Category Archives: Brand Behavior

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?

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?

What StartUps can learn from idiocy

New York City

How operations and profitability cannot get in the way of humanity.

Dear Mr Dean & Mr DuLuca*

Sometimes I wake up on Writing Day not knowing what I will write about. But then, as if by magic, I stumble upon some sort of business idiocy and I thank the Lord/Vishnu/John Lennon for that.

My wife is 7 months pregnant. And we have a highly energetic 1-year-old son. Going to a café or restaurant can be a little stressful.

I first went to Dean & DeLuca over 20 years ago on an early trip to New York. For a boy from the crumbling post-industrial north of England it represented the New York I had dreamed of. I spent more money than I could afford and told people about my experience for years. I’ve been back several times on my New York trips.

So when we saw one in Singapore, we went in and I told my wife about that distant memory.

Very soon it was obvious that’s all it was, a distant memory.
It lacked that energy and ‘click’ of the New York experience, that professionalism and conviction.
The food was average at best and over-priced, in that way you only get in Asia, when companies come in, see the wealth and cynically inflate prices and/or reduce quality.

My wife asked for a glass of ice-water to compensate for the over-salted eggs.
The waiter said he could not give her ice-water, she would have to buy a bottle.
In Singapore it is standard to offer ice-water. Regardless of that, one would expect an upmarket café to have an instinct for hospitality, rather than obsess about the cross- and up-sale, especially for a pregnant lady.
I tried to encourage the waiter to rethink.
He made it clear that he wasn’t allowed to rethink.
I asked for the manger.
He came and said it was management policy not to give ice-water ie. it was policy to drag every last cent out of the customer.
So as the manager, can’t you change it?
No, I’m not allowed.
But you are the manager, right?
Yes, but not that manger, it’s a different, more senior manger.

So the guys who aren’t on the ground tell the guys on the ground what to do at every turn and do it in such a way that it’s going to lead to annoyed customers on the ground.

Meanwhile my pregnant wife remained unquenched and 1-year-old got more agitated, put his hand in the ketchup the waiter had thoughtlessly put in front of him.

To his credit (or once the embarrassment of what he was doing got too much), the manager eventually brought some ice-water. I worry he’ll get a slapped wrist for that.

I’m sure there are various issues you could cite about corporate structures but I’m not interested in those. I bought into – and spoke in glowing terms of – the good names of Dean & DeLuca, the brand.

I’m going to post this on my blog under the title: How operations and profitability cannot get in the way of humanity. You’d think that was so obvious it didn’t need saying. Isn’t it depressing that it does?

I hope this motivates you to address what is both a structural and a policy issue. Give the guys on the ground a chance to do a good job. You might be surprised.

Otherwise, as unassailable as you might think you currently are, those various smart StartUps who seem irrelevant now are going to catch up quickly.

Best wishes

*Dear reader. This is not a real letter. I’m trying to make a point. But it is a real experience. I was going to email them this but then I thought they’ve’ already proven they can’t really be arsed how I feel – and I normally get paid for this stuff so I’m not going to give it away unless it is deserved. But apparently there was a real Mr. Dean, who was from that most venerable of vocations, the cheese merchant, and Mr. DeLuca, a publishing man. I hope the StartUp lesson is obvious: be human, we don’t need any more corporate idiocy.

What StartUps can learn from a newspaper created in 1843

Brand building, new business branding, new company branding, entrepreneur branding

How alienation creates loyalty, precision creates personality and you should kill convention.

The Economist launched in 1843. Yes, it is seemingly steeped in Pall Mall’s musty traditions and famous for its printed edition but it is a brand that any smart StartUp should look to for inspiration. It is, without doubt, one the world’s most progressive, coherent and targeted brands. I love The Economist. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. It doesn’t just have a point of view, it has a point of view designed to upset some people.
When they launched, the stated their aim was “to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress”. Clearly, you don’t want to be the unworthy, timid ignoramus.
It’s a brilliant way of not only positioning what you are but also defining what you are not. This then allows them to be clear about not only who they are targeting but also who they are not targeting, are in fact keen to alienate, something they have done brilliantly through advertising. Take a look at this genius. And this.
Great brands often create imaginary tales in our heads and mine is of a Victorian David Niven type editor using his calf-skin gloves to slap an unworthy cad who has just tried to buy a copy of his beloved Economist.
This isn’t simply about separation. It creates a virtuous circle, with users feeling more distinct, more celebrated and it is this that makes them more loyal. That’s the genius of this approach.
How many other brands are confident and brilliant enough to do this? Some b, ut nowhere near enough.

2. As you read the content, it feels like it is from a single person, despite it being the output of so many writers in so many places. That’s perhaps partly because of the legendary Writers Guide every journalist must follow but it’s more than that. It’s a celebration of their own humanity, of their emotion. Like The Borg, they’ve become one. They are smart but wear it lightly, with smart asides and witticisms; they are fair, honest even if it upsets, to the point. They know their collective personality precisely. It’s the ultimate demonstration of a unified culture.

3. The brand is the famous one, not the people. The people are invisible. It goes completely against industry conventions – it’s so radical and progressive, I’m shocked to hear it’s always been that way. Wikipedia tells me that the current editor says this is because “(the) collective voice and personality matter more than the identities of individual journalists” and reflects “a collaborative effort”.

4. They quaintly call it a ‘newspaper’. Despite the fact that it is more like a magazine. Despite the fact that newspapers have become so grotty. They wear the word like Marilyn Munroe would have worn a plastic bag.

And the funny thing is; I’m not sure they’ve ever really thought of themselves as a brand in the way that most brands would.

So the StartUp lessons are these:
It’s not just about targeting, it’s about anti-targeting: are you clear on who you are trying to alienate?
Avoid general personality words: what are your precise and distinct personality traits?
Are you killing conventions? Don’t just avoid conventions, undermine them, do the opposite.

Lastly, if you don’t already, you should subscribe because its breadth of cleverness will drag you from your StartUp bubble/cesspit and broaden your horizons and therefore inspire thinking that will make you better at your job.

What StartUps can learn about naming from Computershare

marketing brand names

Naming and the importance of not getting it wrong in a StartUp

I was going to hold off before I had a rant…but I’ve just had a letter from Computershare. And it’s a sorry story, or more like a farce, of the ‘you couldn’t make it up’ variety. But importantly, there’s a strong lesson for any start-up here about brand naming strategy, something that often does not get given enough thought. At it’s simplest, there are two ways to name your brand: either literal (this-is-what-we-do like SingTel or this-is-who-I-am like adidas, names after founder Adi Dassler, Kelloggs) or imaginative (glorious mythical associations like Nike or attractive fruit like Apple, Orange etc…).

Now keep in mind that these guys were pioneers, starting the company way back and took on the descriptive and potentially category defining brand name of Computershare. If share dealing on computers was invented today you’d give your left arm for that name.

I had a few shares in a company I worked for (M+C Saatchi), nothing impressive and I had to buy them at market price – why bother? you say…I know, but at the time I was learning. They’d started at 125p, dropped to 25p in 2008 and when all my old colleagues sold out, I stuck in there knowing it was a competent company and they knew how to run a business, then pretty soon they got back past 125p, climbed up some more and at some point earlier in 2014 got to 350p. I would have felt smart – or at least brave – if it weren’t for the fact that if I was the real McCoy, I’d have bought more at 25p…so that’s something to learn from…or not. If you believe in the company, buy while it’s cheap.

So when it fell back to under 300p, my newfound investment wisdom kicked in and I thought I’d sell a proportion to lock in at least some of the profit, not loads but good holiday money (although I should point out, we are frugal holidayers).

Here’s the story. I sold online through this company called Computershare, who as far as I can tell ‘own’ the dealing of the shares I bought. Soon I got a screen confirming the sale. But apparently not. A week later I got a letter saying I had to send certain documents, otherwise the deal would be cancelled. Not actually cancelled – instead, they would re-buy the shares at the new market rate, even if it was more expensive.

I was travelling and so didn’t get the letter until too late. So they rebought the shares at the market rate. Fortunately, the price had gone down a little, so at least I wasn’t liable for a large gap. But I was pretty annoyed: surely they could have communicated with me in a more timely, 20th century manner. I skyped them (well, I was on skype, they were probably on one of those heavy, black phones from the black and white Sherlock Holmes films). It went something like this (they claim to have recorded it but that’s way too modern, I reckon they used a stenographer…)
Me: You bought shares for me without my agreement. I could have lost serious money.
Them: It’s in the Ts&Cs.
Me: On the sales confirmation page, why didn’t it say something about the fact I hadn’t really sold them until you got the docs, instead of saying ‘sale confirmed’?
Them: I don’t know.
– Surely you have an obligation to make that clear? With all of your competitors it’s done there and then.
– Yes, it should be clear, I’ll look into it.
– And couldn’t you have told me in amore timely manner, so I could have done something about it?
– We sent you a letter.
– But that took two weeks to get to me and I was away. Why didn’t you email me?
– We don’t send emails.
– What??? You are called COMPUETERshare. Surely you have computers and therefore you have email.
– I know, but we can’t send emails to customers.
– What??? You could have phoned me then.
– We don’t phone customers.
– Seriously? OK, I want to complain but I can’t see anywhere on the website where I can email.
– It’s not on there. You be better to send a letter.
– What??? It’s not 1875…!!!

You get the picture. Funny in a desperately sad kind of way.

Still keen to lock in some profit, I sold again when I was back in the UK, at a lower price unfortunately. So I’d lost some profit. I called them, on the telephone, as I think they’d prefer to call it, made sure everything was right & proper and the sale went ahead. And in the absence of any income coming in here in Singapore, it is paying for our accommodation.

Then I get another letter, talking about regulations blah blah, asking me for more docs…otherwise I won’t get the money. But I already have the money. And it has been spent. So I want to get in touch with them from here to see if it’s still necessary. But of course there is no email address on there, no IM, no twitter….nothing that might actually involve a computer and it’s a long way away and there’s seven hours difference.

So tonight I need to find a quill and some parchment and I will pen my response and put it on the next steamer to London. They should get it in Spring.

So what can your average start-up learn from this when it comes to brand names.
First, if it’s a literal name that describes what you do, you have to live up to your name, not just now but FOR EVER. As expectations of computers change, so must you – and back then it was slap-you-around-the-face obvious that computers were going to change. A lot. Your business needs to future proof the name. Or don’t call yourself something you can’t be certain you’ll always live up to.
Second, really think through whether you want a literal or imaginative name. There’s been a movement to the literal this-is-what-we-do names which is largely driven by Google and SEO but also a lack of belief in the emotional nature of brands. But think about the brands’ people love. More often than not, they are named imaginatively and therefore are more emotional. It’s a tough one and you need to weigh up pros and cons.
Third, the more revealing element to this story is that this is a business that isn’t being honest with itself. That goes way beyond naming. With a name like that, you create an expectation. Are you delivering? If not, change and be seen to change. Be brutally honest with yourselves always and you might avoid having a blog post poking fun at you.