Category Archives: Company Vision

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will be critical to these cash-flow concerned folk and this rules out the existing consultancy model, which is outdated and designed only to service big corporations.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

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.)

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 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.

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.