Category Archives: Company purpose

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will be critical to these cash-flow concerned folk and this rules out the existing consultancy model, which is outdated and designed only to service big corporations.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

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 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.

The Questions You Start a StartUp with

brand difference, brand behaviour

Why you should be thinking about your brand idea as soon as you have your product idea.

You have that moment, when a bunch of thoughts, ideas, fluff and anti-matter coalesce and BOOM, your Big Bang. There’s a surge of adrenaline, you stop still and it hits you: This might just work…I’d start with content….I’ll use an API…and I can own the search terms…and if we did x then y would happen…and we’d have a network effect and, OH MY GOD, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!!!! Quick!! LEG IT!!! How do we build the #*#?in’ thing?

You spend the next year thinking about the product, the broader offer, operations and money.

Meanwhile, somewhere else in the world, there’s another over-excited human being going through exactly the same thing. Maybe not that moment, but in the grand scheme of things, when they make the Internet Era start at 1.5 minutes to twelve on the civilization clock, it’s around the same time.

The fact is we live in a world of over supply. It’s too easy to make stuff, especially digital stuff. Whether it is copying or just landing on the same idea, you won’t be alone.

The first questions StartUps ask themselves tend to be about product, or business plans, or traction. But once you have you’re big idea, your first question should be this:

How can I defend it when people are copying me?

The answer to that is to do something that can’t be copied.

The one thing that is nearly impossible to copy is the bundle of intangibles, mental associations and gut feel about your business that exists in customer’s heads. What we call a brand. You can leave that for customers to create on their own or you can try to shape it yourself and that is what we call a brand building.

Brand is difference, brand is emotion and logic, brand is complex, brand is everything the business does. To use Warren Buffet’s vernacular, brand is your moat. There are other moats but they are harder to control yourself.

So once you have the big idea, you should ask yourself: how does my big idea translate into a brand concept?

Once you have a point of view on that (and yes, it can iterate to begin with, just like a product) you should ask a second question:
how does everything the business does deliver that brand concept?

This will result in lots of things in lots of places. The product will change, the offer will change, operations will change. It will be infused with a unique spirit.

So with two questions, you’ve created something that is very hard to copy.

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 from what’s wrong with the iPhone 6

StartUp Brand Vision
How conviction ultimately means more to any StartUp than chasing your customer

Apple’s iPhone 6 finally launched here in Singapore. Before we go any further: I so wanted one and we are a 10+ Apple product household. Certainly not boo boys.

I’d read the reviews and quite honestly I need to move beyond my iPhone 3 (I know! I’m so old skool…) I was even excited. I went down there on Day 3, which is pretty active for me. Queues, lots of touching, playing, discussion…

But what I saw disappointed me. So I didn’t join the queue. I thought I’d sleep on it. Cut to a few days later. My bus stop entertainment is ‘guess-the-phone-from-5-paces’. It was an iPhone but I couldn’t tell – and that’s with a beautiful back-lit bus stop 6-sheet next to me.

In the past, it was always easy spotting an iPhone. In recent years – since the decline of Motorola probably – everything else kind of looks the same. Like cars nowadays. The Wind Tunnel research effect, as BBH say: the way consumers in research create a generic average that all market participants follow; after all, who in the corporate world has the bravery to question research….

For the iPhone 6 it’s not just the size, it’s the shape as well. It looks like a phone not an iPhone. It’s been said that this was done for the Asian market. But did you see how many people queued in Shanghai for the previous iPhones?! The Asian market was perfectly capable of loving a unique Apple phone, they didn’t need it turned into the generic to get it.

Maybe they’ve got so big they think the only way to get bigger is to go more mainstream and therefore more generic. But rather then create a new generic (which for me is a key element of their brand coding), they follow what’s there. There’s a view that this is common problem that comes with scale, for example, with investment funds: you get too big to find the great stories, growth flattens, so despite being the market leader you have to follow the market. It’s inevitable, so that argument goes.

Whether they still overtly talk about it or not, much of the the Apple brand power and long-term loyalty/fanaticism is rooted in the spirit expressed by Think Different. It’s by people who think different. And it’s for people who think different. When Lee Clow’s (lovely bloke, spent some time with him when working on adidas) team at Chiat Day produced that ad, they didn’t just articulate a vision, they created a benchmark for the brand to always live up to.

For now though, this isn’t about the broader Apple brand. Not yet anyway. Apple still has a lot of brand reserves, goodwill it can trade on, chances it can therefore take. And I do believe it will do something that will live up to the brand spirit, something mind blowing and game-changing that reminds us why we loved them. Maybe it’s one of the features of the phone that will turn into a new amazing ecosystem, NFC being the most obvious candidate. Or maybe it’s the health play that was being talked about last year.

Despite it being big, glamourous, outrageously successful Apple, there are some clear, simple lessons here for any StartUp.

One, your brand needs to live in everything you do, every product, every touch-point, every experience. Otherwise, someone who should be in your Most Valued Customer segment (ie. in this case, people like me) will start the trash talk…and that soon gets around.
Two, there’s always, always going to be change. The big guys struggle and then the small guys have a chance…hello Xiaomi to name one of several. Brilliant. Be optimistic, you’re in with a shout.
Three, think different, think bold, think you don’t need to please anyone apart from your own majestic vision. That bloke who used to run Apple knew that.