea we’d pitch to clients but often they’d shy away from because it doesn’t talk about the product enough, because it’s too conceptual, too warm and lovely and exciting. Business people still think this stuff won’t sell: airbnb are here to prove them wrong.

What can we learn as StartUps? Lots but the headline is this: look to develop a brand vision that recognizes your competence in a bigger way than is currently delivered. Give it room to grow. Who knows how you’ll see things once the business is rocking?

Why StartUps should be outraged by Christmas

brand consistency

The brain science that shows why consistency helps people understand what your StartUp stands for

If you want to shape the way people understand your StartUp you have to start with the human brain. When you’ve got the spanners out on the day-to-day operations, it may not seem like it but as a business leader, you are a brain surgeon.

We learn through repetition. But the brain has a lot to do. Much of its energy is simply dedicated to keeping us functioning at the most basic of levels – keeping us breathing, our organs operating. Keeping our senses active and responsive puts an added burden on the system. So when it comes to actively thinking about stuff, figuring out day-to-day issues, making decisions…well, that really pushes us to the limit.

So you can imagine how much energy the brain wants to dedicate to figuring out what to buy. Much, much less than traditional economists would like to believe.*

The brain deals with this by simplifying wherever it can. As a boy my mum used to berate me for doing things the easy way (such a mum thing, as if making it harder was somehow better) but clearly that’s what nature seeks to do. The brain is designed to work that way.

The relatively new science of neuroscience has shown that our brains look to create patterns to simplify understanding. This is physiological. As we digest information, synapses fire and as they repeat this process, that information becomes more established in our brains. Or as Steven Pinker, the famed writer on neuroscience, puts it: the synapses that fire together, wire together.

Which is why Christmas is a brand disaster. Christmas is probably the most mismanaged, chaotic and complicated brand construct there is. There have been way too many brand managers trying to get clever with the core concepts, no quality control and clearly no budget restraint. Is it trashy or upmarket? Religious or for everyone? About parties or about family?
Consumer driven or a chance to reflect? Father Christmas, the elves, reindeers, snow, Dickens, Only Fools And Horses, the right potato dish….it’s all over the place. The final nail is, of course, hipster Christmas sweaters. Different synapses are firing all over the place. It’s chaos, like the firework mayhem on a Shanghai street at Chinese New Year.

The Christmas brand is saved though by having not one but two of the greatest brand ideas of all time: a saviour was born on that day and it is a time for goodwill and critically therefore presents to all humankind. (See my earlier post ‘Why Christmas can be an inspiration for StartUps’), And because of that, we let it get away with the bad stuff. We are so engaged in it, our brains make the effort to process and join together this disjointed randomness.

The question you have to ask yourself is this: is your brand idea so strong that it can get away with a lack of consistency? The answer of course is NO.

You don’t have two of the greatest ideas of all time (apart from you at the back, well done) so you have to deal with the realities of the human brain. And those human brains want things to be simple so they can’t stop thinking about it and get on with the important stuff like breathing, running, interpreting the inputs from your senses and so on.

And consistency is the bed-fellow of simplicity. Your job is simple: this is what our brand stands for, told time and time again, maybe in different ways but never in contradicting or conflicting or ways. Christmas though is full of contradiction and conflict (not just the dinner, but the concept).

So don’t do what Christmas does. Learn from the error of its ways and deliver your concept consistently and simply across all of your business.

* If you are dubious about this, please refer to any of the following: Heath on Low Involvement Processing; Kahneman ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’; Coates ‘The hour between dog and wolf’; anything by Steven Pinker. Or indeed any credible book on how the brain works.

Why StartUps should love Christmas

Brand evolution

How you need to let your brand evolve rather than pivot.

Christmas in China is, well, weird*. Lots of lights, fake trees, fake carols and lots and lots of shopping. None of that Jesus stuff. Just a chance to consume. It’s proof that what was for much of history an esoteric idea is now truly a global, mainstream one. But if we apply this to our various StartUp ventures, the insight is that it did this by evolving. It did not lose its fundamentals, it did not pivot.

You might know this but Christmas started off as a celebration of the birth of Jesus. As simple as that. It is believed he was born around September but the celebration has always been in December. That’s because the emperor who introduced Christmas was a smart strategist and saw that the ‘easy-win’ (something we should always aim for) was a Competitor Hijack. Which meant he put it at the same date as the old world and no doubt old tech festival of Saturnalia (when we worshipped Saturn, something I endorse given how cool it looks). He gave it some new bells and whistles but maintained the bits of the old festival that people liked: the fact that people could gorge themselves and get drunk for days on end, hierarchies were forgotten and everyone went a bit mad. So nothing has changed.

Some people might be a little touchy about this next point (my mum included) but it isn’t the birth of Jesus bit that gives Christmas it’s modern power. The bit that gives this power is the bit that was added on, the bit about the three kings and gifts. This is the viral element, something that creates a dramatic network effect.

Like Twitter, etiquette has been layered around this core concept, where you are expected to behave in a certain way, which involves things like:
1. No matter how grumpy you feel you must be seen to embrace the seasonal goodwill/love-in vibe.
2. Which means that if you get, you give: presents must fill at least one room of a house.
3. No matter how wrong the present is, you must say that it’s the one thing you dreamed of.

It’s a concept that creates the conditions for it’s own stellar success. Everyone has to join in.

That’s the brilliant development in the Christmas concept. StartUp culture celebrates the pivot but this is not a pivot. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a creative extension of the initial concept that then goes above and beyond that concept. Rather than turn your back on the initial idea, it teaches us to delve deeper, stick by our conviction and make the idea work better by identifying an additional delivery mechanism.

This gift-giving bit wasn’t especially important until late on. In the 19th Century writers like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, in an effort to create drama and romance around Christmas and therefore sell books, begin to celebrate the human goodwill aspect and the role of gift-giving within it. In the 20th Century a whole industry was spawned around it, to the point now where, frankly, we have to question the unhealthy degree of consumerism that now surrounds the event.

I’ve met StartUp teams who have what I’ll call Completion Bias. They expect their brand concept to be complete to begin with, to be perfect from the outset…but don’t know what perfect is so never agree to anything. They are paralysed by Completion Bias. In the real world, brands can only start with an ambition about the kind of brand they want to be and a supporting framework to help bring it to life. The more complete brand will then emerge from the confluence of this ambition and the way people respond to and connect with that brand.

So the Christmas StartUp lesson is figure out the brand now, go through the exercises to give it depth and meaning, but get it out there ASAP and accept it will evolve, that it is not complete. And like that present from your favourite Auntie, as you unwrap it, something brilliant will emerge.

* Yes, it is more nuanced than that. But I lived there for 3 years and can now confirm it is not like the west.